Peas in a pod: Wagner, Kimbrel share bond

Peas in a pod: Wagner, Kimbrel share bond

Peas in a pod: Wagner, Kimbrel share bond
LAKE BUENA VISTA , Fla. -- Billy Wagner is quite comfortable at home -- on his farm-ranch-field of dreams in Virginia -- these days. His job description includes hubby, daddy, coach, handyman and occasional lay-about. He is very much a former big leaguer, emphasis on former. He misses elements of the game, but not enough to reconsider the decision that prompted what many baseball folks considered a premature retirement.

Besides, Wagner's self-imposed exile in no way bans him from the game he played and occasionally dominated for 15 years. Wagner still has connections, mostly with the Braves, the last of the five teams on his resume.

He and Bobby Cox, his manager in 2010, appreciate each other. He and pitching coach Roger McDowell developed a friendship as well and stay in touch. And Wagner has his man in the clubhouse -- and, more importantly -- in the bullpen. The Braves' 2010 closer keeps close tabs on the man who succeeded him, Craig Kimbrel.

Their relationship is well-documented. Google one and the other is a click away. Speak with one, the other finds his way into the conversation. Watch Kimbrel deliver a pitch, preferably a fastball, and the first thought is that, in the mirror, he is Wagner's twin. Face: full and smiling. Height: 5-10, 5-11. ("But only if he's got his cowboy boots on that day," Kimbrel said.) Hair: light and kept short. Physique: thick (Kimbrel's thicker) and muscled. Baseball persona: "Give me the damn ball," and "Get it done" and "No excuses." And each laughs easily.

Twin sons of different mothers. They even use the same catch phrases -- "Learn from your mistakes" and the same cliches.

If Wagner had thrown right-handed, or if Kimbrel were left-handed, DNA testing would be required to distinguish one from the other.

Except for this: "He's not as country as I am," Wagner said by telephone Wednesday afternoon about an hour after Kimbrel made this observation -- "Billy's more country than me." -- while standing at his locker in the Braves' clubhouse here.

"Even before I met Billy," Kimbrel said, "people told me I was the right-handed Billy Wagner. I wasn't sure what to make of that. But after I'd been around him for a while, it was pretty easy to tell why they said it. It's kind of strange that I followed him in the closer role, I guess."

Kimbrel followed Wagner chronologically, and he was influenced by the guidance the former Astros, Phillies and Mets closer provided.

In his rookie season, though, Kimbrel made his own footprints, establishing a big league record for saves by a rookie, 46, and winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award unanimously.

"I didn't advise him about anything that was mechanical or what pitch to throw when," Wagner said. "All I might have helped him with was how to handle his job. I was working with his head. Everything from the brain down was him and his doing. You know, I'm familiar with the closer job. It's not always an easy one, especially when you're young. Not that he had too many problems with it. But you have to know how to deal with it, when things do go the other way."

The tutor and the student have come to share a mantra: "Learn from your mistakes." Wagner spoke the phrase seven times in an hour of conversation, Kimbrel three times in 20 minutes.

"At least you can make something good out of a bad game, if you can learn from it," Kimbrel said.

Wagner texted his erstwhile apprentice shortly after the Braves' final game last season, the lost game that denied the Braves a share of the Wild Card lead. Kimbrel surrendered a run -- and the lead -- in the ninth inning, allowing a leadoff single, two walks and a sacrifice fly by Philadelphia's Chase Utley. The Phillies won four innings later. The blown save was his eighth of the season, the third of the month and -- worse -- the second in his final three appearances.

Kimbrel was no more immune to a September swoon than the Braves hitters.

Kimbrel might have overreacted a tad to his less-than-stellar final week. What he thought he learned was that he needed more than the two pitches -- plus heat and plus curveball -- that had brought him so much success. He told McDowell he thought he needed a two-seam fastball and a changeup. The pitching coach was more of a mind not to fix what wasn't broken. He wasn't sure the league had figured out his closer just yet.

McDowell discussed the situation with Wagner last month. "It's great he wants to make himself better," Wagner said. "But there's no need for it. Not yet. We won't discourage him, and he is working on those pitches, but not yet. He's got time."

"[Wagner] tries to encourage me whenever he can," Kimbrel said. "And for him to take that much of an interest in me is ... it's an honor. The coaching staff can help you become quicker to the plate and help you holding runners. But when you get input from a guy who probably could come back and do the job right now, a guy who's already been through just about everything I'm going to experience ... I mean where else can you get that?"

"I didn't give him anything he didn't have already," Wagner said. "I just advise him on how to go about his business. When I was there [in 2010], I tried to share what I knew with all the kids. They could listen or they could tune me out. But they seemed pretty appreciative.

"I just told Kimbrel, 'You've got to be your own biggest fan,' because when you're in the role and you've already had the level of success he's had, it's hard to stay and not get down in the opinions of others. You have two bad outings and people will start questioning, 'What's he doing wrong?' Unless you've had that role and had some tough days, you've got no idea how hard it can be. So you've got to be strong about it .

"That's all I wanted him to know. Stay strong, physically and mentally."

"I know Billy was strong," Kimbrel said. "He made a decision [to retire], and he stuck with it. He had more left, we all knew that. But he stayed strong. He left and I got my chance. I tell you what, he could probably come back and pitch now. ... If he did, I'd probably be setting him up."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.