Billy Wagner went from Division III baseball to the majors with his ‘magic’ fastball

Just more than 2,000 people live in Ferrum, Virginia, a no-stoplight Appalachian town. But hidden in those blue hills was a magic man, a baseball wizard, a force of nature.

‘When Billy was on the mound, it was a show.’ Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
‘When Billy was on the mound, it was a show.’ Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: The results of the Hall of Fame election will be announced on Jan. 25. In anticipation, FOX Sports MLB Writers are looking at their favourite names on the ballot, even if they aren’t headed to Cooperstown.

Just more than 2,000 people live in Ferrum, Virginia, a no-stoplight Appalachian town nestled into the Blue Ridge mountains.

It’s about 30 miles south of Roanoke, the type of spot the U.S. government classifies as a “census-designated place.” There’s one home-style, sit-down restaurant, a Subway and a Dairy Queen. The nearest Walmart is a 20-minute drive up Route 40.

The town is best known for the institution with which it shares a name, Ferrum College, a tiny, century-old liberal arts school with a student body of fewer than 1,000. But for a few spring seasons in the early 1990s, the town and the school became a pilgrimage site for baseball fans all across the region.

Because hidden in those blue hills was a magic man, a baseball wizard, a force of nature.

You see, the local college had a pitcher. The kind they wrote about in the paper in Roanoke, the kind strangers travelled from miles away to come see, the kind they still share stories about decades later. A short, sturdy, broad-shouldered kid from another small town on the other side of the Appalachians, with a left arm touched by God.

Ferrum, Virginia, is where Billy “The Kid” Wagner became the single most dominant pitcher in college baseball history.

A multiple exposure image of Billy Wagner pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 2010. Picture: G Fiume/Getty Images
A multiple exposure image of Billy Wagner pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 2010. Picture: G Fiume/Getty Images

*****

The numbers are mind-rattling. The records still stand today.

In three years at Division-III Ferrum, Wagner struck out 327 batters in 182⅓ innings for a 16.1 career K/9, which is still the NCAA career record. That includes his absurd 1992 sophomore season, in which he punched out 109 in 51⅓ frames. That‘s a 19.1K/9, the NCAA single-season record.

Wagner also still holds the career (2.22) and single-season (1.58) marks for fewest hits allowed per nine innings. In fact, his three seasons at Ferrum are the three best hits per nine seasons in NCAA history.

Nowadays, of course, Wagner is famous for what he accomplished in his 16-year big-league career. Those numbers don’t lie either: 422 saves (sixth all time), a career 2.31 ERA (second-lowest in the post-integration era) and an all-time MLB-best 11.92 strikeouts per nine innings. Wagner made seven All-Star Games, finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting twice and retired as one of the greatest closers to ever live.

But before all the accolades, the big-money contracts and the Hall of Fame debate, Wagner was a stocky, 5-foot-6 freshman from a dirt-poor small town in southwestern Virginia intent on following his older cousin to Ferrum.

“The thing that sold me,” Wagner said to FOX Sports, ”was that my cousin had been there. He’d played two years, football and baseball. I’d travelled there, seen the school. I knew what it was all about.”

Even though Wagner had dazzled on the mound at Tazewell High School, earning him Virginia Region IV Player of the Year as a senior in 1990, no MLB teams showed interest because of how short he was. The only Division I program that made him an offer was Virginia Tech, but Wagner thought he wasn’t academically prepared for that and chose Ferrum instead.

*****

At the time, Ferrum was a Division III powerhouse, a perennial World Series contender in a conference with two other dominant programs in North Carolina Wesleyan and Methodist. From 1990 to ‘98, Ferrum sent nine players into professional baseball, a remarkably high number for a school with fewer than 1,000 students. Eric Owens, who was one year ahead of Wagner, played nine years in the big leagues. So while the competition wasn’t at the level of the SEC or the ACC, Ferrum baseball in the early ’90s was an abnormally strong Division III program that knew how to develop pro-level talent.

Looking back, Wagner wouldn’t change a thing.

“It was a perfect fit for me,” he said. ”It certainly wasn’t appealing to everybody. It’s off the beaten path, out in the boonies. All we had was a Dairy Queen and a pizza place. There wasn’t a lot to do, so it gave you a chance to grow up. You could be with your teammates and just kind of figure out who you were.”

As a freshman, Wagner initially focused on football — the sport he calls “his first love” — until Ferrum’s defensive co-ordinator saw him pitch in the spring and persuaded him to zero in on baseball. His arm had that impact on a lot of people: Once you saw it live, you knew it was different.

Roy Clark, a veteran MLB evaluator with more than 35 years in the sport and a Ferrum Panther himself, still remembers the first time he saw Wagner on a mound.

“I was scouting with Atlanta at the time, but I would go up to Ferrum and do clinics,” he said. ”I go up there one time, and [Coach Abe Naff] says to me, ‘Roy, I want you to see this left-hander I got.’ So the kid started throwing. I break out the radar gun — and at the time, I knew my gun was a couple ticks slow — but his first pitch was 95, which I think was the equivalent of 100, 101.

