- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Jeff Bagwell's career portfolio includes many of the credentials that Hall of Fame voters consider building blocks. He has rookie of the year and most valuable player awards in his collection. He ranked among the most productive players in baseball in multiple offensive categories through 15 seasons in Houston. Astros fans adored him, his teammates revered him and opponents respected him for playing the game the right way.
If you listen to Bagwell's fellow Astros, you might also think he possessed superpowers. We're not referring to X-ray vision, super strength or even the combination of bat speed and hand-eye coordination that allowed Bagwell to slug .750 during the strike-shortened 1994 season.
Former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus will always remember Bagwell for his clutch hitting exploits, brilliant baserunning instincts and underrated defense at first base. But Ausmus was even more impressed with Bagwell's ability to shape-shift in the middle of a slide.
"Most guys kind of slide the same way, whether it's head-first or right foot underneath or left foot underneath," Ausmus said. "Baggy would contort his body as the play was developing to avoid the tag in a way I never saw anybody else do.
"I remember a play at the plate one game at Minute Maid Park. I was in the on-deck circle and I couldn't even tell him to 'get up' or 'get down.' He just contorted his body around the catcher, slid past the plate and was able to reach back and touch home plate and be safe. My chin hit the dirt because I couldn't believe what I just saw. He didn't practice it. He wasn't taught it. He just had great improvisational sliding skills."
Bagwell's baserunning bag of tricks included the ability to take off from first base before the pitcher, seemingly oblivious to his existence, had even begun his delivery to home plate. Ausmus and the other Astros joked that Bagwell possessed a "cloaking device" to turn himself invisible.
How did Bagwell do it? In his estimation, all those years at first base helped him ferret out pitchers' blind spots. And his lack of speed contributed to his deception.
"When you're as slow as I was, you have time to make up stuff," Bagwell said, laughing.
For much of his career, Bagwell seemed like a stronger Cooperstown candidate than his teammate and fellow "Killer B" Craig Biggio. But while Biggio kept plugging away and crossed the 3,000-hit barrier at age 41, shoulder problems forced Bagwell to retire with 449 home runs -- or 51 short of the magic 500 that once assured a player entry to the Hall.
The list of Bagwell's 10 career comparables on Baseball-Reference.com includes a mixed bag of Hall of Famers, future inductees, close calls and long shots -- from Willie Stargell, Orlando Cepeda and Jim Thome at the top end to Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones and Carlos Delgado in the middle, right on down the line to Jason Giambi and Andres Galarraga. Bagwell might have been a no-doubter for Hall induction if he had stayed healthy and tacked on two or three productive seasons at the end. But the relative brevity of his career and his 2,314 hits are likely to hurt his cause.
Still, for the voters who sift through the numbers and carefully measure his impact during 15 seasons in Houston, Bagwell merits a place in Cooperstown.
In his book "The Stark Truth," ESPN.com's Jayson Stark ranks Bagwell as the third most underrated first baseman in history behind Hank Greenberg and Willie McCovey. Stark points out that Bagwell is the only first baseman ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 200 bases, and one of three first basemen (Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx are the others) to score 1,500 runs and drive in 1,500 without logging significant DH time.
In August, Richard Lederer of the Baseball Analyst's Web site stacked the career numbers for Bagwell and Chipper Jones side-by-side and said the two players should be "slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famers." Bagwell ranks 37th all-time among position players with a WAR (wins above replacement) rating of 80. He's ahead of Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson and several other baseball greats in WAR, which combines offense, defense, baserunning and a player's position to determine how many added wins he gives a team when compared to a baseline "replacement level" substitute.
Factoring in all the numbers, Lederer wrote that Bagwell is arguably the fourth-best first baseman ever behind Gehrig, Foxx and Albert Pujols.
From 1991 through 2004, Bagwell ranked among the top five in Major League Baseball in almost every major statistical category. He attained those numbers while playing half his games in the Astrodome, a park that was widely regarded as a hitter's graveyard.
Diverse media opinions
Now for the ticklish part: Even though Bagwell never waved his finger before Congress or appeared in one of Jose Canseco's books as a steroid user, he must contend with the same suspicions as other sluggers of his generation. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, in discussing his Hall of Fame choices this year, wrote that Bagwell "may just be a victim of the cheaters around him." But Shaughnessy ultimately left Bagwell off his ballot.
"Bagwell never tested positive for anything," Shaughnessy wrote. "But like a lot of players who will follow him to the ballot, he was a guy who made you wonder."
Former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman, who does not have a Hall vote, went considerably further in a recent blog post, when he declared himself "99 percent certain" that Bagwell used performance-enhancing drugs.
In reality, Bagwell's only links to steroid use have been inaccurate, hazy and/or fleeting. Shortly before the release of the Mitchell report in December 2007, a New York TV station broke the news that it had obtained a list of "expected" violators. But the list turned out to be a phony, and Bagwell, Pujols, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Albert Belle were among more than three dozen reported steroid "violators" whose names never appeared in the actual Mitchell report.
"It was completely made up," said Barry Axelrod, Bagwell's long-time agent. "The Mitchell Commission never even talked to Jeff."
Several months later, in May 2008, the New York Daily News reported that a Pasadena, Texas-based trainer named Kelly Blair had bragged to friends that he had provided performance-enhancing drugs for Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Bagwell while the players were teammates in Houston. But Blair has since offered conflicting versions to the media and a federal grand jury about his involvement in supplying PEDs to Clemens and Pettitte. And Bagwell has maintained from the outset that he has never met Blair.
"I hear stuff about me all the time in Houston, Texas," Bagwell told ESPN.com. "If you're 5-11 with a goatee, you're Jeff Bagwell. I don't even know this person. I couldn't even tell you how to get to Pasadena, and this guy is saying he was with Roger and Andy and he knows me? Are you kidding me?"
Bagwell has a large contingent of high-profile media advocates, including former ESPN analyst Peter Gammons and Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice, who first interviewed Bagwell about steroids in 2004 and said he has always found Bagwell's denials of PED use to be credible. Justice recently wrote a column explaining his decision to vote for Bagwell for the Hall of Fame.
"I know of zero evidence he used steroids," Justice wrote. "All the aggressive reporting on steroid use has come about as a result of criminal investigations. Bagwell's name has never been mentioned in these investigations."
In the end, it's a difficult task for Hall of Fame voters to decide on certain players even without the added baggage of steroid rumors. Bagwell's detractors point to his .226 batting average in 33 postseason games. His supporters counter with his .998 career OPS with runners in scoring position. And teammates and opponents alike seem to believe that Bagwell had the obligatory "presence" that distinguishes very good players from the truly special ones.
"Whenever you played the Astros when they were in their heyday, the one guy you had to get through in that lineup was Baggy," said Chipper Jones. "He showed up every day, he played hard and he was a complete player. There aren't too many more compliments you can throw on a guy than that."
Will Bagwell receive the 75 percent haul of votes necessary to make it to Cooperstown on the first ballot? That's a long shot.
Does his overall body of work warrant a plaque in the Hall of Fame someday soon? The answer to that question is yes.
9hEthan Sherwood Strauss