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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bagwell's career comes to a close- MLB.com

Major League Baseball saw one of their best players on and off the field retire last week as long time Houston Astro Jeff Bagwell hung up his boots. Bagwell was not only the face of the Astros franchise for the last 15 years because of his on the field contribution, but also for the kind of person he was when away from the game. He was an extremly respected and admirable man and one who will be greatly missed by his peers.

Four-time All-Star's performance leaves lasting effects
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com

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HOUSTON -- After 15 seasons, Jeff Bagwell put an official end to his stellar career Friday, confirming what has been considered as inevitable for several months. Bagwell, the greatest hitter in the 45-year history of the franchise, announced that he is retiring from baseball.

Bagwell ends his career as the all-time club leader with 449 home runs, 1,529 RBIs and 1,401 walks. He recorded a lifetime batting average of .297, and he finished in the top 50 among all Major League players in seven categories: home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits, walks, slugging percentage, OPS and on-base percentage.

A four-time All-Star, Bagwell appeared in the mid-Summer Classic in 1994, '96, '97 and '99. He played in six postseasons and reached his first and only World Series in 2005, serving as the designated hitter in Games 1 and 2.

Bagwell's journey through his Hall of Fame-caliber career began in 1990. He was playing for the Double-A New Britain Red Sox, and in the middle of a game on Aug. 31, his manager, Butch Hobson, pulled him off the field.

Hobson broke the news quickly: Bagwell was headed to Houston, after the Red Sox traded him to the Astros for a much-needed middle reliever.

Bagwell, a native of nearby Killingworth, Conn. who had spent the past two years dreaming of playing third base for his beloved Red Sox, was speechless.

Houston? Texas? Several images popped to mind. Tumbleweeds. Horses. Cowboys. Here he was, steps away from wearing a Red Sox uniform, and now, this New England kid was headed for gosh-knows-where, as part of an organization he knew nothing about. And to make matters worse, he was traded for popular comic reliever Larry Andersen, whom the fans in the Bayou City were not pleased was leaving.

In Boston, the news was barely a blip on the transaction page. Bagwell was behind future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and prospect Tim Naehring, and his departure from the organization did not elicit much of an outcry. One rather astute baseball observer, however, reacted with disgust when he heard about the trade that night at Fenway Park. He knew the Red Sox would live to regret this.

"They passed out the press release near the dugout at 5," said Hall of Famer Peter Gammons, a Boston native who at the time was covering Major League Baseball for Sports Illustrated. "I rolled it up, tossed it in the trash barrell in the runway, went up the stairs and walked 1 3/4 miles home."

Bagwell may have had a similar reaction, but it didn't take long for him to realize that this trade was the best thing that could have happened to him. The Astros were rebuilding, replacing older veterans with young, inexpensive kids. Bagwell, having played no higher than Double-A, didn't figure to be in the mix in his first year with his new club. But after reviewing how the team was structured, with rookies and unprovens, he thought, well, maybe I have a shot.

He began Spring Training in 1991 as a third baseman behind incumbent Ken Caminiti. A month later, Bagwell hit his way onto the team, as a first baseman, giving the Astros what they figured to be a much better option than Mike Simms, who probably would have been the Opening Day first baseman for the sheer fact that the team didn't have any other viable options.

By the end of the season, Bagwell was the National League's Rookie of the Year. Three years later, he was the National League's Most Valuable Player. And just like that, he went from a homesick Boston kid to one of the most recognizable names on the Houston sports scene.

Beyond the statistics, Bagwell's contributions were priceless. His leadership in the clubhouse was as important as his performance on the field, and it's quite possible no other player in baseball generated more respect from his teammates.

Bagwell had a close, personal relationship with every player on the roster. When a young player was called up or the Astros acquired someone in a trade, Bagwell and Craig Biggio were the first to approach him to welcome him to the team.

Bagwell, remembering how he benefitted as a young player from veterans such as Casey Candaele, often took a young pitcher to dinner after his first Major League win. He was the first to reassure a reliever after a blown save or bad outing that things would be OK.

"He was a superstar-caliber player who really understood what every single player, regardless of their rung on the ladder, was going through," said Brad Ausmus, Bagwell's closest friend on the team. "He could relate to everybody, regardless of their status in baseball and their position on the team. He was very understanding."

In an era in which players are often more concerned about not hurting themselves, especially in a contract year, Bagwell played through an assortment of injuries. And he delivered.

He reached the 300- and 400-homer marks in signature fashion. He hit two off Brewers pitching on Aug. 19, 2000, to reach 300, and in Cincinnati on July 20, 2003, he knocked Nos. 399 and 400. Bagwell is the all-time club leader in multi-homer games, with 31.

Known as one of baseball's most instinctive players, Bagwell was nearly flawless on the basepaths. He stole home three times, including his swipe of the plate on Aug. 18, 2001, which contributed to a 3-0 win over the Pirates.

And his defense was second to none. He turned the 3-6-3 double play into his signature move, executing the somewhat acrobatic act with nearly 100-percent success rate.

"I was floored to see that he only won one Gold Glove," general manager Tim Purpura said. "I never saw a first baseman be that agile. Crashing in on bunts, whirling and throwing to second. He was a great defender."

Bagwell and Biggio were inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame on Nov. 12, 2004, and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame Feb. 9, 2005. As for Cooperstown, Bagwell will be eligible for that honor in 2011. After 15 stellar seasons as one of baseball's elite, he has a great chance to make it a hat trick.

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