Writer's note: Jeff Bagwell first denied using performance-enhancing drugs during a 2004 interview with the Houston Chronicle. The passage of time hasn't altered his words or softened his emotions on the topic.
Bagwell, to this day, asserts that he never touched steroids or other illegal performance-enhancers. Although he bulked up considerably during his 15 seasons in Houston, Bagwell attributes his more muscular look to an almost obsessive weight-lifting regimen that he now considers a mistake: The added heft contributed greatly to the shoulder problems that forced him to retire in 2005 at age 37.
Still, as Bagwell makes his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, he knows that some media members and fans will be skeptical of his claims. In the current climate, almost all sluggers from his era are considered guilty until proven innocent. Bagwell has never been linked to performance-enhancers beyond hearsay and innuendo, yet he lives under the same cloud of suspicion as players who have failed drug tests, lied before Congress or admitted to steroid use.
"It irritated the crap out of me when I first heard people say it,'' Bagwell said. "It still irritates me. But it is what it is. You can't run from it. You can't hide from it, and if somebody wants to believe something, that's fine.''
Bagwell, never one to refrain from comment, offered the following thoughts on baseball and the steroid issue in an interview with ESPN.com:
"I never used [steroids], and I'll tell you exactly why: If I could hit between 30 and 40 home runs every year and drive in 120 runs, why did I need to do anything else? I was pretty happy with what I was doing, and that's the God's honest truth. All of a sudden guys were starting to hit 60 or 70 home runs and people were like, 'Dude, if you took [PEDs], you could do it too.' And I was like, 'I'm good where I'm at. I just want to do what I can do.'
"I wasn't trying to do anything crazy. I hit six homers in the minor leagues. Six home runs. I hit 15, 18 and 21 in Houston, and then I hit 39 in 1994 when I started working with Rudy Jaramillo and he helped me to understand my swing and I actually learned how to hit. And I was like, 'I don't need anything more. I'm good.' When I walked on the field I thought I was the best player on the field, and I didn't need anything more than that. It was never an ego thing with me, and I think at some point, it became ego to some people.
"I know a lot of people are saying, 'His body got bigger.' Well, if you're eating 30 pounds of meat every single day and you're working out and bench pressing, you're going to get bigger. You can go to every single trainer and they'll say, 'He was the first here and last to leave, and that dude worked his ass off.'
"The heavy lifting all started in 1995. I was going through a divorce and I came to spring training, and I thought everything was good. Then I got to spring training and I'll never forget it: Mike Hampton looked at me and said, 'Dude, what's wrong with you? You're so skinny, you look like you're on crack.' I look back at the stats and they weren't bad [21 homers, 87 RBIs and a .290 batting average in 114 games]. But I told myself, 'I'm never going to have somebody say that to me again.' I said, 'I'm going to find a trainer and get strong.'
"I found a trainer and I started lifting weights, and he told me, 'You have to stop doing [those lifts] behind your neck because it's going to hurt your arm. It's not normal.' And I said, "But it feels so good.' And he said, 'Yeah, I get it. I'm a bodybuilder, but you're a baseball player.' It felt so good that I kept doing it. But if you keep doing stuff like that, all it's going to do is hurt you.
"In the long run, that's my regret. If you ask Dave Labossiere, our trainer when I played in Houston, I would come to spring training every year and I couldn't throw the ball three feet. I played 3½ years in the most utter pain you could imagine just trying to throw a baseball.
"The lifting made my shoulders and everything bigger, but I was bodybuilding-lifting instead of lifting for baseball, and that was totally my fault. If I have one regret, that's it, because I think it shortened my career.
"If you played in my era and hit any home runs, you know people are going to sit there and say something. It's just the state of the game now. The one thing I don't understand is how people can talk about the era I played in and make it sound as if there weren't any great players in the 1990s and 2000s. That doesn't make any sense. Are you telling me that there were great players in the '30s, '40s and '50s, but there weren't any great players in the '90s and 2000s? I mean, come on. That's crazy.
"You know how I feel about it, truthfully? If a guy is making the minimum salary and he looks across the field and thinks he has to take something to stay in the big leagues, I have no problem with that. You're trying to do the best you can. As baseball players, we don't have an earning power for years to come. If you have to do something for your family, I have no problem with that.
"Now, if you're the best player in game and you start taking stuff? I still don't have that big a problem with it. I know you took it, but it doesn't matter.
"People can say anything they want about Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, but it was fun to watch. Barry Bonds is the best player I've ever seen. He would stand on first base and say, 'If they throw that pitch again, I'm taking them deep.' Then guess what? The next at-bat, he would take them deep. He could steal a base anytime he wanted to steal a base, and he was always safe. I've only seen three or four people who could ever do that.
"No matter what anybody says about Barry or Mark, who I love to death, they were great players and they were fun to watch. When you get older and stuff happens, maybe you think, 'I have to do something now [to compete].'
"I look at Andy Pettitte, and I can say this because it's documented. Andy came out and said, 'Listen, my elbow was killing me. I was making $12-13 million a year, and they told me it was going to help me and all I wanted to do was pitch.' I mean, how can you even argue that? That's not a performance enhancer. That's just a guy who wanted to get healthy. How do you separate 'I want to get healthy' from 'I'm trying to get better because I don't feel like I'm the same player I used to be'?
"I'll never forget the time that Andy was pitching in New York and he was throwing about 79 mph, and he went six innings and allowed one run, and he was basically crying coming off the field because his arm hurt so bad. I'll play on the same team with that dude every single day of the week, because all he wanted to do was compete. I have no problems with Andy Pettitte doing what he did.
"Here's my whole thing when people ask me about the Hall of Fame: Would I be honored to death to be in the Hall of Fame? Of course I would. But it doesn't consume me at all. I loved every single part of what I did as a baseball player. But I've got my kids, I've got my family, and getting in the Hall of Fame isn't going to affect my life one way or the other. And it won't make me feel any better about my career.
"I'm so sick and tired of all the steroids crap, it's messed up my whole thinking on the subject. I hate to even use this word, but it's become almost like a 'buzz kill' for me.
"So much has gone on in the last eight or nine years, it's kind of taken some of the valor off it for me. If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, 'He took steroids,' then it's not even worth it to me. I don't know if that sounds stupid. But it's how I feel in a nutshell.''