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As I drive along a meandering county road in Crozet on a soggy spring morning on my way to meet former baseball player Billy Wagner at his 200-acre alpaca farm, it strikes me as an awfully quiet place to find the 5-foot-9-inch-lefty, who for 16 years fired game-closing pitches—clocked as fast as 100 mph—under the bright lights of Major League Baseball. But, after I arrive at Nonesuch Farm and meet the man, I find out this is just where Wagner wants to be.
“I played as much ball as I can play,” says Wagner, age 40, sandy-haired and affable, dressed in jeans and mud-smeared cowboy boots. The ink is just dry on his retirement papers, ending months of speculation that he would return to the game. Perhaps it was the Brett Favre-effect that had managers calling, and why wouldn’t they? This former Ferrum College standout from Tazewell, veteran of five major-league teams (Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves) and seven-time All-Star earned his 400th career save in 2010 making him just the fifth player, and only the second left-handed pitcher in baseball history to do so.
Does his first season after pro-ball feel strange? “Not at all,” says Wagner. “It gets to a point where there’s something more meaningful.” For him that means spending time with his wife, Sarah, and their four children (ages four to 12) here in these hills in a rambling and pleasantly cluttered house where a motley trio of dogs snores in corners or trails at his heels. It also means coaching his 12-and-10-year-old sons’ basketball and baseball teams and working on his farm. (As we talk, a small herd of alpaca and a pair of donkeys see him approach the pasture and drift over for a pat on the neck.)
But savoring the unscripted moments of family and farm life is not all Wagner is up to these days. He lights up when we talk about his home turf of Southwest Virginia where he and best friend and Ferrum College roommate Erik Robinson, a former social worker and counselor from Bluefield, started the non-profit Second Chance Learning Center in 2005—a tutoring and mentoring program for middle and high school students at risk of dropping out. “If you’re a kid in Southwest Virginia, your chance to get out is slim to none,” says Wagner, citing the region’s higher drop-out rate than other parts of the state and its long years of economic blight. (The U.S. Department of Education has found that kids from low-income families are six times more likely to drop out than kids from high-income families.) Wagner says he could have contributed to that statistic, but his success in athletics and the help of what he calls some “unbelievable people,” including his aunt and uncle who took him in after years of bouncing around family members’ homes following his parents’ divorce, kept him from being lost. “I wasn’t going to be a rocket scientist,” he laughs as he explains his own difficulties in school. “I was just getting by, which was one of the reasons we started the program.”
Second Chance provides free tutoring for up to 12 students (every day if they want it, for as long as they need it) at each of their two locations—in Tazewell and Bluefield. There is currently a waiting list to get in the program. Last year three Second Chance members graduated from high school and the organization paid for their first year of college (through a combination of Wagner’s largesse and private community support). “We keep the numbers small, that’s why we have such great success,” explains Robinson, who adds that when the Second Chance kids—once in danger of falling through the cracks—start getting one-to-one attention, their progress “is like an avalanche.” An avalanche that both Wagner and Robinson hope might lead someday to a better-educated workforce in Southwest Virginia that can attract industry again. “We’re not going to change the world,” says Wagner, “but we might be able to change this area.”
Look for “Second Chance Rocks the Two Virginias”—a concert on July 16 at Bluefield’s Mitchell Stadium featuring Dierks Bentley, Montgomery Gentry and other country music stars to benefit the Second Chance Learning Center.