The baseball intelligentsia has come to its senses and voted Jeff Bagwell into the Hall of Fame, where he will join his long-time teammate Craig Biggio, the only other Astro with a bust in Cooperstown. Bagwell’s case has always been strong. Advanced stats place him as the MLB’s second-best first baseman (trailing only Albert Pujols) since Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. He was a great fielder and the best base-running first baseman since the 1920s, with not one, but two seasons of thirty homers and thirty steals.
All of which begs the question: what took the Baseball Writers Association of America so long? In his first years on the ballot—Bagwell became eligible in 2011—he trailed such candidates as Jack Morris and Lee Smith. Frank Thomas, whose numbers were similar to Bagwell’s—but a touch inferior if measured season-by-season—coasted in on his first try. You could say the same for Mike Piazza, a middling defensive catcher but an amazing hitter, who edged out Bagwell last year.
But according to Houston baseball historian and author Mike Vance, Piazza’s election was key to Bagwell’s induction this year. Piazza, like Bagwell, was suspected of using steroids during his playing years. Also like Bagwell, there was never any confirmation that Piazza used performance-enhancing drugs. “[Baseball writers] had no real concept of who was doing what in the ‘90s, they just looked at anyone who was muscular and thought, ‘’Roids. Keep ‘em out,’” Vance says.
That prejudice held until last year, when—despite the taint of the same rumors that dogged Bagwell through his five unsuccessful campaigns—Piazza made it in on his fourth try. “Once he broke the dam, that made it easier for Bagwell to get in,” Vance says. Ivan Rodriguez, another ‘roid-rumor player, was inducted this year too.
But those rumors weren’t the only reason Baggy was kept out for this long: it was also the fact that he played the first third of his career in the Astrodome, where home runs went to die. It’s hard to imagine him not cracking the 500-homer career mark if he’d played his whole career in Minute Maid (née Enron), or even a neutral stadium. As it stands, Bagwell is the only player in history to hit twenty homers in one season in the Dome’s pitcher-friendly confines, and he did it three times.
Famed baseball writer Bill James has listed both Bagwell and Biggio among his top 50 baseball players of all-time. “Which is nice,” Vance jokes, “But it makes me wonder why the Astros still haven’t won a World Series.” And that, perhaps, is the one legit on-field criticism you could make of Bagwell’s career. His postseason numbers—a .226 BA with two homers in 129 plate appearances—are more similar to Mario Mendoza than Willie McCovey, and his contribution to the Astros’ sole pennant was minimal. Vance says you can partially excuse that meager production by the fact that Bagwell was facing the Atlanta Braves three-Hall of Famer pitching staff in two-thirds of those games. And you don’t want to get Vance started on Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and especially Tom Glavine, and how home plate umpires routinely granted those guys, oh, a foot or so leeway off the outside corner on ball-strike calls.
But this is no time for rehashing injustices—not when an ongoing one has finally been righted. Hurrah for Jeff Bagwell! There won’t be a dry eye in H-Town when Craig Biggio welcomes his old friend to Cooperstown.