“Someone said to me, ‘I think your gun is broken.’ Well, I got a couple more pitches, and it wasn’t too broken. It was the hardest I’ve ever seen anybody throw.”

Wagner says ‘my mechanics at the beginning were … not good.’ Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Wagner says ‘my mechanics at the beginning were … not good.’ Picture: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

*****

But while the young Wagner could light up the radar gun, he struggled to consistently find the strike zone, especially as a freshman. Former Ferrum coach Abe Naff laughed when asked about the wildness.

“God bless him,” the retired coach told FOX Sports. ”He’d either strike ‘em out or walk ‘em early in his career. We always thought his wildness was a positive instead of a negative.”

Coated in a thick southern drawl, Naff’s memories of the Wagner era fall out of his mouth smooth and slow, like warm honey.

“We liked to bring him in with a base open somewhere. If it was a tight umpire, well, Billy didn’t need a tight umpire. Some of those guys had never seen anything that fast. It sounded hot.”

Noted Wagner: “My mechanics at the beginning were … not good.”

“Most of the time, it was great sitting back there for Billy,” recalled Andy Calohan, who caught Wagner in ’92 and ’93. ”But occasionally, he’d throw that 57-foot fastball that bounced three feet in front of you. That wasn’t fun to catch.”

One game in particular captures the energy of Wagner’s freshman year. Ferrum had travelled to Marietta, Ohio, for the 1991 regional, and the Panthers found themselves in an elimination game against The College of Wooster, with Billy on the mound.

“It was an elimination game to save our season. And we got Billy F---in‘ Wagner,” recounted Barry Craddock, a freshman pitcher on that ‘91 Wooster team and Wooster’s current head baseball coach. ”He was so small. He had to be 5-[foot]-5. A little dude, but he growled and backed it up with heat. The best part about that game was that he no-hit us through five innings, but we were winning, so they had to take him out because he walked 10 guys. They came back and won anyway.”

As Naff recollected, there were “a bunch of old codgers behind home plate that game … Yeah, he’d walked 10, and we took him out around 150 pitches after he walked the 10th guy, even though he had a no-hitter. They all started booing me.”

“Yeah, I remember that. The fans started booing Abe,” Wagner said.

*****

Mike Fox, who recently retired after a legendary, 22-year run leading the North Carolina Tar Heels baseball team, was the head coach at North Carolina Wesleyan from 1983 to ‘98. He led the Battling Bishops to a national championship in 1989 and had a front-row seat to The Billy Wagner Show.

“The first two years, he’d close Games 1 and 2 of a series and start Game 3,” Fox recalled. ”I vividly remember players coming back to the dugout with looks on their faces I’d never seen before. A left-hander throwing in the mid-90s? At that level, it seemed like 105. It was amazing. Certainly the best I saw at my time at Wesleyan, for sure.”

But the Wagner moment etched into Fox’s brain more than any other was a hit-by-pitch.

“Todd Spreen was a kid who played for me back in those days. Itty-bitty shortstop from New Jersey, tough as nails. Billy nailed him in the right forearm. I mean, the ball bounced straight down to the ground. Todd doesn’t even flinch, drops the bat, runs to first base. But he’s hurting. We all heard it.

“Naff goes out to the mound [to chat with Wagner], and I see my first-base coach motioning to me. Todd hasn’t rubbed his arm or anything, but I start walking over there, and as I come across the field, I see a knot on his forearm, and I literally see it growing. Todd gets close enough to me, and I can see he has tears rolling down his cheek, tears of pain. I thought he’d broke his arm.”

Offered Naff: “We could see the knot from our dugout.”

Spreen, a four-year starter and all-conference player, hasn’t forgotten that moment either.

“I’d been hit before, obviously,” he told FOX Sports from his home in New Jersey. ”But holy s---, it hurt. I’ll tell you that. It definitely hurt. By the end of the inning, I literally couldn’t open my hand. After the game, I went to the hospital, and they couldn’t believe my arm wasn’t broken.

“When you faced Billy Wagner, you knew he was one of those guys you’ll never see again for the rest of your life.”

Wagner signed a four-year, $43 million contract when he joined the Mets. Picture: Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Wagner signed a four-year, $43 million contract when he joined the Mets. Picture: Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

*****

By the middle of 1992, Billy had generated enough buzz with his preposterous 19.1K/9 sophomore season to secure an invitation to the Cape Cod League, the nation’s best summer circuit for college players. On the Cape, Wagner shined against top competition, striking out 79 in 44 innings and being named the league’s top pro prospect.

Coaches from elite Division I programs tried to convince him to transfer for his junior season, but the Virginia kid wasn’t interested in pitching for anyone but Ferrum.

The Panthers opened their 1993 season against St. Bonaventure University, a Division I team, in Jacksonville, Florida. Buzz was at an all-time high, and there were between 25 and 30 scouts in attendance to watch Wagner throw.

But things didn’t go according to plan.

