Chris Smith: Will Billy Wagner Ever Pitch Again?

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Andrei Vavilov, in happier real estate. Photo: Getty Images

Almost exactly a year ago — the issue appeared October 1, 2007 — I wrote a column about Mets closer Billy Wagner fighting through injuries and how his absence was hurting the Mets. What got the headlines were Wagner’s jabs at manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson. But the impetus for the story, and the ultimate point, was about how one of the game’s greatest relief pitchers had never made it to the World Series, and how he, like many athletes, struggle through pain to grasp at what might be a last chance.

Today comes the depressing news that Wagner, 37, needs major elbow surgery and will be out for a year. In 2007 he was betrayed by a bad back, and the Mets infamously collapsed down the stretch, with Wagner’s injury one contributing factor. What strikes me a year later is how prescient — if typically impolitic — Wagner was: His feelings about Randolph and Peterson were shared by other Mets players, and his comments foreshadowed the issues that led to this year’s firing of the two men, which led to the team saving its season. The Mets have played great under interim manager Jerry Manuel, for a bunch of reasons, but Wagner’s mostly dominating presence at the end of the game was one of them; he had 27 saves and a 2.30 ERA when he went on the disabled list in early August. Yes, he’d blown seven saves, the most of Wagner’s career, but he was a whole lot better than what’s replaced him. The Mets have scrambled to piece together ninth innings ever since Wagner went down.

The other, stronger reaction is that pro sports remains mighty cruel. Wagner overcame crushing poverty and taught himself to throw left-handed when his natural-throwing right arm was broken twice as a child; he’s a small guy; and yet he became a flamethrower and worked his way to the top of his game. Last fall, he was encased in gauze and ice trying to heal. This summer, Wagner blew out his elbow trying to make it back to the first-place Mets for another run at a championship. Sure, he’s made millions, and Wagner would be the first to tell you his life has turned out pretty well. But he wanted the ring, badly. My guess is that he never pitches again. My hope is that I’m wrong.

Related: The Closer [NYM]