Wagner fulfills childhood dream with Braves
Closer has high expectations this season of himself, club
SAN DIEGO -- After recording his first save for the Braves last week, Billy Wagner was asked if he was surprised to see how much support and excitement the Atlanta fans had shown when he had come out of the bullpen for his first two appearances of the season.
"That'll change," Wagner responded while thinking about how quickly the fans in Philadelphia and New York turned against him after rough outings that led to blown saves or losses.
After having time to think about his response and remember that his current environment isn't necessarily the same as the ones that he inhabited while spending the past six seasons pitching for the Phillies, Mets and Red Sox, Wagner took time on Monday afternoon to say that he regretted the fact that he had been judgmental of a Braves fan base that he was a part of while growing up in Virginia.
"That was poor judgment by me to say that [the excitement] will end," Wagner said. "When you come to a new city that you've always loved and enjoyed, you should be happy."
A 16-year veteran who ranks sixth on Major League Baseball's all-time saves list, Wagner has been around long enough to know that if he doesn't prove to be dependable in his role as the Braves' closer, Atlanta fans will also voice their displeasure. But at the same time, the 38-year-old left-hander understands that he should currently just appreciate the adulation the fans and organization have shown since he signed with the club in December.
"They should know that you're going to give it everything that you've got and you're not going to be a [jerk]," Wagner said. "I don't consider myself to be a [jerk]. But you can come off that way when you say something kind of off the cuff, and although it's not meant to, it comes off that way."
Wagner's comments did not create much of a stir in Atlanta. But 48 hours later, while pitching in San Francisco, the veteran closer provided the reminder that things aren't going to be perfect throughout the season. Asked to protect a 4-2 lead on Friday at AT&T Park, he hung a slider that Edgar Renteria drilled over the left-field wall for a game-tying homer with one out in the ninth.
"After those games, I don't really like to show my face," said Wagner, who entered the season ranked sixth on the game's all-time list for save percentage (86.1 percent). "I feel horrible. But these guys in here were like, 'You're OK. No big deal.' I've been on teams where you have a tough game like I did the other day and it's like, 'What's up with this guy?' Here, you have guys coming up and saying, 'Hey, we win as a team and lose as a team.' That's something I haven't heard since I played in Houston."
A laid-back country boy from Virginia who spent his first nine Major League seasons in Houston, Wagner proved that he could handle the increased pressures he faced while serving as the closer for the Phillies and Mets. In fact, he has seemed to be genuine whenever he has openly talked about how much he enjoyed the four years he spent in New York.
But provided the opportunity to play for the team his grandparents introduced him to via TBS, Wagner truly seems to be at home in Atlanta. In addition, he has quickly proven to be the respected leader that Braves general manager Frank Wren envisioned when he made signing the veteran closer his top offseason priority.
"He's come in here with all the experience he's got and he's just been a real person," Braves right-handed reliever Peter Moylan said. "He's the kind of guy that I like a lot and like being around a lot. He's not fake at all. You could come in with some sort of attitude, because of all he's done in the game, and he's just completely the opposite."
Before Monday afternoon's game against the Padres, Wagner walked around the clubhouse letting all of the players know that they were invited to join him at a San Diego steakhouse after the game. While this certainly isn't unique, he provided a strong impression when he made a point to put his arm around the oft-secluded Yunel Escobar and ensured that the Cuban shortstop understood exactly where they would be dining.
"He's a team guy and we're lucky to have him," Braves catcher Brian McCann said.
Wagner sits 38 saves away from tying John Franco for the most saves recorded by a left-handed pitcher in Major League history. While there are some who believe that he will retire if he reaches this mark this year, the veteran closer, who returned from Tommy John elbow surgery late last year, is keeping his options open and taking time to appreciate this new environment that reminds him of the enjoyable days he spent with the Astros.
"The expectations are great, and probably even more so for myself -- coming back, being older and having to accomplish a lot," Wagner said. "But this team has really made it easy to come to the ballpark."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.