Billy Wagner recalls stern message he gave Jonathan Papelbon: 'His face was priceless'


It may feel like Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon played in different eras, but the two intense closers crossed paths in Boston in 2009. The Red Sox picked up Wagner to bolster their bullpen with Papelbon established as the closer.

Wagner finished his impressive career with 422 saves across his 16 seasons. He spent time with five different teams, most notably with the Astros from 1995 to 2003. Wagner then pitched multiple seasons for the Phillies and Mets before short stints in Boston and Atlanta.

The veteran southpaw was in the twilight of his career while Papelbon was in his prime, so the Red Sox acquired Wagner to be the setup man for the young closer.

Wagner joined WEEI’s Rob Bradford on the Audacy Original Podcast “Baseball Isn’t Boring” and shared a funny story about the first time he met Papelbon in Boston.

“I didn’t know how me and Paps would get along when we got to Boston because the first thing – he never met me, I didn’t know him – the very first thing he says about me in the papers, ‘We don’t need another old guy who comes in here and is broke down,’” Wagner recalled (43:50 in player above). “So I’d known Varitek and I’d known Josh Beckett for a long time. He walks in, he’s nice, he walks in and says ‘Hey Wags,’ and I go ‘Let me tell you something. You do your job. I’ll do my job. And we’ll worry about being old.’”

Papelbon was in the prime of his carer at 28 years old. He recorded a career-high 41 saves in 2008 and followed that up with 38 more in 2009.

Wagner was 38 when he joined the Red Sox. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008 and vowed to return to the majors. He pitched in two games for the Mets before being waived and traded to Boston in 2009.

Wagner delivered a strong message to Papelbon in a full-circle moment for the closer-turned-setup man.

“The reason I was able to do that was because Danny Darwin was picked up by us back in ‘97, ‘98, somewhere in that time. They picked him up to be a setup man for me. This guy’s twice my age. He is hard as can be. He is tough. I’m already intimidated,” Wagner said. “He looks at me and he goes ‘Let me tell you something you little s–t. You do your job and I’ll do mine. That’s all you need to worry about.’ I remember just going ‘Yes sir. Yes sir.’ I didn’t know if there were going to be punches thrown right there or what but I was like ‘Yes sir.’”

So the message was one that Wagner heard himself as a young buck in the late ‘90s. It was also all in good fun.

“I told Beckett and them that I was going to do that anyway. I said ‘I’m going to get this young pup. I’m going to get him,’” he said. “Because unlike the guy he was talking about prior, I was all natural. So when I came back I knew that I was going to be just as good. I had no fear of that. So when I came back and I’m going through that – to see his face, his face was priceless. It was just priceless.”

Wagner made good on his promise with the Red Sox. He ended up pitching in 15 games, striking out 22 batters in 13 ⅔ innings. The veteran fireballer allowed just three earned runs for a 1.98 ERA in Boston and picked up six holds in the process.

Papelbon and Wagner were cut from the same cloth in a way as intense closers. It’s something that the southpaw respects.

“I love Paps. I loved his intensity. I love guys that take the ball win, lose, or draw. He was so much fun when he was in the bullpen. You get on the bus with him and David Ortiz, it is comedy central,” he said. “I enjoyed every bit of it. He was a great teammate.”

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