Work in Sports
Jeff Bagwell has proved that by trading him to the Astros, the Red Sox made another Ruthian mistake
By Leigh Montville
Issue date: July 26, 1993
The news of the trade arrived in Albany, N.Y., in the early evening of Aug. 31, 1990. Jeff Bagwell, the Double A Eastern League's leading hitter, was not prepared. He was suited up in the gray road uniform of the New Britain Red Sox, taking a little batting practice before the start of a three-game series that would determine whether his team would make the playoffs. He had never even thought about being traded.
"There were rumors that something was going to happen because it was the trading deadline," Bagwell says, "but everybody figured it was going to be one of the pitchers who would go."
The batting-practice pitcher that evening was New Britain manager Butch Hobson. Bagwell was a third baseman, and Hobson, a former big league third baseman, had said earlier in the season that Bagwell "reminds me a lot of me." Is that what a manager says about someone who is going to be traded? Bagwell saw New Britain pitching coach Rich Gale approach the mound. Gale whispered something to Hobson, who shook his head and then yelled for Bagwell to follow him to the dugout. "Bags," Hobson said, "you've been traded."
This was one of those surreal personal moments when the earth seems to move only in one particular place. Everything around that spot remains the same, untouched, but for the person in that one particular place. . . . Houston? The Houston Astros? If Bagwell had stood on his head and been spun like a top, his perspective couldn't have changed more dramatically. He was a New England kid from Killingworth, Conn., whose eyes had been directed toward making that long throw, third to first, at Fenway Park for as long as he could remember. He had done everything he could to get there. He was leading the league in hitting. What did he do wrong? He was a righthanded hitter. Had they forgotten about the Green Monster at Fenway?
"I was one of the saddest guys you'll ever see," Bagwell says. "I had to go back into the clubhouse, take off the uniform and watch the game from the stands. All my life everything had been Boston. I was born in Boston. My father was from Watertown, my mother was from Newton, both outside Boston. We moved to Connecticut when I was about a year old, but our house was one of those places where you couldn't mention the word Yankees when you came inside the front door. Every weekend the television would be tuned to channel 6. The Red Sox. No other games. My grandmother Alice Hare, she's 81 years old, she still lives in Newton, and she can tell you anything you want to know about the Red Sox. I called her to tell her the news. She started crying."
Almost three years have passed since the trade. Guess who's crying now?
"The worst moment of my life turned out to be the best moment of my life," Bagwell says. "Isn't it strange how these things happen? If I'd stayed with the Red Sox, who knows where I'd be? I have to think something would have happened and I'd be in the major leagues somewhere, but who knows? I might be playing in Triple A in Pawtucket. I might be sitting on the bench in Boston. Who knows?"
Bagwell is sitting in an Italian restaurant called Carrabba's, in Houston. This is the place he took his wife, Shaune, on their first date. They were eating at a table near a window when a kid appeared with a sign that read ARE YOU JEFF BAGWELL? He nodded his head. Shaune was impressed. They have been married since November, and no one need ask the question anymore. The owner of the restaurant knows his name. The waiters. Everyone. He is, well, a 25-year- old baseball star in the making.
Earlier this season the Astros took out an ad in the Houston papers that filled two thirds of a page with Bagwell's picture and his name in capital letters. The ad notified readers that Bagwell had been named National League Player of the Month for May. His stats for the month were also mentioned -- a .412 batting average, seven home runs, 25 RBIs -- along with the reminder that you could "see Jeff in action. For tickets call 6-ASTROS." Even after a slump in early June, at the end of last week he was still among the top 10 in the league in seven offensive categories in this, his third major league season.
The trade that sent Bagwell to the Astros for relief pitcher Larry Andersen now looks like one of the most lump-headed moves in a history of lump-headed Red Sox moves. (You want Babe Ruth? O.K., send us a lot of money, and we'll send you Babe Ruth.) Andersen pitched so-so in 15 appearances during the Red Sox's stretch run to the playoffs in '90 and then immediately departed for the San Diego Padres as a free agent. Boston general manager Lou Gorman was left with nothing to show for Bagwell but an unending line of talk-show callers questioning his judgment and sanity. Each time Bagwell does something good -- like become Player of the Month -- the calls only increase.
"I understand the trade now, what Lou was trying to do," Bagwell says. "The Red Sox were in a pennant race. They needed help. I was third on their chart at third base. They had Wade Boggs. They had Scott Cooper at Pawtucket. You look at that, and you look at their situation -- they bring in free agents all the time. I might never have gotten a chance.
"You'd go to spring training with the Red Sox, and you'd have a feeling that nothing was open. Because nothing was open. The team was always set, no matter what anybody did in the spring."
Houston was opportunity. Remember how Brer Rabbit would slyly protest, "Please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in dat briar-patch." For Bagwell, the briar-patch was Houston. The Astros were going through their own public relations turmoil after dumping a lot of their players with big contracts and declaring that they were going to rebuild with kids. Bagwell was a kid they wanted. Houston assistant general manager Bob Watson says the Astros had talked to the Red Sox "at least eight times" before Boston, in need of another arm down the stretch, became desperate enough to make the deal.
