- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Business is business, and Astros owner Drayton McLane has better ways to spend his grocery distribution money than on a 38-year-old first baseman -- especially one with an arthritic right shoulder that makes the baseball feel like a shot put every time he throws it.
So when McLane and general manager Tim Purpura met with Jeff Bagwell on Tuesday to tell him the Astros were declining his $18 million option for 2007, they groped for just the right words. It isn't easy saying goodbye to a franchise mainstay, even when you're giving him a $7 million buyout as a parting gift.
It was up to Bagwell, the consummate no-frills guy, to cut through the preliminaries and get to the heart of the matter.
"I think it was weirder for us than for Jeff," Purpura said. "We spent a lot of last week here talking about how we would do this. Then we sat down with Jeff and he was like, 'Everybody knows it's going to happen. It's no big surprise.'"
Since 1991, Bagwell and Craig Biggio have worked in tandem to establish a professional tone in the Houston clubhouse, grinding from spring training to the end of the season, disdaining excuses and showing teammates the meaning of the word "accountable."
Their faces appeared on bobblehead dolls, media guides and pocket schedules, while their names and numbers showed up on the backs of thousands of replica jerseys. Coming or going, you knew they were around.
Now the end has arrived for one and is progressively closer for the other. While most teams concentrate on the immediate future at this time of year, no club has a bigger challenge balancing sentiment and practicality than the Astros. It seems they're always balancing the future with the past.
"I've kind of stolen a line I heard President Kennedy use," Purpura said. "The torch is being passed to a new generation of Astros."
One of them, All-Star outfielder Lance Berkman, was driving his daughters to a church function on Halloween night when he reflected on the news of Bagwell's farewell. Sure, the Astros grew accustomed to Bagwell's popping in sporadically last season. But a sense of finality exists today that wasn't there yesterday.
"You start thinking about guys who used to be there when you first came up, and a lot of them are retired or getting to the end of their careers," Berkman said. "The passing of time is slow, but it definitely happens. You look up and all of a sudden you're one of those veterans and the responsibility is on you to carry on that tradition."
And for each signpost that passes, another procedural hurdle awaits. Today the star first baseman's option isn't exercised. Tomorrow, the general manager will pick up the phone, and the agent for the star second baseman will be on the line.
Now that the Astros have addressed Bagwell's situation, they'll try to reach agreement on a one-year deal with Biggio, who just completed his 19th season in Houston with 2,930 hits. Ideally, they'd like to get the matter resolved before the end of the free-agent filing period on Nov. 11.
The signs point toward this being Biggio's final season. While he ranked fourth among NL second basemen with 21 homers last year, his defense has slipped and his combined on base-slugging percentage of .728 was the lowest of his career.
Although negotiations have been amicable, it's not the mere formality you might think. Purpura said the Astros have offered Biggio a "fairly significant" raise over last season, when he made $4 million, but a gap remains in negotiations with Biggio's agent, Barry Axelrod.
"I think it will get done," Purpura said. "There's no difference of opinion over Craig's value to the franchise. He's a huge part of the franchise. But how do you put a value on what may be his last year? The longer you go on and play, there's some decline. How do you value that?"
The Astros have lots of other business to tend to after that. Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens will file for free agency, but have yet to decide whether they want to pitch in 2007. Regardless, the Astros have to explore other options. They might take a look at Woody Williams, a Houston native who would be payroll-friendly, or Randy Wolf, a lefty who's well-respected in the Astros clubhouse.
There's pressure on Purpura to go after a big bat. But Pettitte and Clemens cost about $30 million combined in 2006, and if they return, there may not be enough in the budget for a Carlos Lee. Luis Gonzalez, who began his career as an Astro, could be an option. He was second in the league with 52 doubles this season.
One announcement that might be slow in coming is a retirement declaration from Bagwell. He'll probably file for free agency as a procedural matter, just to keep his options open. As Axelrod, who is also Bagwell's agent, points out: It never hurts to be prepared just in case Boston wants to right an old wrong and bring Bagwell back for $20 million.
And if the Red Sox decide they're fine at DH with that David Ortiz guy?
"I talk to Jeff about a lot of stuff, but I never point blank said, 'If they don't pick up the option, are you going to retire?'" Axelrod said. "It's always a little uneasy. I finally asked him the other day, and he said, 'I haven't crossed that threshold just yet.' "
Purpura and Axelrod expect Bagwell to maintain his ties to the Astros franchise, just like Nolan Ryan in Houston or George Brett in Kansas City. Maybe he'll try broadcasting down the road, or help out in spring training, or pass through a minor league town to help straighten out a prospect's swing.
His old teammates will still see him around, for sure. But catcher Brad Ausmus, one of Bagwell's closest friends in baseball, said he'll miss the clubhouse interaction.
"Our lockers were side-by-side, and he was the one person I could count on to give me a straight answer, regardless of the topic," Ausmus said. "We sat together after each game, and we talked and watched baseball. It was nice to have that sounding board. The ironic thing is, despite the fact that we agreed on nearly 100 percent of all baseball discussions, it will be the disagreements and arguments that I will remember most."
Five years from now, Hall of Fame voters will debate Bagwell's contributions and determine his legacy. Maybe they'll penalize him for stopping at 449 home runs. Or perhaps they'll take note that Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rafael Palmeiro, Eddie Murray and Bagwell are the only full-time first basemen in the modern era to finish with more than 1,500 runs scored and 1,500 RBI.
"When he was in the prime of his career, before he got hurt, his numbers were as good as any right-handed hitter in the game," Berkman said. "This is obviously on a much lesser scale. But when you think about the Yankees, you think about Babe Ruth. And when you think about the Astros, you think about Jeff Bagwell."
The Astrodome eventually gave way to Minute Maid Park, and Roy Oswalt developed from a prospect into a $73 million pitcher, and Bagwell and Biggio endured lots of disappointment before appearing in their one and only World Series in 2005. Now one is done and the other is shrouded in twilight. Time passes, and there's nothing you can do about it.
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