Skip to content
Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner nurtures women’s baseball prodigy

USA Baseball women's national team starlet Naomi Ryan finds mentor in Billy Wagner

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Before each season, Billy Wagner asks his players to write down what motivates them on a whiteboard inside the gym at The Miller School.

Some of Wagner’s players are motivated by a desire to play in the major leagues. One hopes to be the first woman to play in Major League Baseball. Others aspire to play college baseball. A few others are motivated by the opportunity to win a Virginia state title. 

The former All-Star closer has built a perennial Virginia state baseball power since he retired from MLB somewhat prematurely to spend time with his wife Sarah and their four children.

Growing up in poverty in rural Virginia, Wagner had a more humble motivation at the same age.

Driven by hunger

“Hunger,” he says. “I don’t think kids realize what it’s like to be hungry and to go to school with crackers, get a red tag and get made fun of. I don’t think they would even know how to handle that. So that’s what drove me.

“When you go through these times that harden you, those are the things that you lean on. That’s why I put it up there. ‘What drives you? What makes you hungry?’ Hopefully there will never be a day when someone puts food down, because that was tough.”

Wagner, 52, has spent the last 12 years coaching at The Miller School, winning three Virginia state titles along the way. He has a loaded roster with Division I talent and legitimate MLB draft prospects.

He believes in his kids, and his kids believe in him. Wagner’s roster includes Naomi Ryan, a soft spoken lefthanded pitcher/first baseman who is the youngest member of USA Baseball’s women’s national baseball team. 

MORE FROM OUR ESQUINA

Jeff Bagwell hopes Billy Wagner earns Hall nod

Adrián Beltré appears like a lock for Hall of Fame

Andruw Jones trends toward Hall of Fame

Ryan, a junior, doesn’t just play for The Miller School. She’s one of the team captains. Ryan, 16, drives in from Richmond, more than an hour away. She had originally planned to attend a private school near her home.

Ryan had been led to believe that she would get a chance to play on the baseball team. The coach at a middle school that feeds into that program balked at letting her play on the baseball team with the boys.

“I was very disappointed because I feel like they thought I wouldn’t try out or try to play,” Ryan says. “Once I did, they were like, ‘We aren’t really accepting this. We were just saying yes to just be nice.’ … 

“It kind of brought my hopes down a little bit. I was like, ‘Am I even good enough to be able to keep playing this? Should I keep going on?’ But my family was there for me and helped me through that.”

A hat and an opportunity

Naomi had been playing baseball since she was 3 years old. She wanted to follow her older brother, Gregory Jr., to the school where he had starred. With that door essentially closed, she reached out to the ultimate underdog. 

Wagner met with Naomi Ryan and her parents Gregory Sr. and Cornelia before her eighth grade year. He asked Naomi only one question: “Can you play?”

She said yes. Wagner then promised her two things.

‘I’ll give you a hat and an opportunity,” Wagner told Naomi Ryan.

She has taken full advantage.

“My brother had played against them many times,” she says. “We knew Coach Wagner was a great person and an MLB person, and we wanted to see if he would allow me to play.”

Billy Wagner
Gregory Ryan Sr., Billy Wagner and Naomi Ryan pose for a picture after visiting at the Miller School in 2019. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Ryan.

That opportunity has helped Naomi Ryan blossom into one of the best women’s baseball players in America. Although she was the youngest player on the roster, Ryan started four of the five games the women’s national team played last August in the 2023 World Baseball Softball Confederation Women’s Baseball World Cup in Canada.

Ryan even drove in both runs in the 2-0 victory over Mexico to cap the USA Baseball’s 5-0 run at the Women’s Baseball World Cup. She started in the outfield for Team USA even though she rarely plays that position at the Miller School.

Coach Billy Wagner

Despite being the youngest member of the team, Ryan fit in well because Wagner had prepared her for the challenge.

“It really helps because he doesn’t give her a break,” Ryan’s mother Corneila says. “There’s no, ‘Oh, the boys are going to run a mile and you’re going to run half a mile.’ Whatever the team is doing, she’s doing. 

