Bagwell deserves to go out his way

Originally Published: February 24, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- None of us humans ask much out of life. But we do ask this:

To be allowed to be who we are and do what we do until we can't do it anymore.

That's true whether you're a guitar player or a nuclear physicist, a foreign-car mechanic or a sportswriter.

Can Jeff Bagwell shoulder the load?

Or the best baseball player in the history of the Houston Astros.

That's a label most people would hang on a gentleman named Jeff Bagwell, even though there are arguments to be made for Craig Biggio and Jose Cruz Sr. -- and maybe a few other guys if you're a professional quibbler. But that's a debate for some other day.

It'll have to be, because the debate on this day -- the day Jeff Bagwell arrived for his 16th spring training as an Astro -- was a debate that's slightly more serious. And a lot more uncomfortable.

In most dots on the spring training map, when the best player in franchise history shows up, you can practically hear trumpets announcing his arrival. You can almost see the red carpet stretching from the parking lot to his locker.

Heck, at the very least, the boss is happy to see him.

But that wasn't the feeling anybody -- particularly the Greatest Astro Ever -- got Friday morning when he found his way to his locker and had to resist the urge to reel in shock that it was still there.

If it were up to his owner, multigazillionaire Drayton McLane, Bagwell never would have reached that locker Friday. Never would have made it into the player parking lot. Never even would have been invited.

No, if this had been the owner's call, Bagwell would have pulled the plug on his Hall of Fame career a month ago ...

And announced that his disintegrating right shoulder wouldn't permit him to play baseball anymore ...

And then, in the owner's fantasy-land of a script, Bagwell no doubt would have personally driven to the office of McLane's insurance broker to pick up that $15.6 million disability check McLane has been salivating over for months now.

Except that wasn't the script the owner got to see acted out Friday.

All because Bagwell just wanted to be who he is and do what he does -- and find out for himself whether he can still do it anymore.

"This is what I do," he said. "This is who I am. I can't just go away. It's not my nature."

And it's not a fate his 15 seasons of relentless production, magnanimous leadership and way-beyond-the-call professionalism should have earned him, either.

Most career HRs, all for one team
Player Team HRs
Mike Schmidt Phillies 548
Mickey Mantle Yankees 536
Ted Williams Red Sox 521
Ernie Banks Cubs 512
Mel Ott Giants 511
Lou Gehrig Yankees 493
Stan Musial Cardinals 475
Willie Stargell Pirates 475
Carl Yastrzemski Red Sox 452
Jeff Bagwell Astros 449
But on a team whose best players have never tried to squeeze the last dollar out of the owner, it seems unusually cruel that it was the owner who decided to make Bagwell's exit about the money.

Yes, McLane had the right to take out an insurance policy on a man signing a five-year, $85 million contract (as he did back in 2001).

And yes, it didn't help anyone's cause that the policy McLane took out forced him to file his claim on Jan. 31 instead of, say, March 31.

But the bottom line is still that one of the wealthiest men in America prioritized his insurance money over the inclination to do what was right. To treat his best player the way men like this deserve to be treated.

So feel free to ignore all of McLane's spin-ology Friday: That he was happy to see Bagwell and shake his hand. That "friends" sometimes disagree. That his greatest wish is that "Jeff can come back and compete and make a major contribution to the Houston Astros."

All that sounded beautiful. But in actuality, McLane tried to discourage this guy from even showing up -- because all it was going to take was the sight of Bagwell playing catch in spring training to obliterate any chance McLane could collect.

The truth was, there was no real way to stop Bagwell from walking in the door and buttoning up his uniform. So that's the way it was allowed to unfold. But by the time it did, it felt more like a baseball peep show than the first day of spring training.

Eighteen camera crews followed Bagwell around as if he were Paris Hilton. His first batting-practice session of the year -- a fun-filled foul-ball festival against unsympathetic Roy Oswalt -- was documented more exhaustively than Samuel Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

"I knew it would be a little bit of a circus," Bagwell said afterward. "And that's certainly not what I want. ... I don't like having the focus on me -- 'whether he can play or he can't play,' what's going to happen, how I feel and how my teammates feel. That's a little weird for me."

Yeah, for him and for just about everyone else. McLane described the situation as "complicated." GM Tim Purpura called it "tough." Bagwell's pal, Biggio, fired out the day's first "unfortunate."

Of course, we should mention that it wasn't so unfortunate that Biggio felt the urge to stop himself from offering Oswalt 20 bucks to drill Bagwell when he stepped into the cage. Baseball players aren't genetically capable of doling out that much sympathy.

Fortunately for Bagwell, Oswalt turned down the offer -- but "only because Biggio is so cheap," Bagwell laughed. "Maybe $100 would have done it."

