With Hall of Fame election, deep wounds closing for Jeff Bagwell

Jeff Bagwell played for the Astros from 1991 to 2005. AP Photo/Brett Coomer

As Jeff Bagwell exhales from the rigors of a seven-year wait and wraps his mind around his newfound Hall of Fame status, it's only natural for historians and fans to reflect upon the contributions that made him such a force in his prime. Bagwell's 449 home runs and .540 slugging percentage are testament to his value as a hitter. But he was also a superb baserunner, skilled defender and instinctive player who could help his team win games in a variety of ways.

Among the former Houston Astros who took the field with Bagwell each day, a less decorated chapter of his career provides insight into what made him tick. In his waning seasons with the Astros, Bagwell soldiered on through an arthritic right shoulder that caused him excruciating pain. During Houston's run to the 2004 postseason, Bagwell clenched his teeth and hit 27 homers and drove in 89 runs while appearing in 156 games. Whoever coined the word "gamer" could have had precisely this scenario in mind.

"When I tell you he couldn't lift his hand above his shoulder, that's no joke," said former Astros outfielder Lance Berkman. "He was probably the best one-armed player in the history of the game."

Ultimately, the various signposts in Bagwell's career, from his rookie year through his grand finale at age 37, heralded his arrival in Cooperstown. He broke in with the Houston organization as a shell-shocked New England transplant, struck up a bond with his fellow "Killer B," Craig Biggio, and earned the admiration of Astros fans who treasured every interaction and two-out RBI single to right.

Then came the unsettling postscript: From his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2010, Bagwell was waist deep in PED allegations. He has consistently denied any use of PEDs, but he spent years under the same cloud of suspicion that followed Mike Piazza before his induction last summer.

But that torturous stint in limbo finally ended when the voters gave him his golden ticket to Cooperstown on Wednesday.

A style all his own

In an alternate universe, Bagwell could just as easily have been wearing a Boston Red Sox cap on his plaque. In the summer of 1990, Bagwell hit .333 with a .422 OBP for Boston's Double-A affiliate in New Britain, Connecticut. He was born in Boston and raised in Middletown, Connecticut, and the entire Bagwell clan embraced the idea of him playing a corner infield spot for the Sox one day.

When Houston general manager Bill Wood swung a deal to acquire Bagwell from Boston for Larry Andersen in August 1990, Bagwell and his then-81-year-old grandmother, Alice Hare, were both knocked off-kilter emotionally. "I was one of the saddest guys you'll ever see," Bagwell said in a 1993 interview with Sports Illustrated's Leigh Montville.

Lou Gorman, then Boston's general manager, punted on long-term thinking for pennant race expediency. The Red Sox were pushing for a postseason berth, and Gorman needed to fortify a bullpen that was in desperate need of help when closer Jeff Reardon went down with a back injury.

Statistical guru Bill James quickly observed that the trade might come back to haunt Gorman and the Red Sox in an Ernie Broglio-for-Lou Brock kind of way. "You never know how good a young player will be," James wrote at the time, "but, with some luck, Lou Gorman will hear about the Jeff Bagwell trade until the day he dies."

Even James might have been surprised over the spot-on accuracy of his analysis. Andersen threw 22 innings of relief for Boston before signing with the San Diego Padres as a free agent. Bagwell, meanwhile, went on to make four All-Star Games, win an MVP award during the strike-shortened 1994 season and become Houston's franchise leader in homers, RBIs, WAR and several other categories. From the day he broke camp with the Astros in April 1991, he showed a maturity and self-awareness beyond his years.

"He was straight out of central casting. He just came and played and never popped off," said Jim Deshaies, Bagwell's former Houston teammate and the Astros' TV color man from 1997 through 2012. "One thing I remembered him saying was, 'I won't hit a lot of home runs, but every now and then I'll get into one, and it will go a long way.' He hit an upper-tank home run in Pittsburgh his rookie year, and we were like, 'Wow, where did that come from?' You kind of knew it was in there."

While the great Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s were awash in future Hall of Famers, Houston served as a pit stop for several players who either reached the promised land or are part of the Cooperstown debate. Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte all passed through the Astros' rotation at some point. Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran were central figures on a 92-win playoff team in 2004, and Billy Wagner spent his first nine big league seasons throwing heat out of the Houston bullpen.

The Astrodome, a pitcher's haven, could be death on a hitter's self-esteem, but Bagwell quickly learned to coexist with the place. Through long hours in the cage with hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo, he became adept at generating backspin and clearing fences. He also found a lot of gaps along the way; Bagwell led the majors with 48 doubles in 1996 and made the most of his middling speed with his great anticipation and deft hook slides.

Bagwell attracted special attention with his novel stance and approach at the plate. He hit from an exaggerated crouch with his feet set 4 ½ feet apart, and his backside went along for the ride. "It looks like he's sitting on the John," the late Ken Caminiti said in a Sports Illustrated interview in 1999. "He's the one guy who can work on his stance in the bathroom."

Over time, Bagwell's oddball stance and Popeye forearms became synonymous with his impact in the Houston batting order.

"I always felt sorry for the youth league coaches around the Houston area," Deshaies said. "Kids always like to mimic their favorite players. So you could kind of envision all these 10-11 year olds in Little League, squatting like Bagwell and trying to hit and the coach saying, 'No, that's not going to work for you, son.'"

