Bagwell deserves Hall of Fame call
Jeff Bagwell belongs in the Hall of Fame. Not on the 10th time on the ballot -- he belongs on the podium in Cooperstown this summer making his characteristically modest speech before Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, et al.
To steal from Rob Neyer, the man is fourth on the career Wins Above Replacement list among first basemen, behind Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols.
Think about that, and think back to the Astrodome and how it ground down a hitter's mentality, and think about hitting 449 home runs playing the majority of your home games in that cavern.
Not to live in the obtuse, but look at his historic place:
OPS? .948, 21st, right above Mays, Aaron and Robinson.
Adjusted Batting Wins? 58.38, right above Mike Schmidt and Willie McCovey.
Adjusted OPS? Again, follow the list of HOF members below his name, which happens to be 21st all-time.
When faced with crises of self-doubt, I usually turn to Rob Tracy at Elias Sports Bureau, who began his Bagwell support by writing, "What he was able to accomplish (along with Craig Biggio) in Houston -- especially in the Astrodome years -- is nothing short of amazing."
Tracy turns to the conventional statistical line: His .297/.540/.408 should be an automatic pass key, as every eligible player with .290/.500/.400 is already in the Hall. Bagwell scored 1,517 runs and knocked in 1,529. Every eligible player with 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs is already in Cooperstown. The other 15 players who hit the 1,500/1,500 level for one team are all in the Hall.
Bagwell was a great defensive first baseman, whose extraordinary feet allowed him to retreat onto the infield grass and either start 3-6-3 double plays or get tough forceouts at second, a difficult play for a right-handed first baseman throwing through and across runners.
"Even as the arthritis limited him late in his career, he has remained absolutely fearless making that throw," Biggio once said of his teammate. All statistics admired, this was and remains a human game, and fearlessness is a qualifying attribute.
Harold Reynolds once did a piece on why the best baserunners in the game rated Bagwell the best baserunner, period. Oh, Bagwell wasn't stealing bases, but they talked about his secondary lead, his ability to read balls in play, the way he perfectly cut bases.
In doing a piece about Bagwell and Biggio in the late '90s, I had three different teammates talk to me about Bagwell's quiet leadership. "There's nothing worse than his stare when something isn't done the right way or someone doesn't play as hard as he should," said Brad Ausmus. "No one wants to risk Baggy's stare," said Billy Spiers, the onetime Clemson football player. "The great thing about Baggy's presence," said then-coach Matt Galante, "is that he never has to talk about himself. Every teammate knows what he stands for."
It is a valid criticism of some of the sabermetrics that they reduce players to rotisserie figures and make individual numbers more important than winning. Fine. But in addition to Bagwell's numbers, one of his favorite expressions was "one of the greatest things in baseball is to be at the bottom of the pile in October."
There is little question about Jeff Bagwell's credentials as a Hall of Fame candidate. But will he get more than 50 percent of the vote? After he was traded to the Astros in what remains one of the most inexplicable blunders in Red Sox history, he played his entire career in Houston, out of the glare of Friday Night Lights.
Then there is the whispered PED question. Yes, Bagwell worked out eight hours a day in his offseasons and was astoundingly strong, but after he retired, I asked two of his best friends -- both of whom were close to him during his playing days -- and they were adamant that they did not believe he used steroids before there was a more stringent testing policy.
Yes, in the later stages of his career, Bagwell lost a great deal of body mass and strength, because he suffered from and with a congenital arthritic shoulder condition and could not lift weights the last five or six years of his playing career.
We have not come to grips with the PED era, or what it means. Do Mark McGwire's admissions eliminate him? Or do we raise a more valid question of whether or not any player who tested positive once there was a testing plan in place beginning in 2005 -- which relates to Rafael Palmeiro and, eventually, Manny Ramirez -- is therefore ineligible? When the word "cheating" is thrown around so loosely, do we ignore the amphetamines that allowed players in the '50s, '60s and '70s to play day games after night games and further accumulate stats? Do we ignore spitters and sandpaper? Then do we raise questions about world champion teams from the mid-'90s to 2004 because of "suspicions"?
We have media members who believe in a black-and-white one-and-done code when it comes to Cooperstown. We have those who believe their eyes are enough when it comes to making judgment, bifocals or no bifocals. Two springs ago, Mike Piazza asked, "How can someone write that I was a steroid user because of acne? When did I fail any test?" Thankfully, Piazza pushes that issue, as one of the greatest offensive catchers and a surefire Hall of Fame performer.
Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens are going to be fascinating votes in future years, all very different case studies that will dictate prolonged, complex debates.
Meanwhile, Bagwell never failed any test, to our knowledge. Did he lose body mass later in his career? Yes; so did the indefatigable gym rat Carlton Fisk after he stopped lifting for hours every day.
On the day of the June Draft in 1989, Bagwell was playing in a New England college all-star game in Fenway Park, representing the University of Hartford. When he came up for what was his second at-bat, a scout in the stands behind home plate said: "The Red Sox just drafted this guy [in the fourth round]."
Bagwell actually didn't find out he'd been drafted until he got home to Connecticut that night, but, minutes after being drafted, he hit a ball into the screen above the Green Monster. One year later, to the month, his Double-A manager, Butch Hobson, said, "You'll always remember the first time you saw Jeff Bagwell, because he's George Brett and Robin Yount -- everything right about the game."
No one yet has proven Hobson wrong. Numbers and peers show Hobson to have been a prophet, and if Bagwell doesn't make it on the first ballot, then it may be time to ask: Have we spent so much time trying to find off-field guilt that we've stopped watching and enjoying the game and created a hall of victims of that game's circumstances?
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.