Now he is offering variations on that theme -- age doesn't matter, nor does disability. Wagner is intent on proving as much. He will pitch again in the big leagues. He will compete in the big leagues, too. And, as sure as Wagner is that he is 5-foot-9, he is that certain he will prosper when he does return from reconstructive elbow surgery.
"Somewhere down the road, I am going to help somebody win a championship," he said.
Wagner made that promise -- it was not a prediction -- at Shea Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, when he announced what he, his family and his defiance had decided Monday -- when they learned the medial collateral ligament in his left elbow required replacement -- that his 2008 season was complete and that his 2009 season and his career were in certain jeopardy.
"For other people to write me off is probably the best thing to happen for me," he said, "to motivate me, to push me to do this. I've come a long ways, and I have something to achieve."
Few athletes embrace a challenge as Wagner does. It's one of the reasons he is uncomfortable when asked to pitch in a non-save circumstance. He needs the challenge. Adversity fuels him.
"There is no other way to face this than as a challenge," Wagner said. "I have to go out there. It's a challenge to get back. It will be a challenge to go out there and compete with maybe lesser stuff. This whole thing -- my age -- everything's a challenge. But what else do I have to do? My kids want me to play, my wife wants me to play, I want to play."
So Wagner will play, and only the timing of his return is at issue.
"If I progress well, I could get back soon," he said. "Or it could be 2010, and things will be different. So I am going to be back when I'm back. ... I am not going to put a timeline [on my return]. You can't do that. I am going to go out there and work hard. We have already set up how we are going to go about this rehab. "
Wagner, 37, faces a greater challenge now than he did as a youngster when he broke his right arm. Then, he taught himself to pitch left-handed, developed a power arm to behold and produced a brilliant career that has produced 385 saves, more than all but five pitchers in Major League history. Now he must recover from surgery to replace the ligament and repair the flexor pronator, a muscle in the forearm. It was the tear in the muscle that increased the stress on the ligament. The ligament tear didn't happen until Saturday, Wagner said, contradicting what the club said Monday.
Wagner said he believes he tore the muscle while rehabbing his arm in the second week of August. The club was aware of the tear, he said. Indeed, he and Dr. David Altchek, who will perform the surgery on Wednesday, discussed the injury and the possibility that a compromised flexor pronator could lead to ligament damage.
Wagner is certain the ligament tore on the final pitch he threw Saturday in what was supposed to be a rehab session that would lead to his return.
"I think that was the telltale of it all," he said. "Up until that point, I was progressing, doing well. That one pitch took care of everything.
"Actually, I was just hoping it was going to be a flexor tendon. It is what it is. There have been too many successful people [who have] come back from this Tommy John to get too emotional or upset about it."
|"There is no other way to face this than as a challenge. I have to go out there. It's a challenge to get back. It will be a challenge to go out there and compete with maybe lesser stuff. This whole thing -- my age -- everything's a challenge. But what else do I have to do? My kids want me to play, my wife wants me to play, I want to play."|
|-- Bill Wagner|
Wagner hardly was second-guessing his decision.
"If you look at anybody on this team, any pitcher, they could get surgery at the end of the year for something," Wagner said. "I mean, there was an outside chance, but as I was feeling up until that point, I was feeling better. I was able to add to my velocity, my slider was good, everything was really going well. As a power pitcher, you run those risks and that's the price tag of going out there."
In vowing to return, Wagner abandoned his long-held plan to retire after the 2009 season. He had been unwavering in his intent to play through the fourth year of the $43 million contract he signed in November 2005.
"The idea was to win a World Series and get 420-something saves, reach those goals through this contract and then be able to ride out into the sunset," he said. "Now that's just not going to happen. I am going to have to move on and to make my goals a little different.
"I don't think my wife wants me to retire this way. She's let me know that we've worked too hard to get this far."
And the oldest of Wagner's four children, 11-year-old son Will, made it clear he didn't want that either. Wagner broke down on Tuesday when he told of his second conversation with Will on Monday night.
"Will, he was upset," Wagner said. "He, uh ... [tearing up]. He's not ready. ... He's not ready for it to be over."
Wagner already has come to terms with the likelihood that he will be less of a power pitcher when he returns.
"There is nobody that's going to tell me that I am going to be the same [pitcher] that I was, but there's nobody that's going to tell me that I can't go out there and compete and come back and be successful," he said. "I, honestly, feel like, without a doubt, that I am going to be back. Time will tell, but it won't be because I haven't tried.
"I'm not going to be myself. I'm not going to come back throwing 100 [mph]. We are fooling ourselves with that. I'm going to come out and I'm going to have to compete. There are a lot of things with my life and my work ethic that are going to have to change, I am going to have to lay off of. If I come back ... I'm the way I used to be, then fine. But I'm not looking for that. I'm looking to be able to go out there and compete, and help the Mets or wherever I am at to win."
He mentioned other pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery.
"Power pitchers, I know [John Smoltz] guys like that, they've all had it. I felt good after watching Smoltz. The guys that have come back. ... Tim Hudson has just had it. You know, age is a factor, but nothing's impossible, and if I can come back, I'll be here."
But he won't be there next year until September, at the earliest, the doctors have told him. With that in mind, Wagner almost ordered the Mets to find his successor.
"If they don't, I think that'd be stupid. Wouldn't you?" he said. "I think if you go out there and get Frankie Rodriguez [of the Angels, a potential free agent] you go out there and get whoever to get a championship, that's what we are trying to achieve here."
John Maine, who had been mentioned as a possible replacement for Wagner before he developed a tender right shoulder, already has weighed the possibility of replacing Wagner next season.
"If they asked," Maine said on Tuesday, "I wouldn't say no."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.