At another juncture in a three-hour workout, Lance Berkman imitated Bagwell's throwing motion by literally shot-putting a ball toward home plate. And Bagwell reported that he took the most abuse of all for arriving with hair that flowed well over his earlobes.

"Hey," he said, "it's better than talking about my arm."

But he knows he'll get about 8.3 million opportunities to discuss that in the next few weeks. So at this point, he's a big fan of any attempt to change the subject.

No matter how this saga turns out, Bagwell will get paid because his contract is guaranteed. And no matter how many hits, if any, he has left in him, he already has made himself a Hall of Fame candidate by becoming the only first baseman in history with more than 400 homers (449) and 200 stolen bases (202).

But that doesn't make this particular episode any less unsightly. And Bagwell made no attempt to hide the fact that he was ticked off about it, even though he never raised his voice while describing his emotions.

He was angry, he said, just because of "the way things came about, the process. I don't think this was exactly the way I envisioned how it should go. I understand the circumstances. But I should have the right -- like any player -- to see if I can play."

And that's a right McLane initially preferred Bagwell not get. So there is no doubt that, by playing this card, the owner has created far greater distrust in this clubhouse than he realizes, even though his players practically invent their own X Games gyration event to avoid answering those sorts of questions.

"Everyone can make their own decisions about what's going on," Biggio said. "It's not for players to answer. It's just a tough situation right now."

Biggio and Bagwell have played more seasons (15) and more games (over 2,100) together than any other set of active teammates. Their names have been as closely linked as Hall and Oates, or Lennon and McCartney, or possibly even the Captain and Tennille. So the thought that this might be the end of that pairing is almost impossible to fathom.

"You know, it was going to happen sooner or later," Biggio said. "We understand that. Whether it's another year, another two years, whatever, we know it's going to happen. We know nobody can play forever. But for now, the thing I'm happy about the most is that he's down here and he's getting the opportunity to play. And he's such a professional, if he can't play, he'll let you know it."

Which is what makes this soap opera so unnecessary. Bagwell has consistently said he wouldn't try to fool anybody, or hang on just to hang on, or even take up roster space that could be better used on someone else.

I've been a Houston Astros my whole life. I'm very proud to wear this uniform. I'm proud to have been an Astros my whole life. ... I just want to play for this team -- and finish off the way I want it to go.
Jeff Bagwell
He is merely asking for a couple of weeks to see for himself, he said. He doesn't need a doctor to tell him. He doesn't need the owner or the GM or the manager to tell him. He doesn't need to see his Grapefruit League numbers (which are historically abysmal) to tell him.

"I'll tell me," he said. "I'll know how I feel. I'll know whether or not I'm able to play."

He has actually prepared himself, he said, for the possibility that he can't make it back. He already has thought about "how I'm going to react and how I'm going to feel. So I think it will be an easy transition if I feel I can't play anymore. But right now, I want to concentrate on seeing if I can play.

"I've said throughout this that I understand the business of baseball," he went on. "If I cannot play baseball this year and I'm physically unable to play, trust me -- I want them to collect as much insurance as they can. I'll write the letter. That's not an issue for me. I just want to get a chance to see if I can get there."

A chance. It's all he asks. It's all anyone would ask. A chance to be who he is and do what he does -- and determine for himself whether that simply isn't possible anymore.

By a freak coincidence, Bagwell's agent, Barry Axelrod, also does legal work for Michelle Kwan. And the parallels in their stories aren't lost on the man who has had to weigh the fates of both of them.

"All Michelle wanted was to see for herself if she could do it or not," Axelrod said Friday. "And when it became evident that was too much to ask, Michelle was the first to say she had too much respect for the Olympics and for this country to go out there when she knew she couldn't. Here, it's a different sport and a little different situation. But I think you could plug in the same kind of comments with Jeff -- if it comes to that."

If it does come to that, though, Bagwell deserves the right to end his career on a ball field, not in some insurance adjuster's office. He deserves the right to make that call himself, not to have an owner make it because he sees dollar signs break-dancing before his eyes.

Bagwell said Friday that he doesn't want to envision a situation where he thinks he can play and the team thinks he can't. Nor does he want to dangle the possibility that he could finish his career as a DH somewhere else.

"I've been a Houston Astros my whole life," he said. "I'm very proud to wear this uniform. I'm proud to have been an Astros my whole life. ... I just want to play for this team -- and finish off the way I want it to go."

He knows that finish line is somewhere off in the distance, and probably not very far off in the distance. But if Jeff Bagwell has earned nothing else, he deserved this day.

He deserved to get to one last starting line before something -- or somebody -- pushes him across the finish line.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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