Minor league baseball: Wagner safe at home
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS ó It was on Feb. 20 that Daniel Wagner took his first official swing of this long-winded baseball season.
He wore the uniform of the Belmont University Bruins and played against the Illinois State Redbirds at Nashville's Greer Stadium. He was 434 miles from home, performing for 395 fans, and he went 0-for-3.
Things have picked up.
Now Wagner's a pro, a promising, lefty-hitting second baseman for the Kannapolis Intimidators. He sleeps in his own bed and sips orange juice out of his father's refrigerator just 21/2 miles from the Intimidators' clubhouse at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium.
It's storybook stuff.
"Lots of guys ask me what it's like for me to be playing where I grew up," the South Rowan graduate said. "It's late in the season. Guys are pretty drained, and everybody's about ready to go home. I'm already there."
No one saw a pro career coming for the 6-foot, 180-pounder until the summer of 2007 when he tore up American Legion ball for South ó 10 homers, 56 RBIs, .474 in 156 at-bats, plus 26 steals.
The summer of 2008 he hit .323 with a wood bat for the Asheboro Copperheads of the Coastal Plain League. Then he sizzled his junior season at Belmont with 57 RBIs in 58 games.
Wagner was supposed to play in the Cape Cod League this summer, but the Chicago White Sox changed his travel plans by making him their 16th draft pick. Wagner signed after brisk negotiations and was assigned to rookie ball in Bristol, Va. He hit .258 with 26 RBIs in 56 games to receive a promotion to Kannapolis. His elevation was surprising mostly because the season was nearly over and Intimidators second baseman Drew Garcia had produced 62 RBIs.
Wagner got word he was an Intimidator while Kannapolis was in Greenville in the fading days of August, and he made the long haul to South Carolina to join his new teammates.
"No one actually told me this, but I'm thinking I was called up to Kannapolis because they didn't have many infielders and they wanted to give guys some rest," Wagner said. "Garcia is one of the guys who put them in the position they're in (second-half champions in the South Atlantic League)."
But Garcia hasn't been healthy since shortly after Wagner arrived. Garcia stepped in a hole and suffered an ankle injury in Greenville. He's still on the active roster but hasn't played since Aug. 26. That's given Wagner a chance to compete every day. He's batted .290 with three two-hit games and no errors.
Wagner, who can handle most anyone's fastball, belted a homer on a heater in Greenville. It came on Aug. 28, his second game with the Intimidators.
"I put a hard swing on it," he said. "It was one those where you're sure it's a homer, but after three or four steps I picked up my pace because I remembered guys telling me how deep it was there in right-center. Greenville's Park is built like Boston's Fenway, and there were no signs on the wall other than down the lines and straight-away center. I have no idea how far it went, but it went out."
Wagner's home debut in Kannapolis last Tuesday was part part family reunion, part circus, part rock concert.
His uncle, Bobby Wagner, helped make it a major production, renting a skybox at FCS for the family for the week and coming up with replica Intimidators T-shirts featuring Wagner's No. 39.
"The Intimidators told us the shirts were fine as long as we didn't sell them," said Rocky Wagner, Daniel's father. "We gave them away to friends and family."
Daniel, calm and serious, avoids the hoopla and keeps a level head. He understands baseball is job ó one he shares with Intimidator housemates Dan Black, a first baseman, and Robert Vaughn, a catcher.
"Sure I can recognize a lot of people in the crowd from second base, and there's some noise when I come to bat at home," he said. "But you have to just play the game. You have to separate the baseball on the field from the stuff happening off it. You may get only one groundball a game, but you've got to stay focused every single pitch so you can field that one ball. You've got to focus every pitch at the plate or you're not going to hit guys throwing 96."
Whether he's 0-for-3 or 2-for-4, the prodigal son signs autographs until the lights go out, and his return has created amusing moments.
"I'm out at second base, our manager's gone to the mound to talk to the pitcher, music is playing and the guys in the dugout are yelling, 'Wag! Wag!' and pointing up to the skybox where my family is," Wagner said. "I look up and my aunts are up there dancing, pretty much going crazy."
Rocky Wagner joked Daniel's young female cousins were "screaming loud enough to shatter glass." He ventured down to the bleachers to preserve what was left of his hearing.
On a more serious note, Rocky explained Daniel's opportunity to play pro ball in front of his mother, step-mother, grandmother, brothers, uncles, nieces and dancing aunts has been a turn of events that's been overwhelming emotionally.
"Playing at Belmont he was seven hours away, and at Bristol it was still three-plus," he said. "Most of the family hasn't seen him play since American Legion. This has brought us all together. It's a real big deal and it's been wild, but I can't say I don't like it."
Last Thursday, Kannapolis was involved in a tense game. The Intimidators held a one-run lead in the ninth, but second-place West Virginia put the tying run on when a bad-hop single bounded off a leaping Wagner's glove. His reaction was a pro's reaction. Inwardly, he yelled, 'Hit me another one.' "He got his wish. He fielded the ball smoothly, made the throw for the final out, and the Intimidators clinched first place.
Wagner learned a lot this year. He learned SAL pitchers don't throw harder than the ones he saw in Bristol, but they are more consistent with their control.
He learned pro fielders make athletic plays that can put you in a slump in a heartbeat. He learned you never call the skipper "Coach" or "Sir." Daryl Boston, who's managing the Intimidators, answers to D-Bo.
Wagner's body and brain badly need a break from baseball, but he's excited the White Sox are sending him to the instructional league in Arizona this fall. He's also glad he'll be an Intimidator when the playoffs begin at FCS on Wednesday.
Wagner used the word "surreal" often to describe the improbable journey he's taken the past few months.
"Just walking around that clubhouse and looking out at the stands where I used to watch this team play is pretty crazy," Wagner said. "I'm seeing it all from the other side now."