Talent by the Bag-Full
Former Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell returns to BBWAA ballot
The story is so famous, it has become the first cautionary tale for every new big league general manager.
The Boston Red Sox, desperate for bullpen help during the 1990 stretch drive, target the Astros’ Larry Andersen – a 37-year-old veteran of four teams who has posted earned-run averages below 2.00 for each of the two previous seasons.
In exchange, the Red Sox offer a 22-year-old Double-A third baseman who is batting .333 for the New Britain Red Sox but has only four home runs. But a little more than 400 days later, Jeff Bagwell wrapped up a rookie season in Houston where he hit .294 with 15 homers and 82 RBI – a season that would eventually win him the 1991 National League Rookie of the Year Award by a near-unanimous vote.
Anderson would appear in 15 games for the Red Sox in 1990 before leaving as a free agent. His final career totals: a 40-39 record with 49 saves.
Bagwell, meanwhile, was just getting started.
Bagwell, who played each of his 15 major league seasons with the Astros before an arthritic shoulder cut short his career, is one of 37 players on the 2013 Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the Class of 2013 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Bagwell received 56.0 percent of the vote in 2012 in his second year on the ballot – a jump of 14.3 percent from his first year and the second-best percentage of any player not elected in 2012.
BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 9. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 28 in Cooperstown.
Born May 27, 1968, in Boston, Bagwell was the Red Sox’s fourth-round draft choice in 1989. He had received little attention as a high school player in Middletown, Conn., but found a place on the University of Hartford squad.
A lifelong Red Sox fan, the trade to the Astros devastated Bagwell – at first. But soon, Bagwell saw the trade as the platform that eventually launched his career.
“If I’d stayed with the Red Sox, who knows where I’d be?” Bagwell said. “I have to think something would have happened and I’d be in the major leagues somewhere, but who knows?”
After his Rookie of the Year season, Bagwell’s power numbers continued to climb before beginning an assault on the record books in 1994. That season, Bagwell hit .368 with 39 homers and 116 RBI in just 110 games in a season that was cut short by a strike, winning the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Suddenly, fans and media alike began to take note of the first baseman – the Astros moved him across the diamond before his big league career even began – with the shoulder-wide batting stance and fearless disposition.
“That wide stance keeps him from over-striding,” said then-Cardinals manager Joe Torre of Bagwell, “which can be your biggest problem when you’re trying to hit for power. But he’s anchored in there… Basically he’s telling you that he’s not afraid to be hit (by a pitch). He has no fear.”
Bagwell continued to put up astounding numbers in the next decade, scoring 100-or-more runs in eight of nine years from 1996-2004 and driving in more than 100 runs seven times in that span. He also averaged better than 113 walks a year during those seasons.
Perhaps most importantly, Bagwell turned the Astros into an annual postseason contender – helping Houston advance to the playoffs six times from 1997-2005.
But early in the 2005 season, Bagwell removed himself from the lineup due to a right shoulder that had caused him four years of constant pain. The arthritic condition – produced by bone-on-bone wear and tear – left him virtually unable to throw a baseball.
Bagwell willed himself back onto the Astros’ roster for their 2005 run to the World Series, but called it quits after he was unable to appear in any games in 2006.
The final numbers: a .297 batting average and Houston club records of 449 home runs and 1,529 RBI (tied for 46th all-time with Hall of Famer Tris Speaker and just eight behind Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio).
His 1,401 walks rank 28th all-time, and his .408 on-base percentage is better than Hall of Famers Paul Waner and Luke Appling. Bagwell was selected to four All-Star Games, finished in the top 10 in the National League MVP voting six times, won three Silver Slugger Awards and also captured a Gold Glove Award in 1994.
“It’s been a long journey,” Bagwell said at the time of his retirement. “But it has been a great ride.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum