August 21, 2011

On Baseball: Down season, but Wagner remains up

By Kevin Thomas
Staff Writer

BOSTON - Mark Wagner sat in the Boston Red Sox dugout Saturday morning, the smile ever on his face.

click image to enlarge

Mark Wagner was hoping that by now he would be wearing a Red Sox uniform at Fenway Park, not a Sea Dogs uniform. But he's determined not to let the roadblocks get him down.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Mark Wagner, who has had an injury-plagued season, went 0 for 5 for the Sea Dogs on Saturday at Fenway Park. He remains hopeful that another team will be interested in him.

If you asked the ever-confident Wagner three years ago about playing in Fenway Park, he would have said it was all part of the plan.

But plans change.

Back in the spring of 2008, Wagner was preparing for his first season with the Portland Sea Dogs. He was considered the top catching prospect for the Red Sox by Baseball America. The publication deemed Wagner the most likely to succeed Jason Varitek in Boston.

Wagner, 27, was at Fenway on Saturday, but back in a Sea Dogs uniform. He served as Portland's designated hitter for the annual Futures at Fenway doubleheader.

"You never can tell," Wagner said. "That's why you have to show up and do your thing."

That Wagner can still talk about doing his thing -- and be upbeat in doing it -- speaks much of the man who began spring training on the Red Sox's 40-man roster and ended it in limbo.

Somewhere along Wagner's development, he no longer figured in Boston's future.

Maybe it began in 2009. After batting .301 in Portland, Wagner was promoted to Pawtucket and struggled, with a .214 average.

The 2010 season definitely lessened Wagner's stock. A fractured hamate bone and further hand issues limited Wagner to 36 games in Pawtucket. He batted .205.

Also in 2010, the Red Sox traded for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a catcher Boston had pursued before and finally obtained.

Entering the 2011 spring camp, Wagner was No. 3 on the depth chart -- with Dusty Brown moved on to the Pirates -- behind Saltalamacchia and Varitek.

Wagner had no major league experience but never has been short of confidence.

"I knew they wanted (Saltalamacchia) for a long time," Wagner said. "And me being cocky and stubborn, I'm thinking, 'all right I'm coming off a couple of hand surgeries but let's see what this guy's got.' "

Saltalamacchia had a good spring, as did Varitek. The only question was their durability. If they were injured, were the Red Sox comfortable with the inexperienced Wagner being called up?

The answer turned out to be no. On March 31, the Red Sox traded for Rockies catcher Michael McHenry, a player with a solid reputation although only six games of major league experience.

To make room for McHenry on the 40-man roster, Wagner was designated for assignment, meaning he was removed from the 40-man roster and could be claimed by another team.

"I was taken by surprise, to say the least," said Wagner.

No team claimed Wagner. He re-signed with the Red Sox on a minor league contract. But more problems followed. Wagner's pride was hurt but he also was experiencing some shoulder pain. He ignored it.

"Being more stubborn than smart, I said 'I'm going to show them,' and I threw even more and harder," Wagner said.

Wagner aggravated the shoulder and had to remain in extended spring training with tendinitis.

The season has been almost a complete waste.

Wagner eventually was assigned to Class A Salem -- a level he had not played in since 2007. He hurt his shoulder again and went back on the disabled list.

Wagner worked his way back to Salem's roster and was promoted to Portland on July 22. He caught five games but his shoulder has acted up, relegating him to designated hitter. He is batting .233 after going 0 for on 5 Saturday.

From the moment Wagner arrived in Portland, he has walked around with his head up, the smile always there, despite this season that is going nowhere.

"Rough. Very frustrating and trying year," Wagner said. "I'm trying to stay as positive as possible and as focused as possible.

"I don't want my teammates to see (my frustration) or be affected by it. I don't ever want to be a 'Debbie Downer' and be all bitter.

"I remember coming up through the levels, I had to deal with some guys like that. It made it really difficult to play (with them). I've been in the organization too long to bring anybody down with a bad attitude."

So Wagner marches on. His future may not end up being in Fenway, but he will play until told to stop.

He will be a free agent at the end of the season.

"I feel that I still bring a lot to the table," Wagner said. "Hopefully at least one other team also thinks so." 

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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