Bagwell's Beginnings

Looking back on a remarkable first impression of Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell

Jeff Bagwell's unique batting stance generated massive power. Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Stringer/Getty Images

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

I can still hear it today, almost 26 years later. It was Kissimmee, Florida in the spring of 1991. The Astros had not yet started actual spring training games, but they were taking batting practice in preparation.

Standing about 100 feet away, I stopped whatever I was doing immediately. So did everyone else. I walked toward the cage and asked who was in it.

One of my Houston Chronicle colleagues at the time smiled and said, “That’s Jeff Bagwell.”

It was something I will never forget, because the ball jumped off the bat unlike any player I had ever seen. Sometimes over the fence. Sometimes in the gaps. Always on the barrel. Everyone knew Bagwell was a top prospect. But that day, after watching a simple batting practice, I knew the young player with the unique batting stance was going to be a star. He went on that year to become National League Rookie of the Year. He was still just a promising kid then, but over the next 15 years, he would become something so much more.

And this year, he became a Hall of Famer.

Bagwell was safely in with 86.2 percent of the ballots, well above the 75 percent needed. He joins a class that includes Tim Raines and Pudge Rodriguez.

It is an honor that is long overdue. Bagwell is the epitome of a Hall of Famer. Baseball fans love their stats, and Bagwell’s 449 career home runs, .297 batting average, 1,529 RBIs, 2,314 hits, MVP award, and four all-star appearances all check off the appropriate boxes.

But they don’t tell the real story.

Bagwell was the undisputed leader of a group that helped get the Astros to the postseason six times in his 15-year career. He was ultra consistent, never driving in fewer than 82 runs in a season until his body finally broke down in his last year, 2005. He drew walks. He played defense. He was a quiet leader who took the heat with class and calm after every playoff failure, something critics harp on to this day. It was the same criticism of Craig Biggio.

They never did it in the playoffs.

Biggio got in the Hall before Bagwell, because he hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits. But Bagwell was always the better player. Biggio was the fireplug, pain-in-the-ass leadoff man who had a little hot dog in him. Fans and media loved that.

Bagwell was just the quiet pro who carried the team on his back year in and year out. And each year, the ball still jumped off his bat out of that spread-out stance.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

I was fortunate enough that most of my print journalism career mirrored Bagwell’s baseball career. I watched as he, Biggio, and the late Ken Caminiti rebuilt the Astros. Other stars would come and go, but Bagwell and Biggio were rock stars. The Killer B's became a reason to go to every game in the Astrodome and later Minute Maid. I watched as they came agonizingly close to postseason glory, never quite getting there.

The Bagwell moments I remember are too many too list. But there was one in particular that was not about home runs or numbers.  It was the last game in the Astrodome, where the Braves ended yet another promising season. John Rocker struck out Bagwell and Caminiti in the bottom of the ninth with the Astros down 7-5 with a runner on second. Bagwell and the Astros had fought back from a 7-1 deficit to get to that point. Gritty. Gutsy. Never quitting. Just not quite enough to win.

And Bagwell handled that postgame as he did all of the disappointments — with class and dignity. Like a true leader. A true Hall of Famer. Like that first day in Kissimmee, it’s a memory I will always keep.

It was bittersweet to see the Astros make the 2005 World Series with a broken down Bagwell unable to perform at the level we had been accustomed to seeing. He was overlooked that year by the Clemens, Pettittes, and Berkmans of the world, playing just 39 games. He was back in time for the World Series, but he was never really back.

Perhaps fittingly, it ended there. Oh so close once again.

Had his body held up, his numbers would have made him a first ballot selection. Instead, he has been forced to wait by writers with regional biases and some who believed he was one of the steroid creations, even though there was no real proof. Yes, when they started testing, he showed up at spring training noticeably smaller. But if that is your so-called proof … and the debate about whether or not steroid-era players are Hall of Famers is one to be held at another time. I believe they are and it would not impact my ballot.

I left the Chronicle one year before I would have been a member of the Baseball Writers long enough to get a Hall ballot. I would no longer vote even if I could, because that is an honor that should go to people who are still involved in baseball on a day-to-day basis. I have moved on to a job with a broader sports scope. But those rumors would not have kept anyone off my ballot. Not Roger Clemens. Not Barry Bonds. And certainly not Jeff Bagwell.

Regardless, that is no longer an issue, because the voters did the right thing. I interviewed Bagwell many times, played in a golf tournament with him once, and we crossed paths a few other times over the years. I never really got to know him very well, but he was always friendly, helpful and engaging. You get jaded in journalism and try to stay distant from the people you cover. You sometimes forget that those people are bringing joy to fans every day.

And that’s what I remember most about Bagwell.

I loved to watch him play baseball. Once the Astros moved downtown, on the nights I could get out of the office early, I would walk down to Minute Maid to catch a few innings of as many home games as possible. And I would always make sure I hung around long enough to see Bagwell at the plate. Because you never knew when something special might happen.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

Of all the great Astros who have come through Houston during the years, Bagwell was my favorite.

And it all went back to that sunny day in Kissimmee when I was first exposed to the future star. How I knew then we were watching the start of something truly special.  The beginning of a fantastic career. The start of an era of Astros glory that will never be matched.

That day I saw the greatest Astro in the history of the franchise taking batting practice.

Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell.

---

Originally appeared on houstonsportsandstuff.com.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome