From one closer to another
Wagner elated to introduce Gossage at annual dinner
NEW YORK -- Billy Wagner promises a tux -- black, not denim -- and shoes that glisten. No sneakers or work boots he vows. His attire will be just a formality. He'd be a lot more comfortable on Sunday night, of course, if he were dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. "Normal instead of formal," as he says. But the baseball writers' dinner is a black-tie affair, and even the game's foremost hillbilly will make the adjustment.
Wagner is to be honored on Sunday at the 85th annual dinner staged by the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America at the Hilton New York. The chapter voted its Ben Epstein "Good Guy" Award to the Mets' reliever, recognizing his accessibility, cooperation and candor, and wondering about his choice of apparel.
The full-disclosure closer also will serve as a setup man on Sunday night. Wagner will introduce Rich "Goose" Gossage, the lone player in the Hall of Fame Class of 2008. And he will do so happily and, it seems, a tad nervously.
"I mean it's a real honor for me to introduce one of the great closers of all time. But am I the right guy to do that?" Wagner said on Monday. "He's going into the Hall. How do I give him his just due?"
Wagner wants his introduction of a player he has long admired to be properly respectful.
"But I'm afraid I'm going to sound like I'm 5 years old again," Wagner said. "I have great respect for him. But it's going to be like last summer, when [Tom] Glavine introduced me to Dale Murphy. I was a little uncomfortable. Murph was such a gentleman, and he was a great player. I was looking up to him ... not just because he's two heads taller than I am."
Wagner never has met Gossage. His first season in the big leagues was 1995. Gossage's 23rd and final season was with the Mariners in '94. A conspicuous parallel exists between the two, though. In his 13 seasons with the Astros, Phillies and Mets, Wagner has been what Gossage was with the Yankees, Padres, Pirates, White Sox and five other teams -- an uncompromising power pitcher in charge of happy endings.
"I've always felt like there is a connection between us," Wagner said. "When I look at the big-time closers, I don't see myself and Trevor Hoffman -- he's got that changeup -- or [Dennis] Eckersley -- he never walked anybody -- or Mariano [Rivera] -- he's got that cutter. Even though I'm left-handed, I look at myself as the same kind of closer Goose was. Just let it go. 'You know what I'm throwing. Here it is. Let's see what you're going to do with it.' At least that's the way I think he is. That's how it looks. He likes to challenge the hitters. I like to do that same thing.
"And look where it's gotten him. He's going just where I want to go. I'm so glad he got in. He opens the door a little wider for closers."
Gossage became a Hall of Fame-designate on Jan. 8, after he had been checked on 85.8 percent of the ballots cast by 543 members of the BBWAA. He was elected in his ninth year of eligibility. He follows Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Eckersley as a Hall of Fame closer. Unlike the other four, he saved games -- 310 saves is career -- primarily with his fastball.
Wagner throws a slider, as Gossage did, and last season, the Mets closer developed and occasionally used a more offspeed breaking ball. But power pitching is how he has amassed most of his 358 saves, the seventh-highest total in Major League history. If, in 2008, he matches his '07 total (34), he will pass Eckersley and rank fifth all time, behind Hoffman (524 and counting), Lee Smith (478), Rivera (443 and counting) and former Met John Franco (424), the lone left-handed pitcher among the current top five.
Wagner has converted 74 of 84 save opportunities in his two seasons with the Mets, exceeding Gossage's single-season high, 33 saves, in each. But Wagner understands and appreciates the difference between his workload and what Gossage had in his primary seasons, 1977-86.
"I liked reading about him after he got elected," Wagner said. "I don't know that much about him, except the way he went about his business and that he ranted about the difference between what he did and what we're asked to do now as closers. But you look at his career, and he had years when he averaged more than two innings [per appearance]. And none of the closers now come close to that.
"I guess if I were asked to throw two or three innings, wow! ... well, I'd try to do whatever my team needed. But that's a lot of innings. I mean, I know those guys got used to that workload. And we're not asked. I think, when I was younger, I could have done it and not thought about it. But Goose was doing after it he'd been in the big leagues for seven years. ... There's a reason he got voted in.
"I'm looking forward to talking to him about it -- about everything. I'm really happy he's going to be there."
Moreover, the two closers are to be seated next to each other on the dais that also includes Yogi Berra and Hall of Fame-designate Dick Williams, winners of the New York Chapter's awards -- Denny McLain, Luis Tiant, Craig Biggio, Alex Rodriguez, Bobby Murcer, Joba Chamberlain and Johnny Damon -- and the winners of the eight BBWAA awards: MVPs Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins, Cy Young Award winners Jake Peavy and C.C. Sabathia, Rookies of the Year Ryan Braun and Dustin Pedroia and Managers of the Year Bob Melvin and Eric Wedge.
Mets manager Willie Randolph, Rusty Staub and new Yankees manager Joe Girardi are to attend, as well.
The dinner, which is open to the public, begins at 6 p.m. ET. Tickets ($225 each) are available through Tuesday by calling 201-871-5924. Thereafter, they are available by calling the BBWAA suite at the Hilton New York at 212-586-7000 or at the door.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.