It all comes full circle for this Astros legend and his son
Billy Wagner remembers looking around a Spring Training clubhouse in Kissimmee, Fla., the first time he was invited to Major League camp by the Astros in the mid-1990s as a prospect and being in awe. His locker was next to Doug Drabek, a former Cy Young winner. Around him were lockers for former All-Stars Darryl Kile, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.
“As a young kid, you’re like, ‘Holy cow, what am I doing?’” Wagner said.
It didn’t take long for Wagner to earn his stripes and start piling up some accolades himself. He made three All-Star teams during his nine seasons with the Astros, saving a club-record 225 games, including a single-season-record 44 in his final season in Houston in 2003. So when Wagner found out last week his son, Astros prospect Will Wagner, had been invited to camp as a non-roster player, it was a full-circle moment.
“I’m excited for him because he’s earned it,” Billy said. “He’s had some good seasons. I think the [Arizona] Fall League was a big jump for him. I think that was something that was exciting to watch and see him have success and hit so well. They won a championship out there. He knows he’s got a lot of work [to do], but I think being around guys that have the work ethic and know the game, you get to see what it’s about. That’s for anybody in their first camp.”
It didn’t take Billy Wagner long to figure out players like Drabek, Kile, Bagwell and Biggio can help you and guide you, and even protect you. They lead. All he had to do was be willing to watch and learn what made them successful and “get some useful tidbits and try to gain that knowledge and try to take their job.”
Will Wagner was born July 29, 1998 -- two weeks after Billy, while pitching for the Astros, was struck in the head by a line drive in Arizona. He was carried off the field, spent the night in the hospital and had to overcome vertigo to get back on the mound -- but he returned to his dominant ways later that summer. The Astros drafted Will in the 18th round out of Liberty University in 2021; Billy was drafted in the first round out of Ferrum College in 1993.
Last year, Will, a left-handed-hitting infielder, slashed .261/.374/.394 with 10 homers and 53 RBIs in 117 Minor League games between High-A Asheville and Double-A Corpus Christi. He split time between third base, first base and second base. Wagner finished second in the AFL in OPS (1.145) last fall, slashing .346/.433/.712 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 52 at-bats.
Being able to play with Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve this spring should be a huge boost for Wagner, who will likely open the 2023 season back in Corpus Christi with a chance to be at Triple-A by the summer.
“I know he’s excited; he’s embraced it,” Billy said. “I know that the moment’s not big for him. He knows the game. He’s just excited, like me and his mom. You get drafted in the 18th round, you better do a lot of things well. And he’s put in the hard work, and I’m happy for him. He knows he’s got to do more and continue to do what he’s doing. To be around those guys, it’s a big honor for him.”