By Mike London
LANDIS ó South Rowan Legion coach David Wright doesn’t flash the Bat-Signal into the night sky as Commissioner Gordon does in Gotham City, but it’s clear he has his own Batman.
With a bat in his hands, South second baseman Daniel Wagner has performed like a superhero all summer.
Running kids quietly take seats in South’s cement bleachers as soon as Wagner appears on deck. When Wagner’s about to swing, little old ladies set aside peanuts, newspapers and gossip and concentrate on the field.
There’s a reason.
“Daniel Wagner is as good a hitter as you’re ever gonna see in American Legion baseball,” Wright said.
The smooth-swinging lefty has been as good as anyone in Area III this summer.
He lashes outside pitches to the opposite field and fights off pitches on his hands for singles over the infield. When pitchers hit perfect spots, he sprints out of the box and beats out two-hoppers to shortstop and rollers to second base. And when hurlers make a mistake from the thighs to the belt the ball gets crushed.
When Wagner’s college season ended, he showed up for South’s third game at Statesville. He went for 4-for-6, knocked in five runs and hasn’t looked back.
His whole summer has been a hitting streak. He’s played in 28 games and has hit safely in all 28. And it’s not like he ever goes 1-for-5. He’s had three hits nine times and four hits on three occasions.
“It’s not like it’s easy,” Wagner said. “I’ve just been able to keep my focus, and I found a groove early.”
Wagner simply is having the best offensive season in South history. He’s batting .491 (55-for-112) with six homers, 47 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.
He’s broken South’s season and career marks for hits and RBIs and is closing in on career records for runs and doubles.
He shows no sign of cooling off. He went 8-for-12 with two homers and seven RBIs as South (20-9) swept Kannapolis in the first round of the playoffs.
Wagner, 6-foot, 175 pounds, isn’t a visitor from another planet, but he is a Division I player. He’s patiently explained to 50 people he attends Belmont University, a Division I school in Nashville, Tenn., not Belmont Abbey, which has a solid Division II program near Gastonia.
Players who play Legion after a year of Division I can have huge seasons.
South’s 18-win summer in 2004 was fueled by Andrew Morgan, fresh from his freshman year at UNC Wilmington. Rowan County got a boost from Bobby Parnell after his freshman year at Charleston Southern.
Kannapolis rode the right arms of Gardner-Webb’s Zach Ward and Appalachian State’s Garrett Sherrill to recent Area III titles.
People say Wagner is too good for Legion ball, and they’re obviously correct.
But he’s playing at South for all the right reasons. He’s not playing because he likes breaking records. He’s there because he had an opportunity to spend one last summer at home with his parents and one last chance to play with friends and teammates.
“The records do make me feel good about myself, but I’m focusing on what we can do as a team, not on what I can do,” Wagner said. “This is South’s best season ever, and it’s been great being part of it. It’s also been great to spend time at home with my family. Next year, I’m sure I’ll play in a wood bat league.”
Belmont coach Dave Jarvis wanted to place Wagner in a wood bat league this year, but he supported his decision to play in front of the home folks.
Wagner’s Legion career started in 2003. He was small, but he could hit. He rapped a few singles while South’s high school team was making a playoff run, but he was cut once all the regulars were available for Legion.
“It hurt because I was hitting over .300,” Wagner said. “Coach (Allen) Wilson called my dad (Rocky) like a week later and said he probably made a mistake.”
But the sting lingered. Wagner didn’t play in 2004 and wasn’t sure the next year. He requested a release to play at Kannapolis with guys he’d grown up playing ball with such as Sherrill and Ryan Query, but South wasn’t interested in playing against him.
Fences were mended. Wagner played his first full season for Wilson in 2005 and batted .329. He hit .416 in 2006 before his summer ended with a badly sprained ankle in South’s Game 5 playoff victory over Lexington.
By his senior year of high school, Wagner was a terrific player. Always the little guy growing up, he’d gotten bigger, stronger and faster.
“I thought he had a chance to be successful as a hitter anywhere he went because he hits the ball where it’s pitched,” South Rowan High coach Linn Williams said. “He’s as good a natural hitter as we’ve had in my time here, and I knew once he got a chance to swing the bat in college, he wasn’t coming out of the lineup.”
Wagner had early setbacks at Belmont. The sprained ankle from Legion ball was severe enough to put him behind in fall drills.
Then he suffered a hip flexor running sprints. When that healed, he damaged his left wrist diving for a ball in the infield. He didn’t debut in college until Belmont’s fourth game against Pitt. He went 2-for-2 as the DH.
As Wagner got healthier, his role grew. He went from batting exclusively against righties to swinging against everyone. His DH job expanded to regular duty at second base. He batted .335 ó second on the team ó and knocked in 24 runs.
“The toughest part of college was mental, adjusting to being away from home and adjusting to school,” Wagner said. “But once baseball season got there, everything was fine.”
He finished his freshman year with an 8-for-21 performance in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament and earned all-tourney honors.
Belmont’s loss to Jacksonville in the championship game was barely in the books when Wagner was hurrying home to join Wright’s crew. Since he arrived, a storybook summer has unfolded.
The way he’s progressed, Wagner may be drafted in 2009 when he’s eligible. Lefty-hitting second basemen don’t grow on trees, and Wagner ran a surprising 6.68 time in the 60-yard dash at the North-South Legion All-Star Game workouts.
“I knew I’d gotten faster, but that shocked me,” Wagner said. “My coach from Belmont called and asked me what I was doing running a time like that. He said maybe I’ll lead off next year.
“This whole year has made me think about maybe having a future in baseball. My dad always told me I wouldn’t be the runt forever, and so far everything he’s told me has come true.”
Wagner will lead South into a second-round playoff series that starts tonight at home against Concord. He’s only 2-for-8 with four RBIs against Concord, so he’s due.
Whatever happens, South fans have enjoyed the ride. It’s nice having a superhero.n
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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