Inside Pitch Magazine, July/August 2020

Coaches' Corner: Billy Wagner

The Grittiest Coach in America

By Adam Revelette

Billy Wagner After a 17-year big league career, seven-time MLB All-Star Billy Wagner has stayed in baseball, currently serving as the head baseball coach at The Miller School in Abermale, Virginia. Inside Pitch caught up with ‘Billy the Kid’ recently to talk Hall of Fame votes, dealing with parents, the ‘grit’ factor in baseball and much more…

Inside Pitch: What’s it like getting votes for the Hall of Fame?

Billy Wagner: It's hard to put into words. To be honest, it’s a rollercoaster. Of course you’re excited, but then you get frustrated because you hear about every negative thing you’ve ever said or done when they’re debating stuff in the media. So I’ve stopped paying as much attention, but it is exciting. I mean, what kid wouldn't want to be known as one of the greatest? And for me to just be on the ballot and get votes, for somebody to say, "Hey, I think you're worthy," it's a tremendous honor.

IP: Was there a moment in your MLB career when you truly realized you had “made it?”

BW: When I was playing early in my career with the Astros, we were in the playoffs in Atlanta. I was usually the first one in the dugout before a game, so I come out and lo and behold, there's Reggie Jackson, and he's holding the bat and he's sitting down, and I don't expect him to know me from Adam, but I go, "Mr. Jackson, what an honor!" I became a five-year old fan again. And he says, "Mr. Wagner, I just want to let you know, I'm a big fan. I'd just like to face you one time. Just one time."

I was like, "man, that guy wants to face me?!" He says, "you may strike me out nine out of ten times, but I could get you one time." And I don’t know about all that, but that’s the grit and that fight that I love, that’s what Reggie Jackson has too.

As Jimy Williams and some of the coaches I've had would describe, you’ve got to enjoy that 3-2 count. It's not comfortable, it's not easy, it's a fight. And when you go out there and when you put yourself in that, just remember that everybody's feeling the same pressure you are. So it becomes enjoyable to know that win or lose, I get to fight. I choose to fight instead of giving up just because I’m in a tough spot.

There's a lot of those things that players just have to go through before they understand. And they may not even understand at your place, they may be out of high school, or out of college before they get it.

IP: What are your observations when it comes to handling the current generation of high school baseball players?

BW: Kids are bigger, faster, stronger, because they had access to so much more, but they will always be challenged mentally when it comes to having the capacity to understand failure and what it takes to be consistent.

Being on the team has become just as good as playing on a team. The whole atmosphere of team and playing and winning gets distorted. Sure, everybody wants to play, but it’s about teaching a kid how to be a teammate, how to put in the work each day with it. You can go out and make yourself feel real good hitting off the tee, but if you never put yourself in that mental state of competition or a win-lose situation, then you're not gaining anything.

Playing without consequence ruins the game. That's where participation awards and things like that have distorted our ability to play for a real purpose. I know it’s not all about winning, especially at the high school level, but you’d better understand what consequences are. If I go out there and I go 0-for-19, I haven't earned the right to play. I haven't made the adjustment. But kids at a lot of places get to keep playing because they have already paid to play. That’s a tough one for me as a competitor. I’ve called travel ball a ‘necessary evil,’ but it's much harder to have a talk to mom and dad about, "Hey, little Johnny's not getting it done right now, so he’s going to sit the bench.” Hopefully you get lucky every now and then and your parents support that decision.

IP: How do you handle parents as a coach who has ‘been there, done that?’

BW: I just tell our parents and our kids that I love loyalty, but I want kids who are producing. It’s not all about winning but I’m not going out there to lose, that’s for sure. Sometimes, in the process of becoming successful, you get your feelings hurt.

IP: Are there moments where you just want to scream, “Don't you know who I am? I know what I'm talking about!”

BW: No, no. You know what? I didn't, because I had an awesome coach growing up in high school and his name was Lou Peery, at Tazewell High School in Virginia. He recently passed away, in October of 2019. We’d have conversations when I decided to get into this, when I decided I was going to be all in. He just told me that you can’t ever take anything personal, especially when it’s a parent talking about their child. That kid is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen and sometimes you’re going to look like you’re trying to defeat that notion. He just encouraged me to be realistic, guide parents and players instead of forcing things on them. So yeah, I let parents get in my face and yell at me. A little.

It's hard as coach. But I've also learned that the way I see my own kids is the same way as everyone else. But I don't sit around and say, “Oh, you're right, you know, Johnny's really good, I’m so sorry.” I just let them do their thing. And then I talk to them. “This is why. I know it's hard.”

You can't expect them to understand, and it doesn't matter who you are. A lot of my friends that played pro ball, Andy Pettitte, Lance Berkman, they get the same thing. My players’ parents are like, “yeah, we know who you are, but that doesn't make you a great coach just because you've played and you did well.” What makes you a good or a great coach is how you communicate with the kids.

There are moments that you get frustrated with parents but you really have to sit back and think, would you say something different if it was your kid? So those are things that I've learned from the help of tons of other coaches around my area. Even if I got into the Hall of Fame, that would not change how I go about my business.

