Monday, October 27, 2014

RF Jeff Bagwell: The story of the Hall of Famer's one-time stint in the outfield

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Jeff Bagwell's MVP award announcement on October 27, 1994, Friend of Astros County and newest Astros County Deputy Tyler Stafford penned this look at Jeff Bagwell's outfield stint.

I consider myself a bit of a Jeff Bagwell connoisseur. I grew up watching him and Craig Biggio hold down the right side of the Astros infield for my entire childhood, and I distinctly remember him being the first batting stance I ever truly took note of. I even think of him in the shower! (Wait, that came out wrong. What I meant was that I thought of my twitter handle one time in the shower… and the rest is history.)

But for all of the things I thought I knew about Bagwell, one very important fact had somehow escaped my grasp: On July 2, 1994, Jeff Bagwell played right field -- the one and only time in his 2,150 game career that he took the field anywhere other than first base.

1994 was already a fascinating year for Bagwell. Three years removed from his 1991 Rookie of the Year campaign, Bagwell was putting together the best season of his career. A broken hand and labor strike ended his year, but not before he mashed 39 home runs, drove in 116 and put together a slash line of .368/.451/.750. After the season, he was unanimously named the National League’s Most Valuable Player – receiving all 28 first-place votes.

1994 was a fascinating year in general, too. In the middle of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the Rockets and Knicks were interrupted by a slow-moving white bronco for some reason. Three days later, Lion King was released on June 15, which prompted the Houston Chronicle to print “The Rockets need three more championships to match the record of Walt Disney Pictures’ animators.” Pearl Jam complained that “Ticketmaster ticket agency tacks on unreasonable service fees.” The United States threatened military action on North Korea. So basically nothing has changed.

The 1994 Houston Astros were in for quite a year, as well. They had just uprooted from the N.L. West for the newly christened N.L. Central, where they faced some staunch competition. Despite having the fourth best winning percentage in the National League, their record of 66-49 put them half a game behind the Reds and out of the playoffs when the season abruptly came to a half on August 11.

That’s the overview of what will happen. Now let’s get down to the fun part. On June 24, Bagwell blasted three homers in an Astros 16-4 win over the former division rival Dodgers. The Reds had a two and a half game lead over the Astros for the division crown.

Three days later, Bagwell went 2-for-3 against the Reds, raising his batting average to .357. The Astros won 2-of-3 games over division-leading Cincinnati and at the end of June they were just one and a half games back.

Bagwell was on fire. He hit .394 in the month of June and set a still-club-record 13 home runs.

"I hit 13 homers in a month, and that's pretty unbelievable," Bagwell said. "I remember getting three in one game (June 24 against the Dodgers), but it seemed like I was hitting one every series. I guess that adds up after a while."

For his efforts, Bagwell was named the NL Player of the Month.

Though the Astros were closing in on the division lead, it was not the biggest news story of the day. General Manager Bob Watson was diagnosed with prostate cancer and would need surgery. "It's not all bad news," Watson said. "The condition was detected early enough that the diagnosis is good. The earlier you find it, the better chance you have at a normal life."

The next day, on July 1, the Astros lost to the Cubs 3-2, putting them two and a half games out. Bagwell had a league-leading 1.134 OPS and, up until this point, had played all 538 of his career games at first base. However, head coach Terry Collins shook things up on July 2, 1994 when he put forth a plan he had been mulling over for weeks.

33 year old first baseman Sid Bream, playing in the last season of his career, had been used almost exclusively as a left-handed bat off the bench. In fact, Bream had not started a game for the Astros in almost a month. However, Bream had been hot -- batting .400 on the season, though it was on only 42 at-bats.

Collins had an athletic Gold-Glove winner holding down first base in Bagwell, but Collins wanted to get Bream in the lineup. 

Bagwell was a third baseman in the Red Sox system before coming to the Astros in one of the more lopsided trades in history, but until Thursday, July 2, had never played a single inning in the outfield at any level of baseball.

When he trotted out onto the Astroturf, he got some weird looks.

"I ran out there and it was like people were saying 'What are you doing out here? Did you come out to sign autographs?'" Bagwell said. "I didn't know what I was doing either."

Bagwell played seven innings in right field, the foul pole 325 feet away from home plate. He fielded three ground balls and even caught a fly ball before moving back to first after James Mouton pinch-hit for Bream.

Collins' plan worked. Bagwell had no problems in right field and naturally had no problems at the plate -- drawing a walk and hitting his 26th home run of the year. Bream was 0-for-3, but the Astros won 5-4.

"I'm just glad he didn't kill himself," Collins said. "He did fine. He's a good enough athlete to handle it. I'm not asking him to be the right fielder of the year. I just want him to catch some fly balls that he can get to. He showed he can do it."

So if this plan worked so well, why did it only happen once? Simple. Bagwell caught the flu the next day and was forced to miss three games and by then, the momentum of the idea was gone. Bream filled in for the ailing slugger before Bagwell reclaimed his place at first. Those three starts would be the last of Bream's career.

Somehow, Bagwell had an even better July than June. He hit .409/.509/.875 and launched another 11 homers. He drew 20 walks, while striking out just 14 times. He drove in 29 runs, tying him for the club record with Jimmy Wynn for most in a month.

Bagwell was named an All-Star and continued to dominate as the Astros inched closer to a division title before the 1994 MLB season was cut abruptly short.

He would play 1,612 more games after his short stint in right field, never playing anywhere other than first base or designated hitter. Over the course of 15 season, he played 18,251.1 innings, all but seven of them at first.

In his career, Bagwell made 17,545 put outs. There were incredible digs, over-the-shoulder catches, diving stops and outs made after aggressively charging a bunt. But for my money, the most special putout the future Hall of Famer made was a nonchalant grab of Cubs catcher Rick Wilkins line drive in the top of the 5th with Darryl Kile on the mound. 

He didn't know it, but as Bagwell tossed that ball back into the infield, he was making history.

(You can see the box score of Bagwell's game in right field here. I did all of my research for this article at the Houston Public Library, you can see my scans of the microfilm articles I used from the Houston Chronicle here.)

Tyler Stafford is a senior at Texas A&M University where he is the sports editor of The Battalion, the student newspaper. He is graduating soon so you better make him a job offer quick before you lose out on him. Follow him on twitter @JeffBlogwell where he promises he won't talk about himself in the third person anymore.