Pair of moves put Bagwell on Hall path

Trade to Houston, decision to play first base were instrumental

July 26th, 2017

Jeff Bagwell's early career path featured a pair of turns that put him in the express lane toward Cooperstown.

To the throngs that will celebrate his induction into baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday, Bagwell is known as the slugger who accumulated 449 home runs, won the 1994 National League Most Valuable Player Award and finished among the top 20 in MVP Award voting nine other times during 15 Major League seasons, all with the Astros.

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To establish himself at first base with Houston, Bagwell had to complete figurative change-of-address forms requiring him to move across the diamond and across the country before he made his Major League debut on April 8, 1991.

Having been reared in Connecticut before attending the University of Hartford and spending his first full professional season with New Britain of the Double-A Eastern League, Bagwell knew little about life outside New England when Houston acquired him from Boston for right-hander Larry Andersen on Aug. 30, 1990.

"I'd heard of Nolan Ryan," Bagwell said, referring to the adored Astros right-hander. "But you know, in my house, all we talked about was the Red Sox."

Possibly nobody could have foreseen the trade's impact upon the Astros and Bagwell -- particularly the immediacy of that impact.

Literally touched by greatness as he launched his career -- he shook hands with legendary catcher Johnny Bench on Opening Day at Cincinnati -- Bagwell was voted the NL Rookie of the Year Award winner in 1991 after batting .294 with 15 home runs and 82 RBIs.

Moving to Houston and switching from third base to first precipitated his instant success.

Bagwell almost surely would have excelled had he remained a Red Sox third-base prospect. However, Boston was perennially in "win-now" mode. Cementing himself in the middle of a big league batting order probably would not have occurred as quickly with the Red Sox as it did with the rebuilding Astros.

Astros scout Tom Mooney, who covered the New England area, was keenly aware of Boston's personnel depth and of Bagwell's talent, having seen him perform as a collegian.

"The Red Sox had Mo Vaughn at the time, they had [Scott] Hatteberg, they had [Tim] Naehring, they had Scott Cooper -- they had a bunch of guys in the pipeline, so to speak," said Mooney, who was influential in Seattle drafting Ken Griffey Jr. first overall in 1987. "Jeff would have eventually made his mark, but the thing about going to Houston was, he got the clock running a lot earlier."

Said Bagwell on a conference call last week, "I totally understand the trade. If I were the Red Sox, I would have made that trade, too."

Beating the Aug. 31 deadline to finalize rosters for postseason eligibility, the Red Sox were eager to acquire Andersen -- "he of the fantastic slider," as then-Astros general manager Bill Wood said.

The trade initially dismayed Astros players and fans. Andersen was among several players from Houston's veteran-laden squads of the late 1980s who were jettisoned during a transition to a younger, lower-salaried team that christened the 1991 season.

"That was one of many departures in a couple of years there that got everybody's attention, and really, we were not happy about," said Cubs broadcaster Jim Deshaies, then a member of the Astros' starting rotation.

The same day they obtained Bagwell, the Astros shipped second baseman Bill Doran to Cincinnati for a package of prospects.

Bagwell led the Eastern League with a .333 batting average at the time of the trade. He also had four home runs, prompting skeptics to wonder whether the Astros had picked up a powerless hitter.

However, Astros offcials maintained confidence in Bagwell.

"We think he's a right-handed Don Mattingly," assistant general manager Bob Watson said, citing the Yankees first baseman who was considered among the finest performers of that era.

Wood was resolute in trade discussions with Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman.

"Lou was pushing some players at the Triple-A level that we didn't hold in as high a regard as we did Bagwell, and we kept insisting if we were going to do the deal, that it would have to be for Bagwell," Wood said.

With Bagwell secured, the Astros sent him to instructional league, partly to give the organization's talent evaluators a better look at him. A consensus quickly formed: The 22-year-old already was primed to hit in the Majors.

"He had the rookie label, but he was much more advanced," said 2001 World Series hero Luis Gonzalez, another first-year Astro in 1991. "He had a great idea of the strike zone, he knew how to play the game and he was strong."

Convictions about Bagwell's prowess grew the following March as Bagwell began the Grapefruit League season as one of the team's hottest hitters. However, so did incumbent third baseman Ken Caminiti. Gonzalez, another third-base candidate, also showed considerable potential at the plate. Meanwhile, Mike Simms, the organization's tentative choice to occupy first, struggled through the exhibition season's first half.

"I don't know if he had more than a hit or two, and he was striking out three out of every four times up," said Art Howe, then the Astros' manager.

A little more than two weeks before Opening Day, Howe, following extensive talks with Wood, switched Bagwell to first base, kept Caminiti at third and shifted Gonzalez to left field in an attempt to maximize the club's offensive production.

Said Bagwell, "Bob Watson asked me, 'Do you want to play third base in Triple-A or first base in the big leagues?' I'm not the smartest guy, but I could figure that one out."

Bob Robertson, a coach with Houston's Class A Asheville affiliate in 1991, was recruited to teach Bagwell as many of the fundamentals of playing first base as possible.

"Bob was an excellent first baseman," Howe said, adding that Bagwell's learning curve was shortened because both he and Robertson threw right-handed.

Bagwell's aptitude at third base, Howe reasoned, indicated that he could handle the other infield corner.

"The only thing he lacked at first base was size," Howe said of Bagwell, whose height was generously listed at 6 feet. "But anything in his area code, he could catch it. That's for sure."

Besides hitting Bagwell thousands of ground balls, Robertson introduced him to intricacies such as blocking low throws with both hands, tagging runners when a throw veers up the line and maintaining proper footwork when holding runners on base.

Robertson also devoted considerable time talking to Bagwell, whom he nicknamed "Hammer," about the mental challenges he would face.

"I can still see him coming to the practice field in that golf cart," Robertson said. "It really was a privilege and a pleasure to be around him. Just a wonderful, wonderful athlete and a wonderful, wonderful guy. One of the best I ever met in the game of baseball. He was a bulldog. The intensity that he had."

Robertson sensed that Bagwell would retain the knowledge he gained. The latter's ascent to the Hall of Fame proved Robertson correct.

During one of their final tutorials, Robertson recalled telling Bagwell, "Hammer, once it sets in, you're never going to lose it.

"And he never did."