Bluefield State First Pitch banquet this Saturday

Jan. 18—BLUEFIELD — In the midst of bone-chilling cold, Bluefield State baseball coach Drew Bailey is bringing in the heater.

Major League All Star closer Billy Wagner, famed for his 100-mile per hour fastball, is slated to open the First Pitch banquet and silent auction Saturday January 20 starting at 6 p.m. at the Clover Club in downtown Bluefield.

Wagner, a Tazewell High graduate and Ferrum College alum, is tabbed by many as a likely member of the 2024 Baseball Hall of Fame.

"We're excited about Billy being here, and I think our players will learn from him, appreciate what he has accomplished on and off the field and be grateful that a person of his stature would be willing to come and spend a few hours with us," says Bailey.

Bluefield State is also a success story, coming off a 25-win season a year ago and only three years removed from winning the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) World Series in 2021. Bailey, a Concord University Hall of Famer himself who was drafted by the Oakland Athletics, brings not only his own credentials but a burning desire to win.

"We (Bluefield State) are anxious to hit the field and build on what we have started here," he says. "We hope to open on February 3 in a doubleheader on the road against Savannah (Ga.) State University, and then our first local game is tentatively set for February 10 at Concord and then on February 11 at home. Early on, I expect will have some games in the Carolinas just because of the warmer weather but we look forward to coming home and playing in front of our fans here at Bowen Field."

The local angle has been impressive. Bailey notes, "Of the 25 victories in 2023, 11 of those games were won by local pitchers including Princeton's Zach Powell (7 wins) and Kerry Collins of Bluefield High (4 wins) so more than 40 percent of our success came behind two guys from Mercer County. We look for players all over but I think it is important to get the talent that we have right here at home."

Wagner, born in nearby Marion, raised in Tannersville and now coaching at Miller School in Charlottesville, had that same angle of loyalty. He stayed in high school with the Bulldogs and as his fame grew in college turned down offers to pitch at bigger schools, saying he was staying right there at Ferrum. It worked, as he set an NCAA record with 327 strikeouts, prompting the Houston Astros to name him their first round pick in 1993. He pitched 16 seasons, had 422 saves and the best strikeout ratio and lowest hit ratio per nine innings of any MLB pitcher.

As for Bluefield batters, Bailey says his most potent weapon this season is likely to be Tahir Meulens, an NCAA Division II All Region Selection in '23, who will divide time between shortstop and the outfield. Meulens, whose uncle Hensley is hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, hit a sizzling .397 for BSU a year ago, setting a school record with 22 doubles and slamming 7 home runs.

Bailey and his staff have been working hard with the Bluefield State players to prepare for the '24 campaign and believe it will be a big boost to have Wagner in town before the actual first pitch of the season is thrown.

"Billy is a good role model for our kids to listen to. He has achieved great things but stayed humble. His work ethic, study of the game and willingness to adapt are all excellent. He can get their attention in part because he has 'been there, done that' at the highest level of baseball. I think we have been very fortunate to have someone of Billy Wagner's calibre agree to come and spend time with us. I am very happy that many of Billy's friends and former teammates will be on hand to share this special time with us. And, once we start playing, we look forward to seeing our families and friends out at Bowen Field this season. That is a big boost for our ball club."

Saturday's event at the Clover Club is located beside the Granada Theatre on Commerce Street.