Bagwell always a ‘tough out’
Consistency, durability key to 15-year run
Powered by players whose names started with the second letter of the alphabet, the Houston Astros reached postseason play six times during Jeff Bagwell’s 15-year tenure with the team.
Nicknamed the Killer B’s by outfielder Derek Bell, the group included Craig Biggio, outfielder Lance Berkman and Bagwell, among others. But Bagwell was King of the Hive.
“There were a lot of moving parts there,” he says with a laugh when asked by USA TODAY Sports about the nickname. “Craig did his own thing and got us going. Our job was to drive him in. We were all in it together.”
After spending their entire playing careers with the Astros, Bagwell and Biggio will become teammates again Sunday when the former first baseman is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s one of three players elected this year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Biggio went in two years ago.
“He knew me as well as anybody, and I knew him as well as anybody,” says Biggio, primarily a second baseman during a career that stretched 20 years, all with Houston. “I knew how they were going to pitch him. We worked extremely well together.”
He spent the first nine years of his career in the cavernous Astrodome, yet Bagwell won rookie of the year and MVP trophies, the only Astro to win both.
“That was a special year for me,” he says of his .368 average that sparked a unanimous MVP vote in 1994. “Our team was getting better and better, and everything clicked for me. I was in the lineup until I broke my hand and was able to stay with my mechanics for a long period of time.”
Known for durability, Bagwell played the full 162-game schedule four times despite four shoulder surgeries and three broken hands. “You can’t play with a broken hand, but I did the best I could with my shoulder until it finally said I was done,” he says.
Along the way, Bagwell became the only full-time first baseman in history to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season. In fact, he did it twice.
“That’s something I’m more proud of than probably anything else,” he says. “Playing first base, it was a lot easier for me to read pitchers — what looks they gave you and when they were going to throw over. At that time, pitchers weren’t paying as much attention to baserunners who were trying to steal, especially a guy like me.
“When Craig got on first base, everybody knew he was going to run. During that period, we put some pressure on the defense by getting into scoring position, and helping us win was important to me.”
1990 TRADE ALTERED COURSE
A native New Englander who attended the University of Hartford and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round in 1989, Bagwell had been ticketed for Boston before a 1990 trade deadline deal sent him to Houston for reliever Larry Andersen.
“I was shocked,” he says. “My entire family was from Boston, and my manager, Butch Hobson, was pushing for me to get called up to the big leagues. Houston was just so far from the East Coast, where everything is about the Red Sox and Yankees.”
For Bagwell, the shock of the swap wore off in a hurry. “Ten days before spring training ended, (Astros general manager) Bob Watson called me in and said, ‘Would you like to play third base in Tucson or first base in the big leagues?’ I said, ‘Where’s my first baseman’s glove?’ ”
The Astros weren’t bothered by Bagwell’s unorthodox batting stance, which resembled a human horseshoe from the waist down.
“I was always tinkering with my swing,” the .297 lifetime hitter says. “I’ve seen some old pictures of me in college, and I was spread out then. In 1994, it worked so well that I stayed with it.”
That swing — and the power it produced when uncorked — helped Bagwell land six top-10 finishes in the National League MVP voting. In fact, he’s the only player in baseball history to have a season with a .300 average, 30 home runs, 100 walks, 100 runs and 100 RBI.
“He was a really tough out,” Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox says. “He could beat you with one swing of the bat, but he was also one of the best baserunners in the game. And when he got on base, if you didn’t watch him, he’d steal second and third.”
Because they both trained in Kissimmee, Fla., Cox’s Atlanta Braves and the Astros played each other often in the spring. Every time Bagwell was in the lineup and Greg Maddux was pitching, Cox would say, “I’m pitching him backwards. I’m going to pitch him totally differently than I pitch him during the season on certain counts. ”
Even so, in one regular-season game, Maddux threw Bagwell a batting practice fastball to see if the slugger could hit it. He did — launching a long home run. It just so happened that the Braves ace was in the eighth inning of a nohitter at the time.
“I don’t know if you’d call him a throwback, but he played the game right,” Cox says. “He’d hit a walk-off home run and not show any emotion.”
Bagwell was elected to the Cooperstown shrine on his seventh try, but he might have been elected much sooner had he not played during the so-called Steroid era. Bagwell, who had a burly physique at 6-0, 195 pounds, played amid suspicions he was a steroid user, but those were never substantiated.
“All you want to do is be consistent for yourself and more importantly be consistent for your team,” Bagwell says.
Bagwell finished with a career average of just under .300 — one of his few regrets.
“I would have liked to finish with a higher number,” says Bagwell, a four-time All-Star, “but it’s such a grind to be a hitter and there aren’t too many guys who leave the game with a .300 average.”
He also played in an era in which he had to face the likes of Maddux, Kevin Brown and Kerry Wood.
“Maddux was the best pitcher I ever played against by far,” Bagwell says, “but Brown was the toughest guy for me. He had great stuff.
“Wood’s 20-strikeout game (in 1998) is something I think about a lot. He got me three times — he got everyone else three times, too — but one of those 3-2 pitches was a ball, and I don’t care what they say.”
MEMORIES AND AWARDS
It was a winning game that Bagwell remembers most fondly.
“The last out that was made against the Cardinals to get us to the World Series,” he says, referring to Game 6 of the 2005 NL Championship Series.
The Astros were swept four in a row by the Chicago White Sox in 2005, but at least he played in the World Series, a feat 25 other Hall of Famers can’t claim.
He also won three Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove and an RBI title (116 in strike-shortened 1994). His .750 slugging percentage in 1994 was the NL’s best since 1925.
He nearly added a second MVP in 1999, when he was runner-up in the voting.
A right-handed hitter who hit a club-record 449 home runs, he also had a major league-record six consecutive seasons with 30 home runs, 100 walks, 100 runs and 100 RBI.
“I played as long as I could and as hard as I could,” Bagwell says. “I can live with that.”
Jeff Bagwell, known for his distinctive batting stance, hit .297 for his 15-year career, all with the Astros, and had a franchiserecord 449 home runs. He was National League MVP in 1994.