Jan. 23—BLUEFIELD — Billy Wagner and Bluefield State were a First Pitch winning team.
A capacity crowd jammed the Clover Club on a frosty night to warm up to the 2024 Bluefield State University baseball team and Major League All Star Billy Wagner. BSU Coach Drew Bailey introduced 43 players as well as staff members for the Bluefield State squad, which is coming off a school-record 25 win season.
Wagner, a 16-year MLB veteran closer who went to Tazewell High School (Class of 1990) and Ferrum College before becoming the first-round draft choice of the Houston Astros in 1993, was the featured speaker for the event, wining the crowd with his sincerity much as did on the mound where his famous 100-mile-per-hour fastball set records.
"I am so proud of what the Bluefield State coaching staff is doing with their 'real world' approach to getting players ready not only on the field but also in the game of life," said Wagner, who overcame a series of issues as a youngster who lived in more than one home before finding his comfort zone on the baseball diamond.
"It is not easy to play today," noted the fireballer whose strikeout ratio for nine innings is an MLB-best as he struck out nearly one-third of all batters to face him.
"With the social media influence — which I never had to deal with — young players now are graded on cell phones and computers. I was able to just go out and compete."
Wagner's height was an issue with many college and pro scouts as he worked to meet that competitive challenge. "When I started, although the records say I was 5-5, 85 pounds, I was more like 4-8, 82 pounds. I was the first guy they made fun of when practice started. Once I threw a fastball past them, right by their ear, a lot of the teasing stopped," he said as laughter rippled through the audience.
The left-handed ace, who sparked Lou Peery's Bulldogs to the state tournament and was the key hurler as THS won the Southwest District and Coppinger tournaments, admitted that football was his favorite sport as a youngster, saying, "The whole town just rolled up on Friday nights, everything stopped and the football field was one place where you could hit somebody really hard and not get in trouble for it."
Like the Blue baseball team, which won the 2021 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) World Series, Wagner's high school squad, the Miller School in Charlottesville, has reached the top, as well, with three state championships thus far. His son, Will, is playing AAA baseball for the Astros minor league team and his daughter, Olivia, a sophomore guard on the Radford University basketball team, recently set a school record with a 7-for-7 three point effort in RU's win over Longwood.
Wagner's wife, Sarah, another standout athlete, is in the Ferrum Hall of Fame for her outstanding basketball skills.
While the spotlight belonged to the famed fastball pitcher, the focus was on helping the team at BSU raise funds for the upcoming season. Coach Bailey thanked the audience, the local community including several key sponsors and the speaker for working to promote BSU baseball.
Wagner delighted the crowd, the players and coaches when he finished his speech, held up the check and said, "I am not accepting this check for a speaking fee — use it for your program where it will do the most good for these young players."
Bluefield State is set to open at Savannah (Ga.) State on February in a doubleheader on February and Wagner, also with a big date, may learn Tuesday night if he has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.