KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jeff Bagwell popped out of the Astros' clubhouse on Friday, just as he said he would all along, and commenced his stretching and jogging and fielding and hitting, exactly the kind of "ings" players go through every day at spring training. Bagwell even did a little throwing, if that's what you want to call it.
It was, quite possibly, the costliest workout in the history of Major League Baseball. If anyone has earned it, though, Jeff Bagwell has.
This strange, convoluted and increasingly sad case -- Bagwell vs. the Astros -- took a fateful, inexorable leap forward on Friday when Bagwell, just as he said he would, reported to spring training at the Osceola County Stadium complex. There, he'll spend the next couple of weeks trying to determine whether his surgically repaired and arthritis-ridden right shoulder is up to the demands of a 16th big-league season. But this story has way more to it than that.
The Astros have serious doubts as to whether Bagwell can play. They've had two doctors certify Bagwell as "disabled," because of that shoulder, and they've filed an insurance claim in an attempt to recoup $15.6 million of Bagwell's $17 million salary. And now they're concerned that, by simply showing up, Bagwell has jeopardized their claim.
To say the least, the saga has strained the relationship between the front office and its popular first baseman. Bagwell and owner Drayton McLane, once the tightest of owner-superstar pairings in the game, reportedly had not talked to each other in months before they bumped into each as the team convened for the first full-squad meeting on Friday. They shook hands, but that was about it. "A chance meeting," Bagwell called it.
"This is a difficult thing," Bagwell said after his morning workout. "I understand the business side of baseball. Trust me, I want them [the Astros] to collect as much as they can. But I just want the chance to see if I can play.
"I still should have the right to see if I can play."
That, before any legalities and insurance folderol, is the overriding question here this spring. Bagwell has hit 449 homers in his career, driven in more than 1,500 runs, played in 2,150 games, averaged .297. But crippled by the shoulder that has bothered him for years, Bagwell underwent radical surgery last June and played in only 39 games in 2005.
Can he play in 2006?
"He doesn't know and we don't know," said the team's general manager, Tim Purpura. "That's the hard part."