I'm working on the field. I'm not different from another guy who's actually working for a living. I cherish what I do and I do the best I can, but I don't go to meetings going, "Hey, you need to listen to me. I know everything." I'm really the guy that comes in and tries to sit there and listen and if there's something to share and I can help, then so be it. But to be honest with you, it's really me trying to learn how to be the best coach for each individual kid.

IP: What do you make of the current age of analytics and all of the data that comes with it?

BW: Honestly, I don't know. If you hang a breaking ball and it gets crushed, it was a bad pitch. If it's a fastball in the middle of the plate, the spin rate doesn’t matter. Launch angle? If a ball goes over the fence, then it was launched. If we’re camped underneath it, it wasn’t. How about the size of the field you’re playing on or the wind? It’s crazy to me, how good and bad has a different definition now, a number. Baseball has changed, but really, we’re using the same concepts and we’ve changed the vocabulary; we’ve made a new way to present it so players can see it another way, and that’s fine.

I just remember playing more, throwing more. I promise you I threw twice as much as these kids ever thought about throwing. 150 pitches on a Friday, come back and close the next two games and not even blink. And sure I had surgery, but not until I was 35!

Nowadays, kids are being pushed and it comes with so much pressure to get the DI-itis like there's meaning and substance to who they are. It is tough. Back when I was playing, I was thinking “holy cow, I can get into college?”

I'm not very good with analytics at all. Karl Kuhn at Radford will rattle off numbers to me and I have no idea what he’s talking about, but we’re saying the same thing – you can’t throw pitches up there, they’ll get hit. Or, you can pitch up there, they aren’t getting hit.

IP: You had a relatively healthy 17-year big league career. Is there an aspect of your upbringing to which you can attribute that?

BW: I just wanted to play. I didn't just want to be good, I wanted to play the best. I broke my arm twice when I was little. I've had stitches everywhere. I cracked my skull. I fell out of trees. I've done all these dumb things, so being hurt wasn't a new thing to me. When I got hurt in 2000, I had my flexor tendon repaired and I just went back out and starting playing catch like normal, and everybody was like, “You can't do that.” When I had Tommy John surgery, I’ve got Jerry Manuel telling me, "Hey, you had a great career." And I looked at him like, "what are you talking about? I'm not done. You're not going to tell me that.”

I felt like I had such a long injury history, I knew how to work through it, how to have grit and how to overcome. I think that is a huge advantage for people. How many stiches have you had? How many broken bones? I broke my collarbone twice playing football, but I still tell our kids to play football. Honestly, playing multiple sports is awesome. That requires some grit – rugby, football, basketball, tennis – all kinds of sports can have their unique challenges. But having grit and learning what pain and injury and hurt and fear are…that’s huge. Your best players need to understand that, how to decide what they really want to be, and that nothing is going to hold them back. Today's kids, they don't have that as much. They specialize way too early. And they probably don’t fall out of as many trees.

IP: Do you bring up mechanics very often?

BW: I think every pitcher has their own unique timing and delivery – that’s why baseball is so awesome. But there are also similarities. We talk about there being a balance point, a load, a drive and a landing with every delivery. Find a happy medium between that timing and the mechanics and don’t reinvent the wheel. That kid’s been throwing stuff forever, it’s in there. You just want to clean off some of the clay and mold a little bit.

When we talk about mechanics, we talk about consistency and our movements. I don't talk about, "all right, did you feel the disconnect from your front hip to your shoulder?" I don't. I can't talk like that. And so we've talked about the guy that deals with our pitchers when I'm the head coach, he can talk like that. The biggest thing is creating a kid that can compete in the zone first. Throw strikes anytime you want to.

IP: What do you think about the controversies that Major League Baseball has faced recently: corked bats, steroids, cameras and buzzers, and the like?

BW: Somebody is always trying to find the upper hand. I mean the White Sox had a camera, everyone knew that. I remember playing against Chris Sabo in 1996, he took a swing and the bat exploded and bouncy balls went everywhere. And he just kind of laughed and walked off, took his suspension, and that was that.

I’ll tell you what, I could take care of that buzzer thing pretty quick with a little ‘fly-by,’ which I was known to do occasionally. I promise you a buzzer wouldn’t help you then. Maybe you do know what I’m going to throw, but you don’t know where I’m going to throw it. Roger Clemens used to throw one up there to Jeff Bagwell every spring training. He’d knock him on his butt, and Jeff would get up, and it would be over. I think they played basketball together in the offseason.

But I still love the game. I think the game is awesome. I think the kids are great and I think we as coaches continue to praise our kids and push them and let life teach them a lot of things through baseball.

IP: You’ve mentioned that having ‘grit’ is something that really helped you with your career. Is there any way you can identify or develop that as a coach? Where did you develop your grit?

BW: I wanted to be involved with all the older kids so much that I was going to do whatever it took to play. When you're the smallest and you break your arm, then there are all these things said that you can't do. You find a way. You find a little grit about how you're going to overcome some of the things that are against you.

I think that was just how I'm wired. I think the Lord blessed me with the opportunity and just gave me all the talents that I have. I think that's what led me into playing and to do something that I think is probably the most gratifying thing I've ever done in my life. And that's coaching. 

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