Bagwell's humility matched his competitive fire

January 18th, 2017

Jeff Bagwell's ultimate legacy will be that he was a complete player, and how many of those have there been? As former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said, "If you were looking to build a franchise around a player, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone better than Jeff Bagwell."

That was a thought repeated again and again on Wednesday with the announcement that Bagwell will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

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With Bagwell's teammate Craig Biggio having entered the Hall in 2015, Astros fans can now feel that the most successful era in team history has been validated. Beginning in 1991, they were teammates for 15 seasons, and by the time they were done, a franchise had been transformed.

It's in the Bag! Astros slugger earns Hall call

With teams built around those two cornerstone players, the Astros, a team that had never won a postseason series, reached October six times in nine seasons between 1997 and 2005. In that stretch, they won 882 regular-season games, third most in the National League, trailing only the Braves and Cardinals.

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For Biggio, Wednesday was a day of emotion and celebration in seeing his buddy get his ticket punched in his seventh year on the ballot. Biggio had spent Tuesday night at Bagwell's home, breaking the tension by remembering their times together with laughter and stories.

"He was the ultimate teammate and a great friend," Biggio said. "We're going to be connected forever in the minds of baseball fans, and for me, that's the ultimate compliment, because I know what kind of player and what kind of man he is."

That's how Bagwell's teammates feel, too. On Wednesday, they spoke of his leadership and the example he set. They said he was driven to be great, but that he felt a responsibility to the entire team.

"I never saw him when he wasn't mentally focused on a game or a situation," former Astros first baseman/outfielder Lance Berkman said. "His professionalism -- the way he prepared to play and was locked in every day, every at-bat -- was amazing.

"That's true no matter how he was doing at the time or how he was feeling. He showed me what it takes to be a professional, and not just a guy in Major League Baseball. It's the pride you take in your approach. Baggy wasn't just a hitter. He prided himself on his defense, his baserunning, the little things, the nuances that are really the meat of the game."

When managers arrived in Houston, they turned the clubhouse over to Bagwell and Biggio, who had a kind of good cop/bad cop dynamic. Bagwell was, well, the good cop.

"I have a ton of respect for both of them," Berkman said, "but they're very different people with different social skills. Craig was very direct, very blunt. There was no question how he was feeling about how you were doing at the time.

"He would very much bark at guys if he didn't think you were doing what you should be. That's part of what made him great. Truly great players have that single-minded focus, that edge. They come to the park every day a little bit angry. That's how Craig was.

"Baggy was much more laid back. He was like a big brother to me. He'd get on you when you needed it, but it was in a kind way. He didn't try to ostracize you. He'd give you a hard time, but then he'd put his arm around you and let you know he cared about you. I don't think he ever had a teammate dislike him.

"But listen, Baggy and Biggio were similar in a lot of ways. They expected guys to toe a certain line when it came to the team. One thing they both did was play every day and put winning above everything else. They believed that if you can walk, you can play."

Asked about their different leadership styles, Biggio said the bottom line was the same.

"We believed that when you came through the clubhouse door, you left your ego outside," he said. "You were there to go to work and to take care of business. When you leave, you can be your own dude or whatever. "But when you put that uniform on, you do things a certain way. It came to be known as the Astros way, and we're both proud we were part of that."

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Another of Bagwell's teammates, former Astros shortstop Adam Everett, said, "It's hard to put into words what he meant to us. If you played with him, you understood. It was his leadership, his awareness, his gentleness.

"I learned how to play the game from him. He led by example on the field. Off the field, he was the guy who would quietly come over and say, 'OK, this is what you need to learn from that.' It was really amazing the impact he had on others in such a quiet way."

Everett once asked Bagwell about the 1994 season, when Bagwell won the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Bagwell told him the lesson of that season is that no player feels great every day but that "grinding through" is some of what separates great players from the rest.

"You're not going to feel the same in the batter's box every day," Bagwell told him. "But if there's a guy on third base, you've still got to figure out how to get him in. It doesn't matter how you do it, but you've got to get that run in."

Everett added, "Baggy said there were other times you just needed to get on base, to draw a walk, whatever. You just did it. You found a way. No one cared how you felt or how you did it. You just had to do it. He was driven in that way. You do what a professional is supposed to do.

"He was confident and secure, both those things, and his confidence spilled onto all of us, the way he carried himself. You felt like, 'OK, Baggy is here. We're good.' He just had that effect on those around him."

Bagwell will largely be judged by his numbers as future generations study the plaques in Cooperstown. Those will be tribute to his power (449 home runs) and patience (.408 OBP), to his baserunning and to his defense.

Bagwell's Wins Above Replacement total of 79.6 is 38th all time among position players. His 149 OPS+ is 37th all time. Bagwell won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 1991 and finished in the Top 10 in NL MVP Award voting six times. By almost any standard, he was one of the great post-World War II players.

Again, though, others remember the man.

"This is a special human being," Hunsicker said. "The first thing is his humility. Being a celebrity and a star, that's not a trait you see that often. He never wanted to call attention to himself. He was the first to credit teammates for victories and the first to take responsibility for defeats.

"He had such great qualities you admire as a person. Consequently, he was a great teammate. I can't think of one person that ever disliked Jeff Bagwell. He was there for every teammate, whether it was the raw rookie or the 25th guy on the club.

"He was no one to stick his nose into one's business, but he was there if someone needed help. Conversely, if anyone was out of line, he'd let that person know it in a quiet, discreet manner. He was probably one of the best-kept secrets in the game during his career."

Not anymore.