Time to celebrate Bagwell's career

Let's celebrate Bagwell's career

Jeff Bagwell may make it back to the field. It's more likely that he won't. This is a sad time for anyone who knows him or watched him play, and we all should take a moment to reflect upon how lucky we were to have witnessed his stellar 15-year run in this game we love.

When the Astros retire his number -- and that should happen as soon as his career is officially over -- he'll receive the cheers and appreciation he deserves. It's hard to do that now, because he has a glimmer of hope he'll return.

But regardless of how this ends someday, now is the time to celebrate Bagwell, and everything he's meant to so many of us, on different levels.

Bagwell was never afraid of facing the end of his career. He just didn't want it to end like this. And that's why we're all feeling a little empty today.

He was always candid with his comments, admitting as early as a year ago that his shoulder problems could very well mean his career is over. He faced reality head-on, refusing to cloud the situation with false hope that somehow the gnawing pain was going to miraculously disappear.

On Saturday, he concluded that he could not play at an elite level anymore, and Bagwell, a proud man, knew the team was better without him at first base.

Sadder still is the fact that Bagwell's only intent was to play out his contract and ride off into the sunset. When he signed his extension after the 2000 season, he was asked several times how long he wanted to play. He would say, "I'm signed through 2006." To the question, "Yes, but how long after that are you going to play?" he would laugh and say, "I'll be 38 years old. What more do you want me to do?"

When the Astros were in Boston in 2003, Bagwell granted an interview with a reporter from a small newspaper near his hometown of Killingworth, Conn. He told the reporter he planned to play out his contract and then retire. The headlines splashed across newspapers and wire reports the next day read: "Bagwell announces retirement."

I've been around this team since 1997. That was the only time I've seen Bagwell irritated. He arrived to the Astros clubhouse the next day and about 15 cameras were in his face, wanting him to verify his retirement announcement. This was with three years remaining on his contract. He looked at reporters and said, "Why is this news?"

Sadly, today, he's facing that news. He was never afraid of the end. He just wanted to leave on his own terms. A bum shoulder is preventing that from happening. And he deserves better.

Through the years, friends, family and fans would often ask me about the Astros players. They wanted to know what these superstars were really all about, hoping like heck that they were not only great ballplayers, but great people. I was always so thankful that I could give an honest answer that would also let that person walk away happy.

When asked about Jeff Bagwell, my answer is the same every time: He's the nicest person I know.

I watched him closely over the years, waiting to see a trace of arrogance, or moodiness, or conceit. I'm still waiting. He treated everyone with respect, whether it was a reporter, a teammate, a clubhouse worker or a fan off the street. He knew he was blessed with athletic talent that earned him millions. But he never thumbed his nose at anyone.

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Anyone who has known Bagwell for the duration of his career says the same thing about him: He has not changed one bit since he walked into the clubhouse for the first time 15 years ago. No matter how much fame he gained or money he made, he was the same grounded kid who was shipped to Houston from Boston in 1990.

And he was an exemplary teammate, who cared only about winning. If he went 4-for-4 and the Astros lost, he fumed. If he was 0-for-4 and they won, he was all smiles.

After he went on the disabled list last May and had surgery soon after, he was still a huge presence in the clubhouse. When the Astros climbed out of their 15-30 hole and started winning, there was no one happier than Bagwell. I'd watch him smile and laugh with teammates after wins, and I thought, this team could get to the World Series and he might not be able to be a part of it. He may never play again. Yet, he wasn't thinking about that. He only cared that the Astros were winning.

As time goes on, I'll remember Bagwell as the master of the 3-6-3 double play. I'll remember how hard he charged batters on bunt plays. I'll remember his 300th home run, his 400th and every one in between. I'll remember how he hit for the cycle and humbly shooed away a batboy who asked him if he wanted the game ball.

I'll remember how he kept his head down and respectfully ran the bases after every home run. I'll remember the sheepish grin on his face in 1998 when he hit his first grand slam, ending a seven-year drought.

But I'll also remember him grinning like a 10-year-old while riding his skateboard from the players parking garage to the clubhouse, that he and Brad Ausmus playfully bickered like an old married couple, that he would correct himself in the middle of an interview if his grammar was off and that he called Craig Biggio "Kid" even though Biggio's 2 1/2 years older than him.

I'll remember Bagwell and Biggio hugging when the Astros clinched the National League pennant, the loving tribute Bagwell gave to Darryl Kile at the baseball dinner in 2003 and how he thanked his wife for blessing him with two beautiful children during his speech in November 2004 when he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.

And I'll also remember how his eyes lit up when he talked about his two young daughters, and how excited he seemed to be at the thought of showing them the world when it was time to hang up the spikes.

It may be time, it may not. But either way, now is the time to celebrate Jeff Bagwell -- the man, the player, the teammate and the friend. Life will go on, the Astros will go on. But there may never be another player with more heart, integrity, professionalism and respect for the game than Jeff Bagwell. For those of us that were here to witness the golden years, it's truly been a terrific ride.

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.