Houston's plan was to bring Bagwell to spring training as a nonroster invitee, use him to put a little heat on incumbent third baseman Ken Caminiti, another kid, and then send Bagwell out for a year of Triple A experience in Tucson. Bagwell changed all that. This was a training camp where it did matter how you played.
"I owe a lot to Caminiti," Bagwell says. "He was my friend from the beginning, always telling me things that would help. He went about 11 for 11 to start the spring too, just to show how hard it was going to be for me to take his job."
"I still don't like the position they put me in, bringing someone in like that," Caminiti says. "But my thought has always been that if someone comes along who's better than you, then he deserves the job. You have to have confidence in yourself. Someone's going to take your job someday, but it isn't going to be his fault. You might as well help each other."
Ten days were left in spring training when the Astros made a decision. Caminiti was still hitting like crazy. Bagwell was also hitting like crazy. Have you ever played first base, Jeff? Caminiti stayed at third, and Bagwell was handed a new glove for a new position. He played doubleheaders every day for the rest of the spring, playing first base for a minor league team in the morning and for the Astros in the afternoon. When the season opened, he played only one game a day: at first base, for the varsity.
The groans from Boston could be heard for the rest of the season. ("Jeff Bagwell never will play a game at third base in the major leagues," one Red Sox official had predicted. Well, he was right.) Bagwell learned his position with on-the-job training and didn't feel comfortable at first base until August. But at the plate he was comfortable from the beginning. Comfortable? Bagwell not only hit .294, good enough to win the National League Rookie of the Year award by a landslide, but he also hit with surprising power. In two years in the minors he had hit only six home runs total. In his first year with Houston he hit 15.
"I had hit some long balls in batting practice, so I knew I could hit it out," the six-foot, 195-pound Bagwell says. "I just never thought about it much. Then I made some adjustments in my swing. I've always lifted weights anyway. The ball started going out. Now, sometimes, that's all I think about, and it gets me in trouble."
The 1991 Astros were awful. With all those kids in the lineup, they lost 97 games, but that was one of those dress-rehearsal seasons to prepare them for the future. Bagwell was visiting one new ballpark after another, learning pitchers he had never seen. But the losing was not a drone, it was a happy buzz.
"I'll tell you what made the greatest impression on me during the whole year," he says. "We were in Atlanta when the Braves clinched the pennant. We'd played them early in the season, and maybe 10,000 people were at the game every day, nobody paying too much attention. Then, at the end of the season, the place was filled every night. All these people were singing and cheering, celebrating. It made you think. You play in the minor leagues and it's all individual, really. You have standings and championships, but really everybody is always looking up, trying to figure where he's going to go next. This . . . this was the difference in major league baseball. The individual didn't matter. Winning mattered. I watched the Braves, and everything came into focus for me: This is what I want for us."
The trade was now official. Bagwell's dreams came in blue, orange and white.
"I still root for the Red Sox," Bagwell says. "Butch is the manager in Boston now, and Rich Gale is the pitching coach, and a lot of my friends are there. My family still roots for the Red Sox. My grandmother still roots for them. I guess it's something you always have."
At week's end Bagwell was hitting .316, with 15 homers and 63 RBIs. His most impressive statistic came on June 4, when he broke the Houston record for most games played in succession (213). Through Sunday the streak was at 253 and counting, the second-longest one in baseball, though well behind Cal Ripken's 1,827. But after making an early run at the San Francisco Giants, the young Astros had fallen 13 games behind the National League West leaders.
Houston -- the place he didn't want to be -- couldn't have been kinder. Shaune grew up there. They bought a house on a golf course in suburban Sugar Land. During spring training Bagwell rejected an Astro offer of $6 million for three years so he could go to arbitration after this season. One way or another he will be looking at an awful lot of Houston money in the near future.
It is all staggering for a New England guy who didn't know what to expect from this game. With the short summer, with little opportunity to impress scouts, how many New England kids even get a shot at the big leagues? Bagwell wasn't even scouted coming out of Xavier High in Middletown, Conn. In his junior year his University of Hartford team played only 31 games. What kind of a chance is that?
"I got my chance in the Cape Cod league, during the summer," he says. "A lot of the players from the best programs in the country come to play there. You get a job. You play baseball at night. Albert Belle was playing there. Frank Thomas. The first year I went I was a last-minute addition to the team in Chatham. I got a job washing dishes at a Friendly's restaurant. The other players on my team, they would come in, eat, then write me notes in ketchup and mustard on their dishes. I hit about .205 that year, but I looked at those guys and decided I could play with them.
"The next year I was on the team early, so I got a good job, working on the field. I went to Friendly's to bug the guys who worked there. But every one of them had quit after one or two days. Why didn't I think of that? Why didn't I quit?"
Bagwell's .315 average that summer of '88 in the Cape Cod league led the Red Sox to select him in the fourth round. His .333 average at New Britain led the Red Sox to . . . well, that's the story that has been told. The Red Sox.
"Tell me this," Bagwell says. "Why hasn't Lou Gorman ever been fired? Everybody else seems to be fired up there eventually. Why hasn't he been fired after all these years?"
Ah, yes. Still a fan. Why did they trade this guy, anyway?