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The Closer

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Which brings us to the diverging playoff hopes of our local ball clubs. In Hollywood, they’d call it narrative arc: The greatest difference between the Mets’ and Yankees’ seasons is when the teams got hot. In the Bronx, Brian Cashman is reaping the rewards of his three-year crusade to make the Yankees younger. To be sure, the Yankees’ chances this month will still turn on veterans like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, who seem to have been in the Bronx as long as the Yankee Stadium monuments. But Cashman has injected youth at key positions like second base (Robinson Cano) and center-field (Melky Cabrera). Alex Rodriguez, though a senior citizen in tabloid time, is chronologically a mere 32. The payoff is starkest on the mound, however, where the 22-year-old Chamberlain could be their most valuable weapon.

In Queens, though, the Mets are hostage to aged limbs. Tom Glavine, 41, is tired; Pedro Martinez is recovering from major shoulder surgery; and the geriatric Orlando Hernandez missed large chunks of the season. Perhaps Omar Minaya should have made a bold trade months ago. But the costlier miscalculation has been of the team’s young prospects. To maintain momentum, Minaya’s (necessarily) quick fix required the Mets’ homegrown talent to mature. Yet Lastings Milledge, Mike Pelfrey, and Philip Humber have all turned out to be less than advertised, and even the wondrous Jose Reyes has vanished.

As the Mets stumbled through the final weeks of the regular season, no one embodied their toughness and fragility more perfectly than Wagner. Statistically, he’s an all-time-great closer, piling up strikeouts and saves through twelve seasons; he signed with the Mets last year, after playing in Houston and Philadelphia, hungry for his first World Series ring. Yet Wagner’s blazing fastballs, which used to crack 100 mph regularly, defy genetic logic: He’s barely five-foot-ten, and he throws left-handed only because he broke his right arm—twice—as a child. Wagner can be overpowering, but often he’s a white-knuckle thrill ride through a pitch-black forest with your drunken friend at the wheel.

Wagner wishes he could just mow everybody down with metronomic predictability. Yet that would be out of character with his roller-coaster life. Wagner’s mother was 16, his father 19, when he was born into abject poverty in the tiny southwest Virginia town of Tannersville. His parents split bitterly not long after, launching their boy on a terrible odyssey, from uncles to aunts to one set of grandparents then another and eleven schools in ten years. Many mornings, breakfast was a few crackers and peanut butter. Now that he’s making millions, he’s launched an educational foundation, Second Chance Learning, for kids back home.

As a teenager, Wagner poured his rage into his pitching. Even when his fortunes finally improved, tragedy struck: His wife’s parents, who’d become surrogate parents to Wagner himself, were brutally murdered one night. “Things can change at any time,” he says. “There is no certainty in tomorrow.”

That attitude helps Wagner maintain his sanity. “If I walk in after a save and this fan’s up there yelling, ‘We love you!’—yeah, you love me today. I blow a save, ‘We hate you!’ Well, you hate me today.” Wagner stoically accepts responsibility when he fails, but his sense of loyalty, and his frustration, leads him to punch back at critics of the worn-out bullpen. “We’ve been throwing four innings a night—for months!” he says. “Our pitching coach [Rick Peterson] has no experience talking to a bullpen. He can help you mechanically, but he can’t tell you the emotions. He has no idea what it feels like. And neither does Willie [Randolph]. They’re not a lot of help, put it that way.”

The reeling team entered last weekend with three games to salvage its season. “If we get through this,” Wagner says, “regardless of how ugly it’s been, it’ll say something about the character of our team.” By now, you’ll know whether Wagner was a hero, a goat, or a merely a bystander in the final act of this historic meltdown. But as he sat in the dugout last week, speaking evenly in his lilting southern accent, Billy Wagner reminded me of those Confederate soldiers in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary: honorable, defiant, and quite possibly doomed.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.


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