By LARRY HYPES
TAZEWELL, Va. — Don’t think of Billy Wagner as a hometown hero.
He is, but the 14-year major league veteran has been admired all over Virginia, and Texas, and Pennsylvania, and New York, too. To him, however, the most important fans are probably located in a couple of places — Tazewell and Crozet, Virginia.
After an All-State career at Tazewell, an All-American stint at Ferrum a series of All-Star appearances, and nearly 400 major league saves, Wagner remains comfortable with what is most important.
“At home, I’m just Dad,” he grins, “and no matter where I play, I’m still a Bulldog at heart.”
More than 200 of his friends, former coaches, classmates, fans, and current Tazewell High School baseball players listened to the New York Mets’ closer at the First Pitch ceremony hosted by the THS Baseball Boosters Saturday.
The former first round (1993) choice of the Houston Astros, steadily continuing a recovery from Tommy John surgery five months ago, is looking forward to what he hopes will be mid-summer return to the big leagues.
He was all about the Dogs Saturday, however.
“I learned a whole lot about throwing a baseball from playing catch with Jessee Davis, the quarterback on the ’86 state champion football team,” said Wagner. “That’s the learning curve I started with. We looked at each other to step up. It was ‘we, not me’ for us.
“We didn’t know about our stats — just whether we won or not. That’s what team is all about.”
Wagner told the crowd that the toughest hitter for him is the one he takes lightly because that is the batter that will usually get the big hit.
He recounted his excitement about closing out a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium, and the incredible amount of statistics compiled for opposing teams.
He also laughed he doesn’t have much trouble shaking off catchers signs because he only has two — a fastball and curve.
He thanked his local friends and praised the community and boosters for all the work done on the facilities over the years with volunteer effort.
Wagner told the crowd that he would tell his own children that if he could pick a couple of players he want them to be like, it would be Lance Berkman and Derek Jeter because of the basic quality of their character.
Many spoke during the question and answer session of their own admiration for what the Pride of Tannersville, Virginia, has accomplished.
“It’s an honor to have Billy come back, thinking of what he has accomplished at the highest level,” said Casey Herald, himself a two-time All State hurler for Tazewell (’04) who also pitched at Virginia Tech.
“Once you’ve been through this program, you can understand what a foundation that gives to you.”
Ten-year boosters president “Rick” Baldridge, whose sons Richard and Robert both played in the Bulldog program, noted, “This was a fundraiser for the baseball team, and Billy has always supported our efforts. He is a fine athlete and a good man. We appreciate his taking time out of his very busy schedule to speak tonight.”
Booster board member and former group president Larry Blankenship said, “Many schools build athletic success with body building but Lou Peery does it with a ‘boy building’ program.
“He is a special person, a great coach, and it was his dream that made our hometown field, among other things, possible.”
Peery, praised by friends and former players, said, “This is about the players who play for me. My wife, my sister, my family, they support me. We’ve had a lot of great players but the whole idea was we wanted to turn a field into a stadium and a team into a program. We want our players to win every day of their lives.”
He introduced Wagner, for whom he took no credit in getting him to the big leagues, as a man who does things the right way.
Wagner resides during the offseason at his farm in Albemarle County with his wife, Sarah, and their children, Will, Jeremy, Olivia and Kason.