Wagner is Braves' new closer and alpaca expert

New Braves closer Billy Wagner grew up in rural Virginia and now makes his home on a farm in Crozet, Va., with his wife and four children, ages 3 to 11. Baseball fans might already know he has 385 saves (sixth in major league history) and 1,092 strikeouts, but did you know he has 16 alpacas and 55 head of black Angus cattle on his 200-acre spread?

Did you know that he was a natural right-hander and only started throwing left-handed after a large friend fell on him and broke Wagner's right arm two different times in one year when they were kids?

After his introductory news conference last week at Turner Field, he answered more questions during a revealing, often-funny interview.

Q: What part of Virginia are you from?

A: Most of my relatives are from Marion, the Smyth County area. I grew up with my uncle and my aunt and their kids in a little town called Tannersville. There's 360 people in Tannersville, so we'd take about an hour trip on a bus over a mountain to go to school. Yeah, we came from a small town.

Q: You raise alpacas on your farm. Is that your thing?

A: Actually, it's more for my kids. They do all the work. They do all the shoveling and feeding and everything.

Q: And you actually get in there and do some work with your cows?

A: Yeah, I feed 'em. We take 'em to butcher. We bring the bull over. We do all that.

Q: Is it true that you threw right-handed as a kid?

A: I'm a natural righty, yes.

Q: When did you switch to throwing lefty?

A: Between [ages] 6 and 9, somewhere between there. I like the other stories, though, that I was, like, 19, and that I just said, "You know what? This ain't working. I'm gonna throw left-handed." I like that much better. They get better as I hear them. ... It's kind of worked out. I mean, the kid that fell on me when we were in my grandmother's front yard – Chip -- broke my arm. I was still trying to do things left-handed. And then when I got the cast off, I went out there with Chip again, broke my arm again and that was it.

Q: What's Chip's name?

A: Chip. [Smiles]. That's his name. Chip. I don't remember his last name. He was a neighbor across the street."

Q: Was he bigger than you?

A: Oh, yeah. Everybody was. My kids make fun because my oldest son's 11 and he's 88 pounds. He comes in telling me -- because I was 5-3, 85 pounds when I was a freshman in high school -- and [when they hear that] they're like, "Oh, my God."

Q: The story goes that you just started throwing the ball against a barn with your left hand?

A: Well, there's only a [limited] number of kids. Aaron was the closest kid to my age, then my cousin, who was a year or two older than me but was always over with his girlfriend or doing something. So I didn't have much to do, so I had one ball and either threw it as far as I could throw it, run and get it, throw it back as far as I could. Or we had a dairy barn that just happened to have a bottom part that looked like somebody had put a strike zone on it. That's how I learned to pitch. There wasn't a soul that ever told me how to pitch.

When I went to Ferrum [College], I had a wild windup and really just didn't know what I was doing. A guy named Darren Hodges, who got drafted by the Yankees, right-handed pitcher, came back to work out and he saw me. He just said, "Hey, slow this down, do this ..." I went from throwing 83-84 [mph] to throwing 94-95, and the rest is pretty much history.

But it's just kind of all happened like that, just kind of tweak this, do that. That's kind of how my whole career has been. I mean, I didn't hardly throw a slider and my curveball was terrible. A guy said, "Grip it like this and see how it works."

Q: What did you think last week when you heard that Braves representatives – general manager Frank Wren, manager Bobby Cox, pitching coach Roger McDowell -- wanted to come visit you?

A: My agent said, "Bobby and Roger and Frank want to come up." [Laughs] I said, "Yeah, I think we can do that." I mean, the hardest thing was just trying to keep it hush-hush. About the only other person that knew was my farm manager, because he kind of set up the room at the country club. We went up there and Bobby's sitting there and, you know, everybody knows who Bobby Cox is.

Q: What was it about the Braves' situation that most appealed to you?

A: I wanted to go to a contender, plus this is about an hour-and-a-half plane flight for me and my family. And it's Bobby's last year. I could go to Washington or I could have gone to Tampa Bay. There's places I could have went. But [the Braves] gave me a great deal and at this point in your career, if you've got any intention of getting to the Hall of Fame you've got to try to add to your numbers and try to be as consistent as you've been. You want to win. Your numbers come by winning.

And I told Bobby if it gets to the point where I can't close or they want to do something different, hey, I'm going to help and do whatever he wants me to do. Pitching in setup last year was ... I told them it was the most fun I've had in 14 years. No pressure, just go out there and if you get in any trouble, just look back there [smiles] and here comes the closer. I never felt that feeling before.

Q: Your contract is for one year plus an option, so you intend to pitch two more years?

A: If I can, good Lord willing. I don't want to sit there and try to chase this championship. I could be here forever [doing that] and I'm not going to be a very good lefty specialist. I don't usually get lefties out as well as I get righties out, so ... You know, this is one of those opportunities that's one in a million. Take it and run. You've got a great starting staff, you've got great people around you and hopefully you can just try to fit in and do your job.

Q: Who do you know on the Braves?

A: FOC – who wrote that? [Wagner referred to a line in the AJC's Braves blog, about him being an FOC – Friend of Chipper Jones]. I did not know what an FOC was but now I know that's "Friend of Chipper." Because my 11-year-old kid [Will] goes, "Hey, look, read this. They say you're an FOC." I'm sitting there reading that and I go, "No, no, no, Will, that's Friend of Chipper." He goes, "Oh. You know Chipper?" Yeah, I've only played against him forever.

I know Chipper and [Tim] Hudson. I've talked to these guys forever. Fraternizing, you're not supposed to but ... I want to talk to these guys because when I quit baseball, I'll never see these guys again. I'm going to be on the farm. I won't have time. I've had an opportunity to meet a lot of these [Braves], so it's not like I'm coming to a new situation where I don't know anybody, like Boston, where I was going to a new league and totally out of my element.

Q: This clubhouse seems like it's right up your alley, lot of guys with backgrounds similar to your own?

A: Well, yeah. They're more Southern, we have similar likes. Plus, they're baseball players. You know, the type of guy that, if you're not holding up your end of the bargain, they're going to come up to you and say, "Hey, let's pick it up a little bit." That's kind of what I like.

Q: Do you know much about Brian McCann?

A: Yeah, I threw to him at the All-Star Game in San Francisco. The first pitch I threw to him, I gave up a home run. I said, "That's great, Brian. One time pitching to you and I gave up a home run." But I know Brian. I love him. He's a great catcher. I've heard nothing but great things about him from Hudson and [Tom] Glavine, guys like that.

You know, I'm pretty simple. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. It's, hey, sit in an area and hopefully I'll get somewhere near it.

Q: Have you changed much with your repertoire in recent years?

A: I probably use my slider a little bit more. I've got a little bit better command with it. I probably have better location with my fastball. The fastball's probably lost some velocity, but coming back from the Tommy John, it probably had more life than in the last five years. And I threw a lot more change-ups this year, too. Because when I was coming back, I didn't know what I was going to have so I started working on the change-up. And it worked.

It's a tough situation throwing a change-up in the ninth inning, unless you've got Trevor's [Hoffman] changeup. So it's a situational type pitch where I'm gonna throw it when the time's right. Maybe I can get ahead in the count or something like that and get a quick out. But I can't see that being used [regularly] unless it really progresses into something, into an "A" pitch.