If A-Rod ever gets bored of looking at himself in the mirror and trying to figure out which major league uniform would look best on him, he should give Billy Wagner a call- the guy is running some kind of clinic on how to be an extremely expensive, yet slightly underperforming, free agent acquisition, and still getting everyone to like you.
Billy Wagner? Underperforming? Well, mainly if you consider the fact that the guy makes more money than Mariano Rivera, and Mariano Rivera he is NOT. The way that you can tell this, is that when Rivera takes the mound, it is like Lee Van Cleef or Clint Eastwood at the end of a spaghetti Western- he projects nothing but danger and confidence; if he were still alive, the Yankees should get Sergio Leone to shoot his high-light real. When Wagner takes the mound late in games, my first instinct is to make sure that I’m not that far away from a full beer, in case he leaves me with a lot of problems to drink away- and while, during the regular season, the terror-beer was generally transformed into a celebration-beer by the end of the inning, Wagner always made it interesting, particularly in the post season when he put up a 9.53 ERA and took a loss.
In addition to scaring the shit out of Mets fans in late innings, Wagner spent some of the post-season dictating an EXCLUSIVE guest column for the New York Post to someone named “Burton Rocks.” It had very little insight into the game, but a lot of stuff like “Am I exited to be in New York on a winner? Does a one legged duck swim in circles?” It was not the paradigm of player-journalism excellence that was provided by Cliff Floyd’s blog, but it was a perfectly decent thing to kill a couple minutes of the agonizing periods when they weren’t playing baseball.
Anyway, Billy and Burton seem to have hit it off, because Wagner is getting more than his share of coverage in the Post during the pre-season, most notably in an article called “Cheats Lurk Everywhere,” in which Kevin Kernan talks to Wagner about the return of Guillermo Mota. Wagner told Kernan that cheating, looking for an edge, was a universal and eternal aspect of the game; previous iterations had included spit-balls, pine-tar, and corked bats- steroids were just the current form. Wagner said that you only had to say you were sorry if you got caught, and Kernan speculated that this was the most honest thing a ball player had ever said.
Wagner comes out of the article looking great. He claims that he is clean: “If I took steroids, I'd be a hell of a lot better. I know it. And that's why I don't have to take it. When they say, 'You know you are one of the top three closers in the game,' I don't have to take that [bleep- shit, presumably].” He is identified as a family man, and a fount of both wit and wisdom; he is eager and able to face the challenges of the big city, but still grounded enough in his humble roots that he has not lost sight of the swimming habits of one legged ducks.
The pro-Wagner attitude is pretty universal. The Post thinks that this year he will be better than he was in 2006, but no one seems to think that there is any danger of him being significantly worse- and to me this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to worry about. The one thing that the Mets cannot stand, given the state of their bullpen, is their closer coming up unreliable- and I don’t think, particularly in the post-season, that serious unreliability is ever completely out of the picture where Wagner is concerned.
There is a huge lesson in how Wagner talks to the media, particularly in whatever relationship he has with the Post. Close games are lost by whoever you can write the best piece blaming, and by being a petulant dope, A-rod makes himself extremely blamable. By giving them a couple of columns in Spring, Wagner has saved himself a lot of pictures and puns on the back page after blown saves in the Summer. Part of it, of course, is that the urge to question Wagner can never be that strong for Mets fans: he ended the nightmare that was Braden Looper. But Wagner also projects the perfect mixture of folksy charm, positive attitude and complete confidence in his own ability to make sports writers hesitate before saying that the game was lost by the really expensive guy who gave up the game winning hit.