“There’s no, ‘Oh, but Naomi.’ She ends up getting the same level of training, the same level of development that some very good boys get. There’s no shortcuts.”

Naomi Ryan
Naomi Ryan takes a swing with the USA Baseball’s women’s national baseball team. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Ryan.

In many ways, Ryan’s journey is similar to Wagner’s. He identifies with the underdog because he was one growing up. The seven-time All-Star was among the shorter kids in high school. He fought for almost everything, literally and figuratively. 

His divorced parents couldn’t afford to buy him new shoes, so he usually got shoes from the flea market. They were often purple or green, drawing ridicule from classmates.  

While classmates packed lunches or bought their lunches at school, Wagner usually carried crackers to stave off hunger until he could get his free lunch with his red ticket. 

Crackers often represented the only meal Wagner had for breakfast and dinner when he lived in a trailer with his mother and sister when he was nine through 12 years old. He moved in with his grandparents when he was 13 years old. 

By the time he moved in with his father for high school, Wagner had already attended 10 different schools. He was so behind academically, Wagner was socially promoted to high school. Wagner proudly states that he was the best C student in high school, although he still remembers the teacher who told him he wouldn’t amount to anything. 

Billy Wagner has strong Hall of Fame case

Wagner’s powerful left arm ultimately carried him to the major leagues from small Division III Ferrum College, where he initially attended to play football. He was a seven-time All-Star and a Rolaids Reliever of the Year winner. He collected 422 saves over 16 seasons with the Astros, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves.

Wagner is on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the ninth year. Some experts believe this might be the ballot in which he receives the required 75 percent of the vote to earn a place among baseball’s immortals at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. His stats compare favorably with relievers who have already been inducted into the Hall.

Wagner’s career opponents batting average (.187) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.92) are better than all the relievers in the Hall. Mariano Rivera is the only Hall of Fame reliever with better WHIP, ERA+, ERA, FIP and opponents’ OPS than Wagner.

He’s fourth on baseball’s all-time saves list. Wagner was 7-2 with a 1.42 ERA and 37 saves with the Braves in 2010, his last season in the majors.

At only 38, he could have extended his career after earning his seventh All-Star nod in 2010. He preferred to help his wife Sarah raise their four children, though.

His oldest son Will, who is now 24 and in the Astros’ organization at Class AAA Sugar Land, was only 11 at the time. Jeremy Wagner was 10. Olivia was 7, and Kason was 3. Billy Wagner left a few million on the table to devote his time to Sarah and their kids.

Billy Wagner has coached all of his boys at the Miller School. Kason is a sophomore on the team this year. Olivia is a sophomore on Radford University’s women’s basketball team.

Busy in retirement

Billy Wagner never settled into the life of leisure that he and Sarah envisioned after his final season in the majors. He accidentally talked his way into a coaching job where he spends more than 40 hours a week.

Billy Wagner is making a difference in his players’ lives. The man who tears up remembering what it felt to go to school hungry is now nurturing dreams.

Billy Wagner
The Miller School baseball team gather to honor Coach Billy Wagner at a Richmond Flying Squirrels Fundraiser in November 2023. Photo courtesy of Cornelia Ryan.

That’s why he never hesitated to give Naomi Ryan an opportunity on his baseball powerhouse. That’s why he reminds Ryan what she told him when he asked her what she wanted out of her opportunity at the Miller School.

“She goes, ‘I want to be the first girl to play Major League Baseball,’” Wagner recalls. “And I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to be the coach that says no. But it’s not going to be easy. It’s a man’s game. It’s been that way for a long time. I will give you every opportunity. If you’re good enough, you’ll play.’”

Naomi Ryan’s been good enough, just as her coach has been.

Christopher Morales Williams sets 400 world record

Alex Del Barrio blazes broadcast trail

Arizona names Desireé Reed-Francois athletic director

Karl-Anthony Towns drops 50 at NBA All-Star Game

Stay in the Loop

Get the Our Esquina Email Newsletter

By submitting your email, you are agreeing to receive additional communications and exclusive content from Our Esquina. You can unsubscribe at any time.