Bag­well al­ways a ‘tough out’

Con­sis­tency, dura­bil­ity key to 15-year run

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SPORTS - Dan Schloss­berg

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.”

SEVEN-YEAR WAIT

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.”

1999 PHOTO BY MATT YORK, AP

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.

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