Middle- and back-of-the rotation starters were roadkill for Bagwell, and elite pitchers weren't immune from his wrath. Bagwell hit .415 in 41 at-bats against 1990 World Series hero Jose Rijo and .442 in 64 plate appearances against former 20-game winner John Burkett. He also posed a major challenge to Atlanta's Big Three. Bagwell hit .301 in 103 career at-bats against John Smoltz and .293 in 102 ABs vs. Greg Maddux, while logging a career .333/.506/.545 slash line against Tom Glavine.

"You look at that stance, and you never in a million years would teach it," Glavine said. "If you had a kid trying to do it, you'd change everything about it. But for Jeff, it worked. When push came to shove, he got himself in a hitting position and a contact position as well as anybody. That's why he had the success he had."

Bagwell's combination of power and plate discipline made him an especially daunting challenge for pitchers. From 1996 through 2002, his 834 walks ranked second in the majors to Barry Bonds. His .408 career OBP is 39th-best in baseball history.

"Jeff was kind of a Moneyball guy before a lot of people were talking about Moneyball," Deshaies said.

Bagwell's in-game proficiency was even more impressive given the hilarity that preceded it. During batting practice, he was renowned for hitting pop flies off the top of the screen or topping weak grounders to the right side. The issue became even more noticeable late in his career because of his shoulder problems. Bagwell would grumble about his 5 p.m. ineptitude, and Berkman occasionally jumped in the batting cage and imitated him for the benefit of the other Astros.

"It never failed to elicit a chuckle from the fellas," Berkman said, laughing.

Berkman, whose .406 career on-base percentage and 366 homers as a switch-hitter might earn him a few Hall votes when he appears on the ballot in 2018, expects to make the trip to Cooperstown and be in attendance when Bagwell joins Biggio as part of the fraternity July 30.

"I love Jeff," Berkman said. "It did me a great service as a young player to watch how he conducted his business in the clubhouse and on the field. I think a lot of guys who played with him will make the effort to get up there and see him go in. We're all thrilled to death."

They came to play

Bagwell and Biggio, forever linked, were notable for their geographic synergy and disparate demeanors.

Biggio, a Long Island, New York, native and Seton Hall University product, was type A all the way. He was methodical about game preparation and made sure his uniform and spikes were just so, even as he wore a batting helmet caked in pine tar. Bagwell, in contrast, had a more wry and approachable side. While Biggio might try to motivate a teammate by getting in his face, Bagwell was more inclined to throw his arm around the teammate's shoulder and quietly offer a pep talk or some advice.

"It was kind of like a good cop and a bad cop, if you want to say it that way," Biggio said. "You knew one thing: When you came through those clubhouse doors, it was time to drop your ego and prepare yourself to play baseball the right way. If you didn't, you were going to hear about it from me or Jeff."

Houston's marquee players walked the walk while setting a workmanlike tone. From 1991 through 2004, Bagwell ranked second in the majors with 2,111 games played, and Biggio was third with 2,075. Only Rafael Palmeiro, with 2,153 games, was more durable during that 14-year span.

The message that Bagwell and Biggio conveyed to their teammates: If it's strictly a matter of playing through pain or discomfort and not risking further injury, everyone was expected to suck it up and take their four at-bats.

Berkman developed an appreciation for the organizational credo when he showed up at the Astrodome to take batting practice as a first-round draft pick out of Rice University in 1997. He arrived the same day the team had a plastic baseball giveaway, and the promotions department placed the souvenirs in the players' lockers so they could give them to their kids or the neighbor's kids. Berkman was taken aback when he saw Biggio angrily hurling the whiffle balls in the direction of manager Larry Dierker's office.

"I was like, 'What in the world is going on?'" Berkman said. "I found out that Dierk had given him a day off, and he was pissed because he wanted to play. I saw him and Baggy both play when they were sore or sick as dogs. They played in 160-something games, and they expected you to do the same thing."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bagwell and Biggio were together for an MLB record 2,029 games -- more than Ron Santo and Billy Williams (2,015), Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker (1,918) and George Brett and Frank White (1,915). Through all those spring training games, homestands and road trips, they developed a synergy like that of John Stockton and Karl Malone with the NBA's Utah Jazz.

In 12 seasons as Houston's second baseman, Biggio knew he could rely on Bagwell turning the right side of the infield into a bunt-free zone. At the plate, Bagwell routinely eyeballed close pitches and ran deep counts to give Biggio the opportunity to steal bases and get into scoring position. And late in their careers, when Bagwell's right shoulder was in tatters, the Astros improvised and made Biggio handle relay throws typically assigned to the first baseman.

"We knew each other as well as two teammates could know each other," Biggio said.

Both Astros waited longer for the call from the Hall than they might have preferred. Despite 3,060 career hits, seven All-Star appearances and five Silver Slugger Awards, Biggio lingered on the ballot for three years. Enough voters attributed his success to longevity to test his patience and make him sweat the process.

Bagwell's wait came under more shadowy and controversial circumstances. "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," Bagwell said in a 2010 interview with ESPN.com. "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."

Hall of Fame voting is a messy process, and history shows that time can soften perceptions, change minds and heal wounds. Bagwell's journey has finally taken him to the doors of Cooperstown. And when he walks through next summer, nobody will ask or care how long it took him to arrive.