- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Time will tell if Chris Johnson, Michael Bourn, Brett Wallace and Houston's other young position players embrace Jeff Bagwell's teaching philosophies and maximize their potential at the plate. In the meantime, it must be fun to be a fly on the batting cage wall.
Bagwell, franchise favorite and hard-core Hall of Fame candidate, signed on as Houston's hitting coach during the All-Star break. He's been in the role six weeks, and the Astros already have some of the most entertaining coach-player dynamics this side of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets on HBO.
Bagwell loves interacting with the young players and fervently roots for them in the dugout. He also responds to unsightly swings and unproductive outs with a blend of humor, light sarcasm and entertaining banter meant to lighten the mood. The only thing missing is a keg in the dugout.
"Do I make fun of these guys?" Bagwell said. "Every chance I get."
Since the Jets already have dibs on "Hard Knocks," the Astros might want to opt for "Hard Fouls, Soft Line Drives and the Art of Trying to Develop an Offense on the Fly."
It's been a change-filled summer in Houston. During a three-day span in late July, the Astros traded Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia and sent Lance Berkman to the New York Yankees. That was eight All-Star appearances, 143 career victories, 1,648 hits and about $15 million in financial obligations off the books, and a sign of a whole new organizational approach on the part of owner Drayton McLane Jr. and general manager Ed Wade.
Shortly before sending two franchise fixtures packing, the Astros resurrected an organizational mainstay. During the All-Star break they replaced hitting coach Sean Berry with Bagwell, a former Rookie of the Year, MVP and four-time All-Star and the franchise's career leader in homers (449), RBIs (1,529) and walks (1,401).
In his first meeting, Bagwell assembled his hitters and stressed accountability and commitment. The comments resonated with Johnson, the son of Red Sox first-base coach Ron Johnson and a standout in an impressive National League rookie class.
"Basically he's about battling every day," Johnson said. "If you don't feel good at the plate or feel like you can't do certain things that day, just battle with what you have. I'm pretty sure we all understand who Jeff Bagwell is and what he's accomplished in the game. That makes him very credible and you tend to listen to what he has to say."
Bagwell inherited a lineup with veteran thumpers Carlos Lee and Berkman, career .288 hitter Hunter Pence and a bunch free-swinging kids just beginning their voyage of self-discovery. The early results are promising; the Astros swept a four-game series in Philadelphia this week and have a 58-70 record after a 2-1 loss to the Mets on Friday night. That's not bad for a team that was outscored 44-14 on the way to an 0-8 start under new manager Brad Mills.
After ranking 28th among the 30 major league clubs in runs scored before the All-Star break, the Astros are tied for 14th since the break. Several Houston players credit Bagwell with helping them relax and lowering the stress level in the clubhouse.
On any given day, Bagwell might be ribbing Pence for swinging at pitches around his neck, or giving Johnson the business for chasing too many balls in the dirt. At one point, Lee was getting jammed by so many fastballs, Bagwell joked that he might be better off flipping the bat around and holding it by the barrel so he could get more wood on all those inside pitches.
Bagwell is 42 and will make his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot in December, but he's still a player at heart. Every now and then he'll hop in the cage and take a few hacks, just to sample each hitter's lumber or show that the old man still has a little pop. He recently took some cuts with Pence's 34½-inch, 32½-ounce Dinger model, and instantly determined that it was too big for him to generate any hits.
"I was definitely nervous when he first got here," Pence said. "I didn't know how to talk to him. It's Baggy. You hear all the stories from everyone around here about how he was the greatest leader and such an awesome player, so you put him high up on a pedestal.
"But there's been a huge change in this clubhouse, and he's been part of it. He makes you laugh on a daily basis and have fun hitting again. He says to us, 'You guys have too many feelings. You can't have feelings in this game.' He'll just rag on you."
Bagwell's professional career began in 1989 in the Boston chain before the Red Sox traded him to Houston in the infamous Larry Andersen trade. To this day, Bagwell points to Rudy Jaramillo, his first hitting coach in Houston, as a huge career influence. When Bagwell hit 15 home runs as a rookie in 1991, he was darned pleased with himself. But Jaramillo kept pushing and ratcheting up the expectations, and soon enough Bagwell was hitting 18 homers, then 20, before crushing 39 during the strike-shortened 1994 season.
Every hitting coach develops his own style with time. Bagwell, a .408 career on-base guy, wants Houston's young hitters to show more discipline at the plate, but he knows that patience can't be forced. And he's less inclined to dwell on mechanics than a hitter's mental approach and the never-ending quest to get a good pitch to hit.
Bagwell's other rules to live by:
• The power of observation beats the wonders of video every time.
"Hitters always see the pitcher out there and say, 'What has he got?'" Bagwell said. "I'm like, 'He's right here. Watch him when you're on deck. Don't ask me or some scout who sits behind the plate.' I don't want guys up [the runway] every single inning watching their at-bats on video when they can find out something that's happening on the field. Watch the game. Talk to your teammates. Look and see if the guy is tipping pitches."
• Refrain from re-living the old days at all costs.
"There's one thing the guys don't want to hear: 'When I played. When I did this.' They don't want to hear that," Bagwell said. "I usually say it when I talk about me failing. I tell people that I struck out [1,558] times in the big leagues. That's three years worth of strikeouts. I know how to fail, so I get it."
• It's generally accepted that great players don't make good coaches, because everything comes more easily to them and they can't relate to the average player's struggles. But Bagwell refuses to put himself in that category. He understands the value of a good oh-fer as a teaching tool.
"I've been through the same crap they've been through," Bagwell said. "Hitting did not come easy to me. It's work, and it's hard. I wasn't a Ken Griffey Jr. where I was going to be great and everybody knew it. So I understand what they're going through. I might convey it more in sarcasm than other ways. But there's no bigger fan of these guys than me."
Bagwell understands the arbitrary nature of the business when he thinks about his predecessor, Berry, a respected, diligently prepared coach who was in his fifth season as hitting coach when the Astros fired him in July. It didn't help Berry's cause that Berkman and Lee, the two high-priced cogs in the middle of the order, were hitting a combined .247 at the All-Star break.
"I feel terrible about it," Bagwell said. "Are you kidding me? There was nothing wrong with Sean. Sean worked way harder than I do. It's just that our best players weren't hitting. But that's the thing to do now: Teams fire the hitting coaches and the pitching coaches."
After so many years as a player, Bagwell isn't quite in sync with the rhythms and routines of coaching. It amazes him that Al Pedrique, Jamie Quirk, Bobby Meacham and the other Houston coaches show up at the park at noon each day and are drinking coffee and preparing seven hours before the first pitch.
Life on the road can be a grind, and Bagwell is finding it difficult now that his children are 7 and 9 and every trip means missing another family bonding moment. As he weighs the costs of all that travel, it's cast some doubt over whether he'll return in 2011. But the definitive answer probably won't come until October.
"When he agreed to take the job, it was with the understanding that we would both reassess at the end of the season," Wade said. "It's our hope that Baggy decides to stay with it, because I think he can be a huge asset as our hitting coach and I think he's invigorated."
It's been only 39 games, but an invigorated Jeff Bagwell clearly has a lot to offer as a teacher. And his students are all ears.