COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Jeff Bagwell tried on Lou Gehrig's first baseman's mitt and swung Babe Ruth's bat. He held the baseball Ted Williams hit off the light tower in Detroit and heard of its 44-year journey to the Hall of Fame.Words did not come easy. Bagwell loves the game that
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Jeff Bagwell tried on Lou Gehrig's first baseman's mitt and swung Babe Ruth's bat. He held the baseball Ted Williams hit off the light tower in Detroit and heard of its 44-year journey to the Hall of Fame.
Words did not come easy. Bagwell loves the game that became his life. He loves its history, too, every nook and cranny.
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"This is all overwhelming to me," Bagwell said. "Part of me keeps saying, 'Why am I in here?'"
Bagwell said things like that again and again on Tuesday during a day designed to help prepare him for this summer's induction into the Hall of Fame. Later, in a moment that was as surreal as it was touching, he was asked to wear a pair of white gloves to handle one of his own bats.
There it sat in the basement archives, next to those used by Gehrig and Ruth. At one point, Bagwell held two bats in his hands, comparing Gehrig's to his own.
"Is it starting to sink in -- the list of first basemen you've now joined?" asked Erik Strohl, the Hall of Fame's vice president of exhibitions and collections.
"No," Bagwell said.
Strohl gave Bagwell and his wife, Rachel, a three-hour tour, split between the public Hall of Fame display and a sampling of archived exhibits. Strohl then led them into the Plaque Gallery where 312 plaques are on display and five new spaces have been prepared for this summer's induction class of Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, Bud Selig, John Schuerholz and Bagwell.
One of the new traditions is to have Hall of Fame inductees autograph the base on which the plaque will be displayed. Bagwell did that and said it would take some time to grasp the honor of it all.
"To walk around this place and see the history and the names and the statistics and what it meant to the game of baseball is just more than you can dream," he said.
"The game is so much bigger than any one of us. You don't dream about this when you're a kid. You dream about hitting a home run to win the World Series. It's just special."
Bagwell will be just the 22nd first baseman inducted thanks to a 15-year career with the Astros in which he had 449 home runs, 488 doubles and a .948 OPS.
In Houston, Bagwell will be forever identified with Craig Biggio, a member of the Hall Class of 2015. Together, they led the Astros to six playoff appearances in a nine-year span from 1997-2005.
"I'll be forever honored by that association," Bagwell said. "Our careers paralleled. I helped him. He helped me. He was a total competitor. He played the game as hard as you can play it."
Beyond the numbers, Bagwell loves the history of the game. He grew up in New England as a proud citizen of Red Sox Nation, idolizing and imitating Carl Yastrzemski.
On Tuesday, Bagwell took a slow, methodical approach to the hundreds of Hall of Fame exhibits. There was Hank Aaron's locker and Cy Young's jersey and Ruth's uniform and Carlton Fisk's bat. He paused before each, listening and offering a few thoughts of his own.
"Hank Aaron," Bagwell said. "People know him for the home runs. That's just part of it. He did everything well. It's just ridiculous how good he was."
Bagwell marveled at the Hall's re-creation of ballparks and heard the story of how the Athletics adopted an elephant as a mascot.
There were players he'd heard of and players he'd played with and against. At one point, he was asked about having played with both Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens.
"It was their demeanor on the day they were pitching," Bagwell said. "It was their game. I messed up a play once, and Roger looked at me like he wanted to kill me.
"You had to step up your game if he was pitching, because no one cared more than he did. Those two guys, Randy and Roger, showed me what it was like to be able to flip a switch when it was time to play."
Bagwell was shown the cap that Astros reliever Brad Lidge wore in 2003, when he was part of a six-pitcher no-hitter at Yankee Stadium.
"Here's the story behind that game," Bagwell said. "We're in the ninth inning, and when we get the last out, [closer] Billy Wagner starts jumping up and down.
"I'm thinking, `What's the big deal?' I had no idea we had a no-hitter, and I'm pretty sure Craig had no idea either."
Now about that Williams ball. He ended the 1941 All-Star Game by banging a game-winning home run off a light tower in the bottom of the ninth inning at Briggs Stadium.
When the ball bounced back onto the field, National League right fielder Enos Slaughter retrieved the ball and put it in his pocket. Forty-four years later, when Slaughter was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he showed up with the baseball and told Williams, "I think I have something of yours."
The two men autographed the baseball and presented it to the Hall of Fame that weekend.
For Bagwell, the whole experience -- from the exhibits to the anecdotes to the enduring majesty and beauty of Cooperstown -- is creating a tidal wave of emotions.
"I think this is the first step when I start to realize this is going to be reality," Bagwell said. "Right now, I'm just trying to take it all in and be as calm as I can."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice.