Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
I can still hear it today, almost 26 years later. It was Kissimmee, Florida in the Spring of 1991. The Astros had not yet started actual spring training games, but they were taking batting practice in preparation.
Standing about 100 feet away, I stopped whatever I was doing immediately. So did everyone else. I walked toward the cage and asked who was in it.
One of my Houston Chronicle colleagues at the time smiled and said, “That’s Jeff Bagwell.”
It was something I will never forget, because the ball jumped off the bat unlike any player I had ever seen. Sometimes over the fence. Sometimes in the gaps. Always on the barrel. Everyone knew Bagwell was a top prospect. But that day, after watching a simple batting practice, I knew the young player with the unique batting stance was going to be a star. He went on that year to become National League rookie of the year. He was still just a promising kid then, but over the next 15 years, he would become something so much more.
And today, he became a Hall of Famer.
Bagwell was safely in with 86.2 percent of the ballots, well above the 75 percent needed. He joins a class that includes Tim Raines and Pudge Rodriguez.
It is an honor that is long overdue. Bagwell is the epitome of a Hall of Famer. Baseball fans love their stats, and Bagwell’s 449 career home runs, .297 batting average, 1,529 RBIs, 2,314 hits, MVP award and four all-star appearances all check off the appropriate boxes.
But they don’t tell the real story.
Bagwell was the undisputed leader of a group that helped get the Astros to the postseason six times in his 15-year career. He was ultra consistent, never driving in fewer than 82 runs in a season until his body finally broke down in his last year, 2005. He drew walks. He played defense. He was a quiet leader, who took the heat with class and calm after every playoff failure, something critics harp on to this day. It was the same criticism of Craig Biggio.
They never did it in the playoffs.
Biggio got in the Hall before Bagwell, because he hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits. But Bagwell was always the better player. Biggio was the fireplug, pain-in-the-ass leadoff man who had a little hot dog in him. Fans and media loved that.
Bagwell was just the quiet pro who carried the team on his back year in and year out. And each year, the ball still jumped off his bat out of that spread-out stance.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
I was fortunate enough that most of my print journalism career mirrored Bagwell’s baseball career. I watched as he, Biggio and the late Ken Caminiti rebuilt the Astros. Other stars would come and go, but Bagwell and Biggio were rock stars. The Killer Bs became a reason to go to every game in the Astrodome and later Minute Maid. I watched as they came agonizingly close to postseason glory, never quite getting there.
The Bagwell moments I remember are too many too list. But there was one in particular that was not about home runs or numbers. It was the last game in the Astrodome, where the Braves ended yet another promising season. John Rocker struck out Bagwell and Caminiti in the bottom of the ninth with the Astros down 7-5 with a runner on second. Bagwell and the Astros had fought back from a 7-1 deficit to get to that point. Gritty. Gutsy. Never quitting. Just not quite enough to win.
And Bagwell handled that postgame as he did all of the disappointments — with class and dignity. Like a true leader. A true Hall of Famer. Like that first day in Kissimmee, it’s a memory I will always keep.
It was bittersweet to see the Astros make the 2005 World Series with a broken down Bagwell unable to perform at the level we had been accustomed to seeing. He was overlooked that year by the Clemens, Pettittes and Berkmans of the world, playing just 39 games. He was back in time for the World Series, but he was never really back.
Perhaps fittingly, it ended there. Oh so close once again.
Had his body held up, his numbers would have made him a first ballot selection. Instead, he has been forced to wait by writers with regional biases and some who believed he was one of the steroid creations, even though there was no real proof. Yes, when they started testing, he showed up at spring training noticeably smaller. But if that is your so-called proof…And the debate about whether or not steroid era players are Hall of Famers is one to be held at another time. I believe they are and it would not impact my ballot. I left the Chronicle one year before I would have been a member of the Baseball Writers long enough to get a Hall ballot. I would no longer vote even if I could, because that is honor that should go to people who are still involved in baseball on a day to day basis. I have moved on to a job with a broader sports scope. But those rumors would not have kept anyone off my ballot. Not Roger Clemens. Not Barry Bonds. And certainly not Jeff Bagwell.
Regardless, that is no longer an issue, because the voters did the right thing. I interviewed Bagwell many times, played in a golf tournament with him once and we crossed paths a few other times over the years. I never really got to know him very well, but he was always friendly, helpful and engaging. You get jaded in journalism and try to stay distant from the people you cover. You sometimes forget that those people are bringing joy to fans every day.
And that’s what I remember most about Bagwell.
I loved to watch him play baseball. Once the Astros moved downtown, on the nights I could get out of the office early, I would walk down to Minute Maid to catch a few innings of as many home games as possible. And I would always make sure I hung around long enough to see Bagwell at the plate. Because you never knew when something special might happen.
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Of all the great Astros who have come through Houston during the years, Bagwell was my favorite.
And it all went back to that sunny day in Kissimmee when I was first exposed to the future star. How I knew then cwe were watching the start of something truly special. The beginning of a fantastic career. The start of an era of Astros glory that will never be matched.
That day I saw the greatest Astro in the history of the franchise taking batting practice.
Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.