Bagwell epitomizes professionalism

ST. LOUIS -- He couldn't throw. He couldn't hit. He could hardly sleep.

So Jeff Bagwell knew it was time. Time to admit the one thing he never wanted to admit -- that the Houston Astros would be better off without him.

It was the first week of May. His team was already six games behind St. Louis. And there was nothing Jeff Bagwell wanted to do more than find a way to lift his franchise out of the crater it had tumbled into and point it back toward the blue baseball skies above.

But he knew. This time, he knew. Not only could he not lift his franchise -- he couldn't even lift his right arm.

So not only could he not help, he felt as though he was dragging them all down with him. His right shoulder had been reduced to pasta al dente. It was still attached to the rest of him. But it was just about as useless, for a man trying to play baseball, as a tattoo.

"As much as I wanted to play," he says, "there was no way I could justify that when I couldn't throw a ball 50 feet."

So he told his manager, Phil Garner, and his general manager, Tim Purpura, it was time. Time for them to find someone else to play first base -- for the first time since the days of Glenn Davis and Franklin Stubbs, 15 long years deep in their rearview mirror.

"He finally came to us and said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" Purpura recalls now, as his team -- Jeff Bagwell's team -- heads for its first World Series in the 44-season history of the franchise. "And we said, 'Why don't you take a few days and figure out what you want to do.' And after he did, we came to the conclusion we were going to have to put him on the disabled list.

"And then," says Tim Purpura, "he did something that tells you just what kind of guy he is."

He told them he was willing to have surgery on that shoulder, in the hope it could save his career. But that wasn't it. It was the question Bagwell asked before he headed off to the operating room that told you all you need to know about him:

"Would you allow me to stay with the team? I'll even pay my own way if I have to."

Well, yeah, said the men who run the Astros. They thought that could be arranged. After all, the Houston Astros without Jeff Bagwell would feel like U2 without that Bono guy, the Barrone family without that Raymond guy, "The Daily Show" without that Stewart guy.

"He's our leader," says third baseman Morgan Ensberg. "So I know that not playing is ripping his heart out."

OK, so it hasn't been too easy on his teammates' hearts, either. But they've found a way to make this work for everybody, as much as that was possible. And that's all Jeff Bagwell wanted out of this. There was something inside that told him he needed them -- but maybe, in some small way, they needed him, too, on some level. Any level.

"It's very difficult for a guy who has been an everyday player to sit back and watch everyone else go on without him," Purpura said. "But I'd watch him, early on after the surgery, and he was still doing whatever he could to stay involved.

"I'd watch him in the dugout and I knew he was going nuts. But he'd sit there on the bench with the young guys, giving tips, giving pointers, making observations. A week after the surgery, he was right back here in uniform, trying to do whatever he could do. He's an Astro through and through."

So his teammates and coaches did everything they could to involve him however that seemed feasible. But he was still a man who'd spent four months and 115 games on the disabled list. So there's a limit to how much anybody -- even a guy who is his franchise's all-time leader in homers, RBI and runs scored -- can convince himself that he's as vital a gear in the engine as he ever was.

"It was difficult," Bagwell says. "The fact that I've been around so long made it a little easier. But it wasn't until I came back and got to do something -- like pinch-hit -- that I really felt a part of it. I came back and got a pinch hit to win a game [Sept. 16, against Milwaukee]. And that was a big moment for me. I could tell these guys were happy for me."

If they were happy for him that night, however, then their elation flowed like a volcano Wednesday in St. Louis -- the night the Houston Astros finally booked their ticket to a World Series after all those years.

In the ninth inning Wednesday, Bagwell and his buddy, Craig Biggio, shared the sight of the final out, standing side by side in the dugout. And that was practically poetic.

They have played more than 2,100 games together -- the most ever by two teammates before they played in their first World Series. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only two men who ever played in any World Series together after playing at least 2,000 games for that team were Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, of the 1971 Pirates.

