Bagwell retires owning most Astros' hit marks

HOUSTON -- When Jeff Bagwell joined the Houston Astros in 1991, they were a last-place team having trouble drawing fans to a stadium that had seen its better days.

Bagwell's enormous popularity helped triple the team's annual attendance in the 1990s, and his slugging helped lift the team from mediocrity to perennial pennant contention.

Bagwell's 16-year career with the Astros came to a close Friday, ending his time as one of Houston's best-loved athletes. Along with his teammate and friend Craig Biggio, Bagwell helped convert Houston to a far more savvy baseball city.

Ultimately, his arthritic right shoulder forced him off the field.

"Physically, I can not do it anymore," Bagwell, 38, said in announcing his retirement. "I wish I could. I wish I could continue to play and try to win a World Series in Houston. But I'm just not physically able to do that anymore. ... I feel very blessed to have met all of you, to be part of the Houston Astros for 15, 16 years."

When Bagwell joined the Astros as a relatively scrawny 22-year-old, the team finished 29 games out of first place and drew just over 1.2 million fans to the cavernous Astrodome. By the time he left, the Astros were defending their first NL pennant before 3 million fans at Minute Maid Park.

Astros owner Drayton McLane acknowledged Bagwell's importance, telling him: "In the 15 years you have played here, you have been the person that has lifted this franchise, and we thank you for that.

"A lot of great things have occurred. We've had championships, we've gone to the World Series, and we got a new stadium. And Jeff Bagwell has been an integral part. And I have said for many years that Jeff has been really the heartbeat of the Houston Astros."

Even Houston Mayor Bill White weighed in on Bagwell's retirement.

"The greatest hitter in Astros history may have hung up his spikes, but his home run trot keeps replaying in our best baseball memories," he said in a statement. "As a ballplayer, a team leader and a great community-minded Houstonian, we all appreciate having been witness to his career here. We look forward to his continued presence with our team, in our city and in the Hall of Fame."

Bagwell said he was grateful he was able to spend his major league career with one team.

"That's always been a big thing for me, and always meant a lot for me," he said. "I feel very proud of the fact that I spent my entire career with this organization. And that was something that Craig and I both have talked about for years. That was something that was very important to us -- to give the fans some identity of, at least you knew every single day that Biggio and Bagwell would be out on the right side of infield."

Along with Biggio, Bagwell led the Astros to four division titles and the team's first NL pennant in 2005.

Bagwell retired as Houston's leader in homers (449), RBI (1,529), walks (1,401) and extra-base hits (969). He finished with a .297 career average.

Using an unusual stance that featured a wide crouch, Bagwell finished three homers behind his childhood idol, Carl Yastrzemski.

Bagwell, the 1991 NL rookie of the year and 1994 NL MVP, will remain with the Astros as part of a personal-services agreement struck with the team this week. He is expected to work with Astros hitters, assist in the front office and make appearances for the team.

His retirement came the same day the team and its insurance company settled a lawsuit over efforts to recoup some of the $17 million Bagwell was to have earned last year. Details of the agreement were not revealed.

Former teammates and colleagues described Bagwell as a "blue-collar guy" and "one of the guys" who accepted the fame and celebrity of his career only reluctantly.

"For as great a player as he was, he was also one of the most humble people I've ever been around," former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "He really let his play do his talking for him."

A native of Boston, Bagwell was traded by the Red Sox to Houston in August 1990 for pitcher Larry Andersen. Astros manager Art Howe switched Bagwell from third base to first base to accommodate Ken Caminiti, who became one of Bagwell's closest friends.

"If any number should be hanging up there in those rafters [at Minute Maid Park], it should be No. 5," Hunsicker said. "Jeff was a leader because of the way he played the game, the way he carried himself on and off the field and the way he treated people."