Jeff Bagwell wound up being Lou Gorman’s worst nightmare
If Lou Gorman were alive, we’d be giving him a call. We’d be asking the former Red Sox general manager whether he regretted trading Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for reliever Larry Andersen back on Aug. 30, 1990.
Gorman was one of the nicest, most professional people I’ve ever covered as a baseball writer. Many years later, he still said he would have done it again because he needed a closer and Andersen was the best out there, and Bagwell was a good hitter but had shown little power in the Red Sox organization.
Bagwell went on to a Hall of Fame career, which was stamped for Cooperstown on Wednesday, when he received 86.2 percent of the vote to join Tim Raines (86 percent) and Ivan Rodriguez (76 percent) in the Class of 2017.
Bagwell wound up being Gorman’s worst nightmare. This is what happens once in a great while when a GM deals a top prospect. It’s not the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last.
Dave Dombrowski has traded a few top Sox prospects and he’s done so at his own peril. Are Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada, Anderson Espinoza, etc., future Hall of Famers? Chances are no they are not, but how could any of us have predicted Bagwell would be a Hall of Famer after hitting four home runs and driving in 61 runs for New Britain in his Double-A season in the Red Sox organization?
“Not in my wildest dreams,” Bagwell said. “I knew I had ability, but I didn’t have crazy ability.”
At the time, Gorman reasoned that he had Tim Naehring, Scott Cooper, and Steve Lyons at third base. He had plenty of talent at that position. Bagwell was a third baseman, but he “needed work there” according to Red Sox personnel at the time. Butch Hobson, who was a Sox minor league manager at the time, told me he was going to move Bagwell to second base.
The Astros decided he was going to first base.
Bagwell was a big Carl Yastrzemski fan growing up in Hartford. His early stances mimicked Yaz, and then he switched to a Don Mattingly stance before he found a stance that was part Tony Gwynn from the right side, and one that “you should never teach to your children.”
“I watched Tony Gwynn and his stance was spread out and his head never moved. I just thought if I spread out and kept my head straight, I’d find something. That’s what I did,” Bagwell said.
As a New Englander who attended the University of Hartford, Bagwell wasn’t the happiest camper when he got dealt by the Red Sox to the Astros, but he came to understand the business of baseball.
He got to know Andersen, the man he was traded for, quite well.
“I knew LA and I love him,” Bagwell said. “He used to make fun of me when I was playing bad. He said you’re making me look bad, you have to step it up. Look up his numbers. He was pretty good at what he did.”
Bagwell said he had a tough transition from third base to first because of the different angles. Eventually he adapted and it became second nature. He never played for another team.
The Astros were probably the second-most successful National League franchise to the Braves during those years, the good ones starting in 1994 in Houston. His career started to flourish as his power began to emerge. Bagwell said he made some adjustments with his hands to create more backspin and thus more power in his swing.
“My hitting coach — Rudy Jaramillo — and I, we found that I hit a lot of balls with top spin,” Bagwell recalled. “I learned how to change my hands and get back spin. It just kind of worked out for me in my career. I don’t know what the mind-set was, it just progressed.
“You just have to learn how to hit a little bit. I was excited about learning how to hit and learning how to hit is difficult and it takes a while some times. I’m not saying I hit all the time, but I did the best I could.”
The position change from third to first also came swiftly, and with some resistance.
“At third most plays are to your glove side and at first most plays are to your backhand. So that took some getting used to.
“I played on turf so that made it easier. But I did have a challenge,” said Bagwell, who got great tips from Ozzie Smith on playing first base.
With the suspicion of PED use always following Bagwell, he was asked about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens moving up in the voting and what he thought of them joining him in Cooperstown some day.
“I’ll be very honest, Barry Bonds is the best player I ever played against and I was teammates with two of the best pitchers ever in Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. I love the way they went about their jobs. I’m a fan, put it that way,” Bagwell said.
Bagwell has gone through some rough years personally trying to beat some demons in his personal life, but he’s had a solid support system with friends like Craig Biggio and Tiger manager Brad Ausmus, who was an Astros’ teammate.
“He’s doing great,” Ausmus said. “Talked to him after the announcement and he’s in good spirits and extremely happy about the results.”
“He’s clearly deserving,” said former Astros president Tal Smith, who was around Bagwell for many years. “He was beloved here in Houston. He just excelled here with everything he did.
“He had the shoulder issue in Houston but he still managed to become a very good first baseman.
“He and Craig Biggio were so popular here for so long and to see both of them in now is quite a thrill for all of us. We’re very happy for him.”
Smith, who went to Biggio’s Hall of Fame induction and now plans to attend Bagwell’s, acknowledged that it was the suspicion of steroid use that likely curtailed his ascent in the voting even though the rumors were “unfounded” in his estimation.
None of it matters now. Bagwell beat the speculation. He’s in the Hall of Fame.
And maybe the worst possible thing happened to Gorman. But he did what he thought was best at the time. And now, may he rest in peace.
Video: Globe writers discuss Hall of Fame