But of course, Mazeroski had already played in one World Series (cue the 1960 DVD). So Biggio and Bagwell join just two other players in history -- Al Kaline and Walter Johnson -- as men who played 15 seasons or more with only one team before making their first World Series.

Think about that. Two players had done that in the first 100 World Series ever played. And now Biggio and Bagwell will do it together. What were those odds?

"This is all he and I ever talked about in spring training every year," Biggio says. "All we ever said was: 'How can we get this city to the World Series?' And now it has happened."

When the two finished congratulating each other Wednesday night, they headed for the field, where, at one point, Bagwell's teammates literally stood in line to hug him, one after another.

Finally, when he found himself staring Roger Clemens in the eye, the Rocket actually lifted Bagwell into the euphoric night. Asked how high off the ground he thought Clemens had elevated him, Bagwell could only say: "He's one big man."

Later, Clemens stopped an interview he was conducting in the clubhouse when he saw Bagwell stroll by -- and dragged him into the pack with another ferocious bear hug.

"Baggy," said Clemens, getting downright misty on us, "he's The Man right here."

Which his why his teammates sprayed him with just as much respect as champagne that night.

How can we best measure that respect? Well, Bagwell hasn't started a game in 5½ months -- but he never lost his place in the same batting-practice group he has hit with for years: Him, Biggio, Lance Berkman and Brad Ausmus. What does that say?

The other guys in that group have started every game of this postseason. Bagwell, on the other hand, started none. He has made it to the plate just three times in the first two rounds. And he batted only once in the entire NLCS, and grounded out as a pinch-hitter.

"But just being able to put on a uniform and do something," he says, "at least now it feels like I'm a part of this team."

Nevertheless, he has been stuck spending most of his time just watching. And nobody ever trained him in how to do that without developing major acid-reflux issues.

"I've been chugging Pepto Bismol," he said the other day, "because these games have been unbelievable."

Now, though, it isn't only his team that is set up for a potentially unbelievable finish to one of the most improbable seasons in history. It is Bagwell himself.

The suddenly attractive DH rule will come charging into his -- and the Astros' -- lives in Games 1 and 2 this weekend in Chicago. And Jeff Bagwell has been campaigning so hard for that job, he ought to run for governor after he retires from his current position.

Garner actually said Wednesday he hasn't thought about that prospect yet. But if that's true, then he's about the only human being connected with the Astros who hasn't.

Talk about your perfect endings? Could it get any more Hollywood than the sight of Bagwell dropping out of the clouds to DH in the World Series?

"To be honest, I think that's why he went through all he did with the surgery," Purpura says. "He could have put it off a month or two just to see if it got better with rest. But the postseason was the carrot he held out for himself -- that if he could ever get comfortable enough to swing, he could make the postseason roster."

"That's true," Bagwell says. "These guys laid that carrot out there for me. And it gave me the opportunity to push myself and get back. Now I have an opportunity to thank them for that. ... Even if I help us win one game, that would make all this worth it."

The Astros never did make him pay his own way to stay with the club, by the way. As Purpura said, "He might have bought a few dinners -- but that's about it." And no one with this club ever acts as though they didn't get every day of meal money's worth from having him around.

Nevertheless, what happens to him beyond Halloween is a question no one can answer yet. Bagwell turns 38 next May, and there is still no assurance he'll ever be the same. His shoulder has gotten stronger. But because he was told that throwing too soon could jeopardize his ability to come back and pinch-hit, Bagwell still hasn't thrown at all.

So the Astros will watch carefully as he tries to build back his throwing motion this winter. But in the meantime, they'll be forced to plan for the future as though he won't be a part of it -- even though that's a painful thought for everyone involved.

"Right now, we have hope -- but very little data," Purpura says. "So to say there's a 50-percent chance or a 30-percent chance, we just don't know."

But if it turns out he can't play, they've already told him they want him to be an Astro in whatever role that works for all concerned. That, however, is a question to be answered when they all pull off another exit ramp.

In the meantime, Jeff Bagwell has more pressing business to attend to. World Series business. And they won't even ask him to pay his own way.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.