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JIM MURRAY

He's Best You Never Heard of

May 12, 1994|JIM MURRAY

The subject for today is "So you think you know baseball?" Only, it's not one of those magazine quizzes. ("If three men hit third base at the same time, one returning to the bag, one arriving from second and one from first, who, if anybody, is out?")

No, this is on the practical level. I would like to ask the quizee to identify the player who is certifiably one of the four or five best in the game, certainly one of the best hitters, and he probably couldn't cash a small personal check out of state.

I'll give you a hint: His last name begins with a B. No, not Barry Bonds! You think Bonds would have trouble cashing a check anywhere?

Are you ready? OK, his name is Jeff Bagwell. There'll be a short pause now while you all say "Who?" and begin scratching at your ears to be sure you heard right.

"Jeff Bagwell is one of the best players in the game today?" you sneer. "Get oudda here!"

You heard me. Jeff Bloody Bagwell.

Yes, I know you've never heard of him. He plays for Houston. Nobody ever heard of anybody who ever played for Houston except for Nolan Ryan. It's kind of baseball's foreign legion. They play the game indoors and for years their outfield was just smaller than Rhode Island. There were eight no-hit games pitched in their ballpark in its 30-year history and more than 30 one-hitters. There were 34 inside-the-park home runs hit there. Babe Ruth might have been a contact hitter there.

They've moved the fences in (by moving home plate out) but the Astrodome is still a long way from a band box.

Usually, when a guy makes the big leagues after only parts of two years in the minors (where he easily batted more than .300) he comes up to the big show with flags flying, horns blaring, and can't-miss written all over his dossier.

Jeff Bagwell looks so little like the part, pitchers think there should be a law against it. He should carry a warning from the surgeon general or somebody. Might be injurious to your health.

First of all, he's average-sized for baseball, only six feet, 195 pounds. You look at his statistics and you picture a 6-foot-5 giant with a blue-black beard, a chaw of tobacco in his cheek and a perpetual snarl. Jeff Bagwell looks as if he's going to sell you a vacuum cleaner. He's almost baby-faced. You imagine Billy the Kid looked like this. Until he drew.

Willie Mays batted .274 his first full season in the major leagues. Henry Aaron hit .280, Mickey Mantle, .267--and Barry Bonds, .223, if it comes to that.

Jeff Bagwell hit .294 his first year. In his "sophomore jinx" year, he hit .273. But he drove in 96 runs and hit 18 home runs. Last year, he hit .320, sixth in the league.

But do the pitchers fear him? Pitch around him? Well, they walked Bonds 126 times last year and 43 of them were intentional. They walked Bagwell six times intentionally, only 62 overall.

Well, maybe he has this piercing Ted Williams eyesight that can calibrate the spin even as it leaves the pitcher's hand?

He wears contact lenses.

He is like the choirboy who turns out to be a serial killer. He makes pitchers overconfident. They bear down on the Tony Gwynns, the Barry Bondses, Ryne Sandbergs and David Justices. They treat Bagwell as if he came to drag the infield or rake the batter's box.

You get ballplayers from California, Texas, Florida or one or all of the Caribbean islands. You don't get them from Connecticut. You don't get them from places where the season is six weeks long and you have to make do with a batting cage the rest of the year.

That was a mistake the Boston Red Sox made. As a New England boy, Bagwell would have been made to order for the "Sawks." They drafted him out of college (University of Hartford), where he had batted .413. His favorite ballplayer was Carl Yastrzemski, and they probably should have given him his shot at that left-field wall in Fenway on that alone. But sentiment ranks low in the grand old game, and the Red Sox schlepped him away to Houston for a 38-year-old right-handed relief pitcher in 1990.

If he played in New York, he might not be a candy bar by now, but he could cash a check and get asked for his autograph. He would probably have his own tabloid headline name "Bags Tags Dodgers With Homer in 11th."

In Houston, he doesn't get to swagger. He's batting .331 (78 points higher than Bonds). He leads the league in runs batted in.

He was rookie of the year in 1991, thus joining a pretty distinguished cast of characters (Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Jackie Robinson, to name a few).

He bats cleanup for the Houston Astros, but he might as well play in a mask. He's as anonymous as a Swiss bank. He is modest. "I'm not a No. 4 hitter," he complains. "I'm probably a No. 3 hitter. Bonds is a No. 4 hitter. Joe Carter."

The other night, with a 1-0 lead, Dodger pitcher Tom Candiotti forgot who was batting and started Bagwell with a fastball you throw to a No. 8 hitter. A moment later, it was in the left-field pavilion. A fan in a food line was startled. "Who was that?" he wondered. "Houston first baseman," he was told. "What's his name--Birdwell?" the fan wanted to know. "Bagwell," he was told. "Bagwell? Is he new?" "No," he was told. "That's his eighth homer this year already. That's his 61st home run in four years." The fan grumbled. "Who does he think he is, Barry Bonds?"

By the end of the season, Bonds might wish he was Jeff Bagwell.

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