By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
TAZEWELL, Va. —
Only moments after Tazewell had suffered its first loss of the season last Saturday, the opposing coach was standing on the mound, demonstrating the mechanics of pitching with members of the Bulldogs.
Call that a rare sight indeed, except when it applies to Billy Wagner, who hasn’t forgotten where he first learned the game, from former Tazewell baseball coach Lou Peery.
“I learned from a great mentor in Coach Peery and he was always developing, always teaching, always trying to make somebody better, and my love of the game came from how he taught me to play the game,” Wagner said. “That is what I want to pass on to these kids is the knowledge and some of the fortunate stuff I have had happen in my life to make me who I am (that) can help those guys.
“There is nothing better than teaching the game of life than on a baseball field so I enjoy that.”
No one appreciated it more than Aaron Buchanan, who replaced Peery as head coach of the Bulldogs prior to this season, and was one of those watching from the mound.
“We always talk about it, you don’t steal anything in baseball,” Buchanan said. “It was great, our kids respect him, they look up to him and I look up him and learn from him.
“We work towards each other and help each other and him stepping to the side and allowing that to happen is a great experience for our kids and hopefully our kids will learn from that.”
Wagner, who retired in 2010 after a 16-year Major League career that included seven All-Star game appearances and 422 saves, has made a smooth transition to his current role as head coach of the Miller School Mavericks, which is located in Charlottesville.
“I do, I enjoy coaching,” said Wagner, with a smile. “I don’t enjoy the interviews.”
While Wagner’s Mavericks avenged a loss from earlier in the season with a 7-2 win at Lou Peery Field, Wagner turned into mentor, much like Buchanan would do if put in the same position.
“It is a great experience for all us,” said Buchanan, an assistant under Peery for 10 seasons before taking over as head coach this year. “Billy has done well, we have talked some. He has helped me and I have helped him a little, but we are just talking about the game itself and learning how to play the game.
“Coach (Peery) always taught that we want to teach the guys to be better men than ballplayers, and that is what we are all working for.”
The 42-year-old Wagner is four years removed from a remarkable major league career that began in Tazewell, continued at Ferrum College, and saw him finish with the fifth most saves in baseball history.
He needed just more three saves to pass John Franco’s record for southpaws at 424, but Wagner doesn’t hesitate to say he doesn’t miss playing the game.
“No,” he said. “I keep up with some things, but I don’t really put much stock in it. I just watch a few of my friends and work with these guys.”
Wagner’s path to Major League stardom is well known by many, but his recently released book entitled “A Way Out: Faith, Hope and Love of the Game” was written specifically to reach those who may face many of the same obstacles he did.
“It was something meant more for teens and younger adults that would sit there and go through similar issues,” Wagner said. “What I see in today’s kids is the self-pity, there is not a driven part for these kids.
“I want to be able to sit there and be able to give these kids a drive and let them know not everybody is spoon-fed. Some people have to work and you can do it and it comes through that work ethic. That is what I try to instill in these kids and hopefully somebody gets that.”
Wagner should know. He certainly had obstacles in his way, overcoming a difficult childhood and numerous negative influences while growing up in Southwest Virginia, but was able to become one of the best in his chosen occupation.
“That is that chip-on-your-shoulder attitude that it is you against the world and you have to go out there and create all that you can do,” Wagner said. “You can’t be outworked, you can’t be outplayed, but you can sure go out there and lose a ball game because you are not prepared.
“That is what we work with these guys on is being prepared, outworking the next team and making our breaks.”
The same goes for all walks of life, a lesson he teaches, not only to his own kids, but to his players as well, including his freshman son, Will, who plays second base for the Mavericks.
“A lot of things that these kids go through right now is entitlements,” Wagner said. “They feel they should be entitled, they should be able to play on the team, wearing uniforms, being on the field and I don’t teach like that.
“They learn life lessons through what we teach them and we try to play the best baseball with the best talent that we can.”
Tazewell baseball has long tried to do the same, with Buchanan also teaching the importance of preparation and rising to the challenge every time out on the field.
“That is our goal every time we come out is to be better than the competition, but also don’t play to the level, play above that level and to work to be better each day and to compete with that level and to try to strive to be there,” Buchanan said. “Billy has a great program, he learned from Coach (Peery) and so did I.
“I feel like we have the same philosophy when it comes to the game of baseball.”
Wagner learned the same philosophy in Tazewell, and is trying to teach the same to his Mavericks.
“My heart is in Tazewell, always will be, but I have a got a new team that is learning the game and that is why we come to Tazewell every year, because this team is gritty, they are going to fight you,” Wagner said. “I want my team to be that way, I want it to be a dogfight every time we come out there.
“That is what I want these guys to be, to be dirty after the game and push for excellence and see how it is down here, how we play baseball.”
There is little doubt Tazewell baseball brings out the best any team that comes to play, with the Bulldogs boasting one of the area’s best traditions, not to mention a facility that is second to none in the region.
“With the way the program is and what we have with facilities to use and the field itself, people are going to come in here and you are going to get their best,” Buchanan said. “We tell them, you have got to have that swagger, you have got to have that chip to strive to better because you are going to get everybody’s best every day and you need to work to be better than them.
“That gives us the ability to give that extra push and we need that extra push each day.”
As for Wagner, his life might seem ideal right now, but he certainly had to work to get to that point. It was worth it all.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “It is tough while you are going through it, but I wouldn’t change a thing because it makes you who you are.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at firstname.lastname@example.org