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House of blues

Astros' Bagwell struggles as he carries weight of Texas on his shoulders

Posted: Tuesday July 20, 2004 11:11AM; Updated: Tuesday July 20, 2004 1:25PM
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Find me an athlete in the sports world more frustrated right now than Jeff Bagwell. (Yes, Tiger, you're a close second.) Bagwell belongs on baseball's list of Mr. Nice Guys, somewhere next to Sean Casey, Eddie Guardado, Miguel Tejada, Torii Hunter, Luis Gonzalez, Jim Thome, Mike Sweeney and Ned Yost. For most of his 13-year career Bagwell has also been Mr. Astro, as much a fixture of Houston as Goode Company Barbeque or Enron. For the last month, the first baseman, a career .300 hitter entering this season, is batting .265 and on pace for his puniest home run total (22) since 1995. He's been playing with the weight of the state of Texas on his shoulders, and as if he is the main reason the Astros are fading from playoff contention -- his collapse is as perplexing as Sharon Stone's attendance at the ESPYs. The soul of the Astros is hurting inside, and his teammates can sense his pain. Last Saturday morning in the Astros' clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, in a bit of a strange moment, a young teammate who lockers near Bagwell was the one consoling his well-accompished elder, a four-time All Star and one-time MVP, who is in the fourth year of a five-year, $85 million contract. "Hey, don't worry about what that guy in the stands was saying last night about the $17 million," he told Bagwell, after hearing the heckler the night before. "Don't let it get to you. He's the only one in the whole stadium saying that stuff."

Morale is low in the morgue-quiet Astros clubhouse, where you could literally hear a clock ticking. More daunting to them is not that they face a six-game deficit in the wild-card race, but that they have eight teams ahead of them. The Astros' season comes down to their next nine games, of which five are against the woebegone Diamondbacks. If the Astros haven't cut into their wild-card deficit by the end of those nine games, get ready for an onslaught of Carlos Beltran-Nomar Garciaparra-three way trade rumors. ...

How unexceptional is the National League? An NL West GM predicts it won't take 90 wins to win the division. Another NL GM says 86 to 88 wins may be good enough to take the wild card. ...

The Pirates are one of the majors' best teams over the last month, winning 15 of their last 19 games, and yet last night the Pirates-Expos game attracted a crowd of 14,787 to PNC Park, a handsome downtown ballpark christened only three years ago. The Pirates are averaging 20,034 a game this year, lower than their last two years at the old Three Rivers Stadium. It's the latest evidence that the new ballpark bounce is as enduring as the vice-presidential bounce. ...

Fantasy tips of the week: 1) Take a serious look at Jaret Wright, who has (finally) rediscovered his mojo this season in Atlanta. But also pay close attention to his start times -- Wright is 6-2 with a 1.86 ERA at night; 1-3, 8.74 ERA during the day. 2) If he's still out there without a team, pick up Kansas City starter Zack Greinke, who is just 2-6 but after only 10-career starts has already established himself as the Royals' ace. ...

With so much time spent in the air and staying in out-of-town Marriotts, baseball players often find more time on their hands than M.C. Hammer. Even in the hours leading up to games, guys don't know what to do with themselves. Walk into a clubhouse, and if the players aren't out taking B.P. or lifting, you'll see half a dozen slouching on leather couches watching SportsCenter highlights for the third time; some fooling with their MP3 players; and a bunch flipping through whatever magazines are lying around, like they're in the waiting room at some dentist's office. (In an all-too-rare sight some even read a book -- last weekend Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg was reading, Bringing Down the House.)

July 15, then, was a date marked on ballplayers' calendars, not because it was the start of the season's second half or because I, Robot was opening the next day, but because it was the release date of EA Sports' latest NCAA football game for the PS2 and XBox, an occasion that Devil Rays All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford says he's "been waiting all year for". (A group of guys on the D-Rays hold NCAA and Madden tournaments, of which Crawford claims he's the king.) Video gaming in the past few years has emerged as a favorite time-killer among the younger generation of baseball players. So if you ever find yourself stuck in an elevator with a major leaguer and are looking to break the ice, it's worth a shot to start up a discussion on why the excessive use of the fake punt pass destroys the integrity of Madden. ...

That's the Blog for today. Enjoy the ESPY reruns.