“That’s the game I remember the most,” Wagner said. ”That was probably the worst game I ever pitched. I think I walked, like, 13 guys in 2⅓ [Editor’s note: He walked 12 in 2 IP.]. But that was the game that allowed me to learn how to be good. That was the first time I’d ever pitched with real pressure.”

From then on, Wagner was nails. As the hype intensified, MLB scouts and evaluators from across the country made the journey through the hills to Ferrum to lay eyes on the stocky lefty with the golden arm.

“That ‘93 season, we were bombarded,” Naff recalled. ”We had 20 scouts at every game. There was a game where seven people from the Mets came in to see Billy. I had one guy from the Mets call me and say, ‘Your guy Wagner throwing this weekend? How do you fly into Ferrum?’ I said, ‘You don’t. Why don’t you fly into Greensboro and come on up?’”

Roy Clark lived just an hour south of Ferrum and said he saw most of Wagner’s outings that season.

“Billy’s junior year, you couldn’t even get a seat in the stands whenever he started,” he said. ”Not only scouts, but word of mouth from all over the area. When Billy was on the mound, it was a show.

“For all three years, he was appointment viewing. It was such an event in that little town.”

*****

Naff remembers the awe. “I would watch some of those scouts,” he said. ”They’d be hitting their radar gun, like, ‘That ain‘t right. He ain’t throwing 94 — not that little guy.’ They’d turn around and look at each other in disbelief that someone 5-[foot]-6 could throw that hard.

“And we didn’t have him throw a lot of breaking pitches. What’s the point of slowing it down so someone could hit it? Billy threw hard and harder.”

Others still can‘t get over it, either.

“Some people look at me sometimes and say, ‘You’re 52 years old now and still talkin’ about this college stuff,” Calohan admitted with a chuckle. ”And I say, ‘Heck yeah, I am. You should have seen it.’”

Said Fox: “I just don’t know if we’ll ever see another Billy Wagner. With that size, with that arm, throwing that hard from the left side, with where he was from and where he started, it’s a great story.”

His junior spring, Wagner was borderline untouchable. In 75 innings, he struck out 133 hitters and allowed just 13 runs. His name shot up draft boards and into the mouths of MLB decision-makers. It must have been a sight to behold, the future All-Star closer, in front of hundreds of people in a backwoods town, absolutely blowing the doors off Division III batters with a hair-raising, high-90s heater.

Naff knew at the time just how special it was.

“One day at practice his last year, I put the gear on,” he reminisced. ”Yes, sir. Just to say I did it. It was the damnedest thing I’d ever seen. It’s one thing when you were sitting [in the dugout] on the side, but I caught him. It was different.

“I only caught two or three pitches — that was enough for me.”

Wagner was inducted into the Astros Hall Of Fame last year. Picture: Bob Levey/Getty Images
Wagner was inducted into the Astros Hall Of Fame last year. Picture: Bob Levey/Getty Images

*****

In a week’s time, the 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame Class will be announced, and Billy Wagner will not be in it. According to the Hall of Fame Tracker, Wagner is appearing on around 48% of ballots, well below the 75% needed for induction. His relatively meagre MLB innings total has convinced many voters to leave him off their ballots.

But perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone who saw Wagner throw in college firmly believes that he has earned the right to be enshrined alongside the all-time greats.

“I told my son: ‘If Billy gets in, we’re going,’” Calohan said.

“My goal is to be there in Cooperstown,” Naff said, with just a hint of sadness in his voice. ”He deserves it. I just wanna be there.”

Three years ago, Naff was in attendance for a different kind of ceremony, as Wagner became just the third Division III player ever inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech, Wagner, who is now the head baseball coach at The Miller School in Virginia, choked back tears while thanking Naff (and his late high school coach, Lou Peery) for all he‘d done to inspire him.

Naff said the admiration is mutual.

“He is so gracious and thankful and never forgets where he comes from,” he‘s said. ”Billy’s been a tremendous amount of support for me. We keep in touch. He’s just a great, great guy.”

Wagner’s big-league career will remain under the microscope for years to come. Most likely, he’ll get in the Hall one day, whether by the writers in his three remaining years on the ballot or via the Veterans Committee in the far future.

But even if his MLB career never gets him to Cooperstown, Wagner‘s college exploits will live on forever in the memories of those who witnessed his dominance at Ferrum in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“It never ceased to amaze anyone who saw him,” Naff said right before he hung up. ”People knew it was magic.”

– FOX SPORTS US

Maria Recouvreur
Maria RecouvreurChief of production

Maria Recouvreur is Chief of Production for CODE who has spent more than a decade writing and editing sports journalism in both print and online. She has worked for Fairfax, News Corp and Pacific Magazines as both a journalist and sub-editor and was the Editor of Big League, the NRL's now-defunct match-day programme, for several years. While Maria's main passion is rugby league (go the Bulldogs), she'll watch any sport that's on and above all, loves adding the finishing touches on the incredible storytelling that comes with it.

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