Minor league baseball: Wagner adjusts in Bristol

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 24, 2009

By Mike London
South Rowan graduate Daniel Wagner turned 21 two weeks ago doing exactly what he always wanted to be doing when he turned 21 ó playing pro baseball.
Wagner, a left-handed hitting second baseman, was a 16th-round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox last month. He agreed to a contract as soon as he could find a pen and was assigned to the Bristol (Va.) Sox of the Appalachian League.The Appy League has been around since 1937, and the bus trips through the mountains have changed little since Franklin Roosevelt was in office. The stops are still towns such as Pulaski, Danville, Johnson City and Kingsport. Cal Ripken Jr. got his start with Bluefield’s Baby O’s. Kirby Puckett slapped his first pro hit wearing an Elizabethton Twins uniform.Even for someone who loves baseball as fiercely as Wagner loves it, it’s a job now. Stocked with fresh draft picks, Bristol opened its season June 23. The Sox have had one scheduled night off since. Wagner also got one unscheduled night off following an 0-for-3.
“It’s going good but definitely an adjustment seeing the arms I’m seeing every night,” Wagner said.
“The big change is just learning to let yesterday go. In college and high school if you have a rough game you dwell on it and wonder how you can fix it. Now you’re playing again. It’s back to the grind. You’ve got to focus on the next one.”
Wagner settled into the No. 3 hole, the spot usually reserved for a team’s best hitter, the first week of July. He’s done enough to stay there.
He’s hit safely in 22 of 30 outings. There have been a few lows ó including a four-strikeout game against Burlington ó but also highs.
He leads the team with 19 RBIs, and his average is at .282 following a 2-for-4 effort in a 6-5 loss against Pulaski on Friday.
Wagner has been a .300 hitter at every level, but .282 with a wood bat means he’s holding his own.
“In college, you got away with a lot more,” said Wagner, who played three years at Belmont in Nashville, Tenn. “You could get jammed with a metal bat and still get a bloop hit. Wood takes the lucky hits out of it. The other factor is everyone’s talented now and infielders and outfielders have more range. Guys make plays on balls you hit hard. And this is just rookie ball. I have all the respect for any guy who can hit .300 at any level of pro ball.”
Wagner’s defense (four errors) has usually trailed a half-step behind his offense, but it’s been more than adequate. As a bonus, he’s been a plus on the bases with seven steals in eight attempts.
“I feel fast out of the box, and I’ve been getting some good reads and jumps,” Wagner said. “I’m very comfortable on the bases.”
Wagner shares rent on a large house in Bristol with five teammates. There’s not much to do except play ball, eat pizza, watch movies, swap culture and share laughs with his lively Dominican teammates.
Wagner plays home games at DeVault Stadium, a 1,500-seat venue constructed 40 years ago. He plays about a mile away from a spot where serious baseball history was made.
In 1952, a wild Bristol pitcher named Ron Necciai struck out 27 batters in a nine-inning game at old Shaw Stadium. No one’s done that before or since.
Necciai, who played for the Salisbury Pirates at Newman Park the year before he burned up Bristol, was briefly billed as the next Dizzy Dean before a rotator-cuff injury ended his career.
Wagner has avoided injuries and enjoyed one very healthy series against Johnson City in which he rapped nine hits in three days. He went 4-for-5 in one game and pulled his first pro homer. He shortened his stride on the at-bat that produced the homer after coach Jerry Hairston advised him he’d been a hair late on the league’s best fastballs.
While fastballs are arriving more quickly than in the past, Wagner is still waiting for his modest bonus check to arrive from the commissioner’s office.
“They tell me it usually takes 45 days,” Wagner said. “Maybe I’ll buy some new clothes, but I’ll keep driving the old Explorer.”
Wagner looks like a good bet to start the 2010 season with the Kannapolis Intimidators in the Class-A South Atlantic League if he can maintain his current pace.
That would be storybook stuff. As a youngster, he watched exploding fireworks at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium from his father’s house.
“That is a possibility, but I’ve still got to be consistent,” Wagner said. “I’ve got to go out and play the game every night. At this level, I can’t take any at-bats off.”