While some people will certainly argue that there are better relief pitchers to pick up a ball, I still argue that Billy Wagner is the greatest reliever to ever play baseball.
Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman may have more saves, and they are certainly better known.
But Wagner is better than those two.
Rivera or Hoffman never had to overcome obstacles dealing with handedness or size.
Wagner lived with his grandparents as a youth. He loved football. It was his game of choice when he was in grade school. But his family couldn't afford a real football, so he and friends played with a hat. "Hat football" was Wagner's best game as a child.
One day, Wagner took on an older boy named Chip in a game of hat football. Chip was about two to three years older than Wagner. Wagner and Chip played, and Chip fell on Wagner's right arm.
His right arm was broken. It was the kiss of death for his pitching career.
But being a kid, Wagner still wanted to play hat football. So he played left-handed while he had his cast on.
When Wagner had his cast taken off, he broke his right arm playing hat football a second time.
When he was a youth, Wagner played baseball and football. He realized very quickly that he wasn't going to be able to use his right arm for pitching, so he taught himself to pitch left-handed.
His training of his left arm consisted of this: Wagner threw with his left arm nothing but fastballs against a barn wall.
While Dr. James Andrews may be cringing at Wagner's practice method, it certainly worked. Wagner became one of the best pitchers in his league.
Also, even though he had to teach himself how to throw left-handed, Wagner was never blessed with size.
He may be 5'11" 205 pounds as he is listed, but it is far more likely that Wagner is 5'10" and 195 pounds.
That is a tremendously small frame for a big-league pitcher.
Believe it or not, he was even smaller. He was 5'3" going into high school. God then finally decided to bless Wagner with a growth spurt. He became 5'8" in high school.
As his body started to mature, his fastball became faster. It went from 83 mph to 93 mph.
In his earlier years with the Houston Astros, Wagner could touch 100 mph.
Despite overcoming growth and handedness obstacles, Wagner has turned into one of the best relief pitchers of all time.
His statistics are good. Wagner is tied with Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for fifth in the all-time saves leader list. His career ERA is a minuscule 2.38, and he has a winning record.
It is likely that Wagner will retire after this season, as he has nothing more to accomplish other than a World Series win, and it is likely that he will not achieve that goal this year with the Atlanta Braves.
His contract expires after this season, and it is likely that he will ride off quietly into the sunset with his career fulfilled.
But we will see Wagner again, because five years from now he'll have to make a Hall-of-Fame induction speech.
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