When Neil Wagner was growing up in Eden Prairie, he shared a dream with countless American kids: playing major-league baseball. Unlike most of his young teammates, he’s now getting the chance to live that dream. Wagner, a graduate of Eden Prairie High School and veteran of the minor-league baseball circuit, was recently called up to pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays. He joins a pitching roster that includes veteran pitcher R.A. Dickey. Like most professional players, Wagner started playing early. “I was very young—[I’ve played] probably as far back as I can remember,” he says. “I probably started playing organized baseball around age 5 or 6.” After starting on the local parks and recreation team, Wagner joined Little League. Even at a young age, he couldn’t help thinking about a professional career. “As a kid, it’s just part of what you do,” he says. “You enjoy watching it on TV and imagining yourself there, in game seven of the World Series.” As Wagner got older, he started to recognize his strengths. “I hadn’t really pitched until I was maybe 13 or 14,” he recalls. “Everyone pitches in Little League, but around [that age] I started to realize that I was pretty good at it.” By the time he was 16, Wagner had started to focus on his pitching. Luckily, he says, Eden Prairie has a good baseball system where players have access to “great coaches and great training.” “A lot of baseball is repetition, training and improvement. It’s more of a nuanced sport, so the more your do it, the better you can get at it—usually,” he says. “As you get older, you start to appreciate what’s unique about it among American sports—the amazing history of the game that goes back 150 years,” he says. “I try to remember that that’s why I love the game, and I try to get back to that at least every once in a while.” Wagner isn’t the only Eden Prairie pitcher to find success in recent years—his high school teammate, Cole De Vries, pitches for the Minnesota Twins and was the subject of a feature in the March issue of Southwest Metro Magazine. Though he and De Vries played together for years, Wagner says he had no inclinations that they were destined for major-league play. “Especially in Minnesota, it’s hard to say, ‘These couple of guys are going to pitch in the big leagues,’” he says. “It’s not like it’s California.” “I think the big point at which I realized I might be able to play professional baseball was my sophomore year in college,” Wagner says. “I came out of high school throwing pretty consistent 80-to-90-m.p.h. [throws.] After a year in the weight room in college, and a coach who tweaked my mechanics, I went from 89- or 90-m.p.h. to 93- or 94-m.p.h.,” which are major-league speeds, he says. Wagner was drafted and signed by the Cleveland Indians in 2005. He played his first minor-league season in 2006, and wound up playing on various teams for seven years before being called up by the Blue Jays. He split the 2012 season between the AAA teams for the San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics. During the season, he says, he struggled to find his groove and realized he needed to switch things up. “I had to do something different,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was, but I decided to scrap my curveball and work on my slider. I decided that whatever it took from a mechanical or mental standpoint, I was going to throw more strikes.” He mastered his new throw, and the results were immediate. After a rapid improvement, he suspected a call from the majors might be coming. “But I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much,” he says. When the call came, Wagner says, “it was very gratifying, and it validated that hard work.” Unlike some professional ball players, Wagner says he doesn’t have any signature game-day rituals. “I don’t really have any superstitions,” he says, because the baseball season consists of 152 games. “It’s not like football, where you have six days to get ready for one [game.]” He he has some advice for the next generation of ball players: “If you get into professional baseball, it’s because you’re good enough to be here,” he says. “Everyone has opinions on how best to get to this level. Listen to everyone, but make the decisions you feel are best for you.” Though Wagner is one of the newest additions to the Blue Jays’ roster, he has his sights set on staying. “The roster has been turned over quite a bit because of injuries and various issues,” he says. “If I could just keep pitching the way I’ve been pitching, I’ll be just fine.” “I’d like to continue getting more and more consistent in the way I pitch. If I do that, the rest should take care of itself.”
Eden Prairie's Neil Wagner Named Toronto Blue Jays Pitcher
After almost a decade of minor-league play, the local boy joins the majors.