While Billy Wagner wasn’t among those enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday afternoon, he one day could get his own plaque in Cooperstown, New York.
The former Tazewell High School star’s Hall of Fame case is gaining some momentum as voters review the resume of an elite relief pitcher who saved 422 games and racked up 1,196 strikeouts in a big-league career that spanned from 1995-2010.
A former teammate is one of many who believe Wagner deserves a spot among the game’s all-time greats.
“I don’t dive into the numbers, but for me it’s more about who you were in that era and that was a tough time to be a pitcher,” Scott Elarton said. “The domination; the name Billy Wagner. For me, it’s a Hall of Fame name when you say it. I guess the guys that crunch the numbers will figure that out. I also look more at the human piece of it and he’s a Hall of Fame guy.”
Elarton is a special assistant in the baseball operations department of the Pittsburgh Pirates these days and was in Bristol on Saturday and Sunday to check in on some of the organization’s Appalachian League talent.
He also took some time to reflect on Wagner, who he played with while with the Houston Astros from 1998-2001.
Wagner got the save in Elarton’s first major league win.
Wagner was a first-round pick of the Astros in 1993, while Elarton was the club’s top selection a year later.
They spent the summer of ‘94 as teammates with the Midwest League’s Quad Cities River Bandits too.
“It might’ve been more fun to watch him in the minor leagues than the big leagues,” Elarton said. “He was a starting pitcher then and would just dominate everybody. The A-ball guys weren’t used to swinging wooden bats as much as they are now and Billy Wagner would break about 15 of ‘em a game.”
The 6-foot-7 Elarton and the 5-foot-10 Wagner became fast friends.
“We were kind of the – I don’t know what you call it these days – but the Mutt and Jeff, the big and the little,” Elarton said. “I actually have a picture in my house of me and him standing and protecting a guy warming up in the bullpen and it’s from the back and it’s a pretty neat picture.”
A fastball that reached triple digits made Wagner nearly unhittable and a dogged determination made him unflappable.
“Another thing I remember about him is nobody really wanted to play catch with him, because with Billy it was all or nothing,” Elarton said. “The first throw was 92 [miles per hour] from 45 feet. He was such a hard-nosed competitor and that’s probably the biggest attribute that I took from him. It was all business on the mound and he was attacking hitters all the time. It was fun to watch.”
It wasn’t so enjoyable to be standing in the batter’s box, however.
Kevin Young was in Bristol this weekend as well in his special assistant role with the Pirates. He played 12 seasons in the big leagues and was 1-for-12 with eight strikeouts against Southwest Virginia’s favorite son.
“Billy was just an extreme talent on the mound,” Young said. “You face somebody like that in the ninth inning, it’s never fun. That fastball was electric.”
Relief pitchers Lee Smith and Mariano Rivera were in the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019, joining Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Hoyt Wilhelm and Dennis Eckersley as inductees who had their great successes out of the bullpen.
Could Billy Wagner one day join those other legends in Cooperstown?
“It is harder for closers to make it, but that’s the job they have and [Wagner] did it really well,” Young said. “At the end of the day you’re talking about quality individuals, All-Stars who did their job at a high level and there’s some case for him.”