Jeff Bagwell's dominance as a hitter will occupy the conversation from now through his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer in Cooperstown, N.Y., but that only tells a part of the story as to why this honor resonates so deeply for those closest to him.To say that
Jeff Bagwell's dominance as a hitter will occupy the conversation from now through his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer in Cooperstown, N.Y., but that only tells a part of the story as to why this honor resonates so deeply for those closest to him.
To say that Bagwell was merely respected by his teammates undersells what the former first baseman meant to them. Bagwell's play on the field generated admiration among his peers, but what most remember beyond his physical abilities was his leadership, kindness and humility -- qualities that aren't necessarily universal when it comes to superstar athletes.
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"When I think about Jeff ... he's a great teammate and I think everybody that ever played with him really just have a fondness for him that only comes to guys that are about their teammates, they care about the team, they care about winning," former teammate Lance Berkman said. "So that's what stands out to me about Jeff."
From the last guy off the bench to the ace of the pitching staff, Bagwell made some sort of connection with every teammate, every year, regardless of stature. In that respect, Bagwell shouldn't be surprised if an inordinate number of former teammates, managers and colleagues make the trek to Cooperstown to celebrate his induction on July 30. There are a lot of people who are going to want to be part of this event.
Count Moises Alou as one of them. Alou and Bagwell became fast friends after Alou was traded to Houston from Florida prior to the 1998 season. Though Alou reported to Spring Training that year still reeling from the shock of being traded from the Marlins soon after they won the World Series, it didn't take long until he felt at home with the Astros.
Having his locker located near Bagwell and Craig Biggio helped the transition.
"It was like family," Alou said. "Baggy made everything so easy, the adjustment and coming to a new team. He was a great teammate."
Alou was one of several additions to the late 1990s Astros that helped shape the club into a perennial division winner. Another was former catcher Brad Ausmus, who played 10 seasons with the Astros from 1997-98 and 2001-08 and is among Bagwell's closest friends. Like Bagwell, Ausmus generated similar respect among his peers for his no-nonsense, professional approach to the game.
"The reason the players respected him was because he was one of those superstars who put the team before himself," Ausmus said. "He understood that winning was really the main goal, and that personal accolades, although great and gratifying, aren't the reason you put on the uniform."
Because Bagwell never switched teams, he has long-standing friendships with a wide variety of figures that have come through the Astros' organization -- those who were older, mentor-types when he was a young player, and others who were the young "kids" looking for guidance when Bagwell was nearing the end of his career a decade ago.
Former shortstop Adam Everett was one of the kids who started to come into his own at the same time the Astros were regular contenders in the early and mid-2000s.
No one was more of a mentor to Everett than Bagwell, who took extra measures to make sure Everett was comfortable as he established himself in the big leagues.
"He took me under his wing and said, 'You're an Astro now,'" Everett recalled. "That's the way Baggy was. You were part of his team, he took care of you, he made sure you were doing what you should be doing -- running the bases correctly, and playing the game hard."
Brad Lidge has similar recollections from when he was a young closer on a talented Astros team.
"When I was a rookie, in my first full season, I remember especially there was a game in Cincinnati I just did not do well," Lidge said. "He came up to me right away and put his hand on my shoulder, in my locker, and just knew how to say the right things."
Bagwell's character was never in question, nor were his baseball skills that made him one of the most complete players among his peers. Beyond the obvious eye-popping offensive numbers, Bagwell was considered a tremendous baserunner, elite defensively, and perhaps most notably, fearless.
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"I think it's long overdue and well-deserved," Berkman said of Bagwell's election in his seventh year on the ballot. "If you look at his numbers, there's just really no debate about it. It's a little surprising, but it doesn't really matter now because he'll be there forever."
For those with an up-close view, Bagwell's penchant for charging the plate on bunt plays, his mastery of the 3-6-3 double play and his routes on the basepaths will be remembered as well as his 449 home runs and 1,529 RBIs.
"Nobody else could affect the game defensively like him," former Astros manager Phil Garner said. "He was also a terrific baserunner. Baggy was sneaky. He didn't look like he was that fast, but he always took the base he was supposed to take and he never got thrown out."
"Fielding the bunt, no right-handed first baseman could play that bunt and get a guy at third like he did," said former pitcher Mike Hampton, Bagwell's teammate from 1994-99. "That took pressure off the pitcher.
"And running the bases -- he'd get great jumps, he could read the pitcher when stealing bases, he never wasted time, he cut corners on the bases. Just lost arts that people forget about. I know he worked at it, but it always seemed so natural for him, so easy. He was just really good at just about every facet of the game."
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.