Draft: Former South Rowan star Wagner ready for the next step
By Mike London
Prior to the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Daniel Wagner drove solo five hours from Nashville to St. Louis to audition for the Cardinals.
It’s not easy to get Wagner, who just finished his junior year at Belmont University in Nashville, to pat himself on the back, but he admits he had the best day of his life. He fielded smoothly, ran swiftly, used his sweet left-handed swing to whack baseballs into the right-field bleachers at Busch Stadium with a wood bat.
“I’m always tough on myself and tend to look at what I coulda or shoulda done differently,” the 20-year-old second baseman said. “But that day I felt good and was in the right frame of mind. I was right there with all the guys from the big schools. Everything went as well as it could have.”
The Cardinals told Wagner, a 2006 South Rowan graduate, they were impressed. They followed up with a phone call to let him know they were really, really impressed. Wagner drove back certain he’d be adding plenty of Cardinal red to his wardrobe. He would have bet his favorite guitar on it.
But the MLB draft always produces its share of curveballs. Wagner is now preparing for a pro career, not with the Cardinals, but with the Chicago White Sox.
Wagner had seen the Cardinals’ Tennessee scout so often they were practically buddies. The scout alerted Wagner to be prepared for an important phone call somewhere between rounds 10 and 15. When those rounds rolled around Wednesday afternoon, Wagner was nowhere near St. Louis, Nashville or his home in China Grove.
Instead he was in Cotuit, Mass., a seaside village of 2,500. He was multi-tasking, following the draft on his iphone while rehearsing for a skit the players would perform for Cotuit’s loyal fans to celebrate the return of the elite Cape Cod Baseball League for another summer. Round 15 sped by. Wagner hadn’t seen or heard anything.
“I was starting to think, ‘Uh-oh’ about the time the phone rang,” Wagner said.
He was thinking Cardinals. Instead he found himself talking to a representative of the White Sox. The Sox congratulated him on being their 16th-round pick. He was so stunned he didn’t consider that might mean playing in his own backyard for the Kannapolis Intimidators in 2010.
“The Cardinals scout called me right after the White Sox took me,” Wagner said. “He wished me luck and said he was sorry things didn’t work out.”
Wagner, the third of four brothers, was the No. 493rd overall pick. That may not sound like something to turn backflips over, but that’s No. 493 out of a few million.
“Wednesday was a crazy day, for sure, even though I’d talked to the White Sox several times before the draft,” Wagner said. “You get to thinking way back to when your dad is first talking to you about baseball and teaching you the game. It really hasn’t hit me yet. It’s surreal right now. It’s like a dream slowly turning into reality.”
Few who saw Wagner play as a youngster saw it coming. He was on a loaded AAU team that included Seattle’s No. 3 pick Kyle Seager; Garrett Sherrill, Milwaukee’s No. 12 pick in 2008; Catawba’s All-America catcher Ryan Query and Vanderbilt closer Russell Brewer.
“Little Wag” was small and slow. He spent time on the pine. One of his coaches, Chuck Hollowell, reminded him, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Wagner never forgot Hollowell’s words. He hung in there, kept grinding. By the time he was a South sophomore, Wagner was a .300 hitter for the varsity. He showed power as a junior with three homers. His speed surfaced as a senior when he had 12 steals.
In the fall of his senior year, Wagner signed with Belmont. Not Belmont Abbey ó Belmont. It’s the only school Wagner considered because of its music program and location in Nashville. Wagner recruited Belmont, not the other way around, but he was the smartest signing the Bruins ever made.
He reported for fall ball his freshman year still nursing a severely sprained ankle that ended his 2006 American Legion season. Then he hurt his hip running sprints. Then he hurt his wrist diving for a ball. But once he got healthy, he clawed his way into the lineup. He never left.
He hit .300 three straight seasons for the Bruins, but his junior year was his best for power and speed. He hit 10 homers. His 57 RBIs were the second-best total in school history. His 24 steals were second in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
“My years at Belmont I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Wagner said. “It would be a little greedy for me to say things would be different had I gone to an ACC school. I haven’t had a lot of exposure, but I am very fortunate. There are a lot of people who’d give anything to be in my shoes today.”
Coaches started regarding Wagner as a potential draft pick after he returned home from his freshman year in Tennessee. He looked different, and he was different. He was quicker (6.68 in the 60) and stronger.
Wagner turned American Legion ball upside down in the summer of 2007, setting South records with 74 hits, 56 runs, 56 RBIs and 10 homers (tied with Rudy Brown). He batted .474. Area III pitchers could have filed lawsuits. They were overmatched.
“Honestly, I knew by my senior year of high school I was a pretty good player, but I also knew I had a lot to learn and a lot to work on,” Wagner said. “Confidence is such a key thing. The confidence that I could play with the best came last summer when I was with the Asheboro Copperheads.”
Wagner hit a team-high .323 with a wood bat for Asheboro and played in the Coastal Plain League All-Star Game.
He had made plans to compete in the ultimate wood bat league this summer ó playing for Cotuit in the Cape League he would’ve been scouted by every MLB team ó but now that won’t happen.
On Thursday morning, Wagner reached a verbal agreement with the White Sox and flew back to Charlotte Thursday evening.
Wagner understands Chicago’s farm system is a long ladder, and he wants to step on that first rung without delay. Wagner and his parents (Rocky and Julie) will meet with the White Sox today, and Wagner expects to report to either Bristol, Va., or Great Falls, Mont., for rookie ball on June 16.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and the consensus is if you get this opportunity, how can you turn it down?” Wagner said. “Sure, I could go back to school. Maybe I’d have a great senior year and be a fifth-round pick. On the other hand, there are just so many negative things that can happen.”
Wagner thanks a lot of coaches and family members for molding him into a draft pick. His mother is at the top of the list.
“She’s been the backbone of everything all along,” he said. “She brought us up. The person that I turned out to be, in so many ways, I owe to her.”