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One of a Kind
Tom Verducci
July 19, 1999
A self-made slugger with a screwy stance, Houston's uniquely gifted Jeff Bagwell is Mr. Indispensable
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July 19, 1999

One Of A Kind

A self-made slugger with a screwy stance, Houston's uniquely gifted Jeff Bagwell is Mr. Indispensable

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The Great Creator

No one in baseball creates a higher percentage of his team's runs than Jeff Bagwell, at least according to this formula: runs plus RBIs, minus home runs, divided by team runs. Here were the major league leaders in that category at the All-Star break.
David Sabino

Player, Team

Runs Created

Team's Runs

Pct.

Jeff Bagwell, Astros

128

448

28.6

Vladimir Guerrero, Expos

98

363

27.0

Derek Jeter, Yankees

119

454

26.2

Juan Gonzalez, Rangers

120

476

25.2

Sammy Son, Cubs

108

432

25.0

Larry Walker, Rockies

122

488

25.0

Manny Ramirez, Indians

142

571

24.9

Brian Jordan, Braves

114

459

24.8

Magglio Ordonez, While Sox

103

417

24.7

Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays

122

496

24.6

Jeff Bagwell confounds you from the moment he settles in to hit with that spread-legged stance. This is not the intimidating bearing of a home run hitter. It is a game of Twister breaking out in the batter's box.

It gets worse. "I do everything wrong," admits the Houston Astros' first baseman. He drops his hands with one of those classic high school hitches. He does not step in to the ball. He steps backward, with his front foot moving slightly toward his back foot, then plants the front foot. Kids, do not try this at home. Indeed, Bagwell once spoke at a baseball clinic and offered no more than the following bit of technical instruction: "Get a good pitch to hit and suing as hard as you can." Shampoo bottles give more detailed instructions.

This, too, makes no sense about Bagwell: He struggles to hit middle-aged coaches tossing 70-mph lollipops. "The guy is one of the worst batting practice hitters ever," says teammate Craig Biggio. "He's lucky if he hits one out a day."

Now you understand what Lou Gorman was thinking when he made that horrendous trade. Gorman was the Boston Red Sox general manager who shipped Bagwell (drafted in the fourth round in 1989) to Houston at the 1990 playoff roster deadline to get a 37-year-old middle reliever, Larry Andersen, who would pitch a total of 22 innings in a Boston uniform. Bagwell, then 22, was a 5'11", 185-pound third baseman who had hit six home runs in 711 career minor league at bats. Six. Who knew? Not the Astros.

"They sent him to the Instructional League after the trade," says Houston coach Matt Galante, who since June 13 has been serving as the Astros' interim manager while Larry Dierker recuperates from surgery to remove tangled blood vessels in his brain. "I called down there one day and asked, 'How's this Bagwell?' They told me, 'Well, he's a pretty nice hitter, but he's got no pop. None.' "

Go figure. Today Bagwell is so power-packed that he can carry a team, even if he does so with one of the shortest bats in baseball (33 inches). "I can't think of any single player who means more to his team than Jeff Bagwell," Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker says. "Without Bagwell we don't win [the National League Central] the past two years."

Never has such praise rung more true than in 1999, Bagwell's ninth year in the dimly lit baseball market of Houston. The Astros' season has included more catastrophes than an ER episode. Dierker collapsed in the dugout with a seizure. Hitting coach Tom McCraw has been sidelined with prostate cancer. First base coach Jose Cruz missed more than a month with an irregular heartbeat. All-Star leftfielder Moises Alou tore up his left knee on a treadmill before the season even began. Third baseman Ken Caminiti still cannot run, nearly two months after straining his right calf muscle.

Amid the mayhem Houston reached the All-Star break percentage points behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds, mostly because of Bagwell. He had scored or driven in 28.6% of the Astros' runs (chart, page 58). No other player in baseball had accounted for so much of his team's offense. Bagwell ranked first in the league in walks (83), runs (81) and on-base percentage (.464); second in RBIs (78) and slugging percentage (.648); and tied for second in home runs (28). He could finish with 150 runs and 150 RBIs, a feat accomplished only once in the National League, by Chuck Klein of the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies.

As if that's not enough, Bagwell, a Gold Glove winner, plays splendid defense (no one's better at throwing out runners at third on bunts) and "is the best base runner on the team," according to Galante. At the break Bagwell had stolen 17 bases in 23 attempts. He plays so hard every day that righthanded starter Jose Lima carries a pocketful of dirt to the mound in honor of him and the equally intense Biggio. Such a solid citizen is he that back in his home state of Connecticut, the folks from the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce presented him with their Role Model of the Year award last January. The ceremony drew some 700 people, nearly all of whom left with an autograph and the touching memory of seeing Bagwell's eyes well up with tears.

"I went up to [leftfielder] Richard Hidalgo one day during batting practice and said, 'Ricky, when you make your $5 million a year, and you will, don't ever change. Be the same Ricky you are now,' " Galante says. "And you know what he tells me? 'Don't worry. I watch Baggy.' Bags is the most professional player I've ever seen."

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