Wagner is now 42. He retired after the 2010 season with the Braves, walking away from $6.5 million and a chance to become the all-time leader in saves for a left-hander; he finished with 422, two behind John Franco and fifth on the all-time list. These days, he works on his ranch in rural Virginia, focuses on his family and coaches high school baseball.
He's also written a book, "A Way Out: Faith, Hope & the Love of the Game" with Atlanta journalist Patty Rasmussen. The candid memoir was released this month and Wagner, typically, holds nothing back. He puts himself out there, talking about his dysfunctional family life, his learning disability and mistakes he's made along the way.
"Most of those experience -- sticking my foot in my mouth, having ups and downs -- really allow me as a coach and a dad and a Christian to realize that I have made mistakes. I have the humility to say I have made mistakes and I want to teach these kids not to make the same mistakes I made. Putting myself out there, I may look stupid. But those situations have allowed me to be a better teacher and motivator for these kids in this area," he said by phone.
After being drafted in the first round by the Astros and establishing himself as a dominant closer in Houston, Wagner was sent to the Phillies for Ezequiel Astacio, Taylor Buchholz and Brandon Duckworth before the 2004 season. What followed weren't the happiest years of his career, and Wagner admits that much of that was his fault.
"I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded," he wrote. "When I got traded, it's safe to say I was the most bitter person in the world. I felt totally disrespected by Houston, and I let that eat at me like acid. I took everything the wrong way. ... I began to turn into someone I didn't want to be."
Wagner knew the Phillies were a team on the rise with younger players who needed to learn how to win. But when asked at the end of June, 2005 whether he thought they were a playoff team, he said he didn't think they were at that moment. He said there were "a lot of reasons to have faith" but added that he didn't see enough hunger and focus on winning. When the story hit the papers, all hell broke loose.
A players' only meeting was called. According to Wagner, the issue wasn't whether what he said was right. It was whether it was his place to say it at all. Upset that his teammates didn't have his back, he withdrew.
"I spent the last third of the season in silence. That was my decision because I was bullheaded enough that I didn't want anything to do with them," Wagner wrote. Now he understands that he could have handled the situation better. Still, it's now clear that the Phillies had no chance to re-sign him when he became a free agent.
The funny thing is, Wagner wrote the book in part to try to impart the same lessons.
"This is teaching these young kids that accountability isn't just inherited," Wagner explained. "You have to learn how to be accountable for your actions and stand in front of people. Whether it's on the baseball field, in the media or whether it's your job, whatever it is, be accountable for your mistakes as well as when you're out there doing well.
"A lot of times my worst quality was being too blunt. Not knowing how to sugarcoat it. That hurts at times, but the whole purpose behind that was not an intention to hurt, but to say, 'This is my job. This is what we're expected to do. We need to take this serious. This isn't about what we do after the game. This is about what we do during the game. How do we prepare?' These were things I wanted to talk to the young kids about and not paint them a false picture of how everything was wonderful and everything was great and I had a silver spoon in my mouth when I was growing up. If you're talented, you can make it in any field you want."
By admitting his own errors, Wagner hopes to help others avoid the same missteps, to see what's possible.
"I know in my area there are a lot of kids who have come through poverty and tough situations in life. So to see that somebody from their neck of the woods has succeeded, they could see that it is possible. For me personally, it's a faith-, inspirational-, motivational-type book just to show that there were a lot of things that make me who I am today. And that I'm still learning and growing.
"I hope people understand this is not a typical me-me-I-I book. I'm not looking to get recognition. I'm wanting to help somebody else. Those are the things I was hoping we would get out of this book. Not, 'Here's Wagner writing a book about himself.'"