This spring the Miller School of Albermarle boys varsity baseball team is striving to up the ante: having replicated last year’s conference championship performance, they’re poised to make a run at the state title. Coming as the first such championship victory for an MSA baseball team in over a decade, the 2016 win was celebrated as the fruit of coach Billy Wagner’s 5-year-long effort to overhaul the program.
Wait… Billy Wagner? As in former-Major League Baseball superstar Billy ‘the Kid’ Wagner? Yep, that’s the one.
What happened was, back in 2000, following the advice of Charlottesville-resident and former Houston Astros third-base coach, Mike Cubbage, the seven-time MLB All-Star purchased 200 acres of land in Crozet, where he moved with his wife Sarah and their four children hoping to “establish roots.” Just over twelve years later, after retiring from the limelight in 2010, following a 16-year career that netted the relief pitcher 422 saves and landed him fifth on the all-time saves list, Wagner took a gig as an assistant baseball coach at the Miller School of Albemarle. The following year, when varsity head coach Sammy Beale retired due to health complications, Wagner stepped into his spot.
But why would a world-renowned likely future-Hall-of-Famer decide to take a job coaching at a small private school in rural Virginia? Namely, his kids. At the time, Wagner’s middle son Will was a budding eighth-grade second-baseman at MSA and was crazy about baseball. Following in Will’s footsteps was the pitcher’s next-to-youngest child Jeremy, which made the deal even sweeter.
“To be able to get to watch your sons on a daily basis grow and enjoy their passion for the game, that’s a father’s dream,” said Wagner, who is now 45 years old. “Not every father has that opportunity… I could have pitched at least one more year.” Indeed, in his final season with the Atlanta Braves, Wagner logged 37 saves and was voted a National League All-Star. “Probably more of a reason to retire was so I could be around my kids and coach them. By the luck of the draw I was able to come home and have a coaching job to be around my boys and my daughter.”
Settling into the new role, Wagner fell in love with the game all over again. As a pro, over the course of his lengthy career, the sport had become more about business, less about play. “It became very much like a job,” he said. “Everything before and after [the game] was long and drawn out… But my experiences [as a coach] have invigorated me to the point that I get excited about coming to baseball practice…I enjoy doing a lot to help these kids.”
Described by assistant coach Tom Pallante as a natural, despite a chuckle, Wagner claimed he believes he enjoys coaching better than playing. “He’s still like a big kid himself—he has the perfect balance of fun and energy,” said Pallante. “He has a knack of working with younger kids [and when new students apply] he talks academics first. He doesn’t push his status in any way. He kind of makes you feel equal…. I can’t overemphasize how positive this experience has been.”
As a player Wagner wielded a blistering 100-m.p.h. fastball and was known for his win-or-go-home mentality. As a high school coach he takes a very different approach. “Our goal each year for each kid and for our program is to focus on individual kids rather than wins,” he said. “They’re like sponges and each kid has his own way of learning…. I realize that dealing with 15 different kids, you have to communicate in 15 different ways—you can’t coach them all the same way.”
Wagner described his coaching strategy as process-oriented and dedicated to drilling the fundamentals. “We consider our ‘process’ to be the learning block of establishing baseball IQ, work-ethic, teamwork, team-building, positional mechanics and baseball terminology,” he said. The team has also implemented a weight and conditioning program to “build strong bodies and strong minds.” Meanwhile, concerning the latter, Wagner asserts that education always comes first: “I tell the kids, ‘I’m not here to make you a professional baseball player, you’re here for the education.’ Many coaches use wins as their top motivational tool, but we use baseball as a tool for getting to college…. We take pride in the fact that we put all our players into college.”
After five years in the saddle, Wagner’s influence on the program shows. Finishing with a record of 14-8, last year’s team not only won the conference title, but they also made it to the semi-finals of the VISAA state tournament and had two players go on to play baseball at the Division I level. “We had Alex Chan go to Davidson College and Connor Gillispie to VCU,” said Wagner. This year, while the Mavericks opened the season with three straight losses, they bounced back to win 16 of their last 17 games and beat Covenant 3-0 to claim their second straight conference title on April 27. Leading the team were four senior offensive standouts and infielders, all of whom have committed to play baseball in college at the Division I level. There was Tanner Morris, who batted .509 and signed with the University of Virginia; Ethan Murray batting .500 and signing with Duke University; Adam Hackenberg hitting .419 and committing to Clemson; and yes, the coach’s son, Will Wagner, batting .475 and signed to play at Liberty.
With under 200 students enrolled at the school, spread between grades 8-12, Wagner’s accomplishments at MSA haven’t gone unnoticed. However, while there have been rumors about potential offers from Division I college teams or even professional clubs, Wagner said he aims to stay right where he is.
To understand his reasoning, it’s best to consult a statement he made post coaching a 2013 game against his former Tazewell High School team and former coach, 30-plus year veteran Lou Peery: “It was a great experience just to be on the field with him. He’s a great friend and always has been there for me. He’s probably one of the main reasons I want to coach, because he taught me a lot… If I can be one-half the coach he is, I’ll call that a success.”