Bagwell reports to Astros despite insurance dispute
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Houston Astros want their money. Jeff Bagwell wants to play.
The standoff between the NL champions and one of their most recognizable players took the expected awkward turn Friday when Bagwell arrived at spring training.
Bagwell had surgery in June on his right shoulder, and the Astros argue that Bagwell is too hurt to play. They filed an insurance claim in January to recoup about $15.6 million of the $17 million Bagwell is guaranteed this season.
"This is what I do, this is who I am," he said. "I can't just go away. That's not in my nature. I'm going to need a couple of weeks to see where I'm at and then make a decision from there."
The 37-year-old first baseman fielded grounders, made light throws and spent most of the team's first full-squad workout in the batting cage. He seemed relaxed but felt like the team's front office was watching every move.
"Just to get out here, get back on the field, I felt like it was a little bit of a trial camp today," Bagwell said. "I felt like I almost had to try and prove something, but yet I've got to sit back and say, 'No, I don't, I just have to get ready for April 1."'
Bagwell, the Astros' starting first baseman for 15 seasons, has said the team wants him to quit and that the situation has created a rift that may never be resolved.
He said the start of this spring training was "a little awkward," with his role on the team questioned for the first time.
"For so long, it's been, 'OK, he's playing first base. Don't even worry about him in spring training,"' Bagwell said. "But it's a different story now, and I fully understand that. That part has been a little weird for me, but that's the way it is right now." Bagwell has dealt with the arthritic shoulder since 2001 and says the team has never raised the issue until now. He batted no lower than .266 in the four years prior to 2005, when he missed 115 games following shoulder surgery.
"I've had plenty of conversations [in past years] where I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it, but I've always found a way to do it," Bagwell said. "And that's why I'm here again."
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Owner Drayton McLane addressed the NL champions before the workout and made a point to shake hands with Bagwell. McLane said the two talked briefly and that he wanted to meet with Bagwell in the next few days.
"It's like everything in life -- close relationships have different experiences as you go," McLane said. "I've been closer to Jeff than any other player in my history of the Astros. This is a difficult time for him, and that's where friends help friends and that's what I'm here to do."
McLane flew to San Diego a few weeks ago and met with Bagwell's agent, Barry Axelrod. Bagwell was receptive to the idea of meeting with McLane in Kissimmee.
"Eventually, he and I are going to have to sit down and talk. When that is, we'll figure it out at some point," Bagwell said.
Bagwell is the franchise's leader in home runs (449), RBI (1,529) and runs (1,517). He returned late last season and could bat but could not throw. He went 1-for-8 with an RBI in the World Series.
Doctors hired by the Astros to examine Bagwell last month told the club that Bagwell's shoulder was still damaged and that the team could no longer expect him to be productive.
"His shoulder is impaired, there's no question about that from anybody," manager Phil Garner said. "But definitely, you can make too much of what you see or don't see today."
Bagwell said he was mad at the Astros for the way the process has unfolded.
"I understand the business side of baseball," he said. "If I cannot play baseball this year and I am physically unable to play with the Houston Astros, trust me, I want them to collect as much insurance as possible. I'll write the letter. That's not an issue for me. But I just want the chance to see if I can play."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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