Jeff Bagwell v. Reader Mail

Reader Dan writes:

Jeff Bagwell is the poster child for “This is what happens to you when you use steroids.”

* A light-hitting third baseman suddenly bulks up, and I mean bulks up huge, and starts hitting monster home runs in the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park;

* He exhibits all of the typical “symptoms” of roid use, including a swelled head (literally and figuratively);

* His body begins to show all of the signs of steroid use: increased hat size, increased muscle mass, jaw/chin enlargement; none of which could have possibly been achieved without the aid of PEDs;

* In a few short years, his body began to show the other signs of roid abuse: constant aches and pains, arthritis-like symptoms, etc.

* The rumors surrounding his roid use were rampant, and his denials of usage were always, and I do mean always, less-than-forthcoming;

* As soon as the roid-scandals broke, he suddenly “shrunk up,” despite the exact same workout regimen (by his own admissions) he had maintained for years;

* His “best friend” Biggio only lightly defended him during this period, always choosing his words carefully, and never going on the record as DEFINITIVELY defending his pal Bags;

* As soon as the roid scandal spooked him away from PEDs and he shrunk up, he exhibited ALL of the post-roid symptoms, basically, a complete body breakdown;

* In fact, he looked sickly and blanched the last years of his career, and his home run output dwindled to that of (see the first entry above) a light-hitting third baseman.

Bagwell was a cheater. He never even fully, completely, and clearly denied cheating. Personally, I don’t give a shit if he cheated; I would have done the same in his circumstances. But Hall of Fame? No fucking way. It’s about more than the numbers. If it looks like a cheater, and plays like a cheater, and walks like a cheater…well, it may not be a cheater, but it don’t belong in the Hall, baby. Get over it. Bags almost certainly cheated (neither you nor I will ever be able to “prove” our belief), and got paid handsomely from money that schmucks like you and I coughed up to see him play. That’s more than enough glory for this cheating asshole. Yes, he is an asshole, he does not exhibit any of the grace, style and character of Biggio, that’s for damn sure. If he does make it to the Hall, it will be a shameful moment for baseball.

Hey, Dan-

Thanks for emailing – we’re certainly game for a healthy back-and-forth discussion; that’s why we started the campaign. We’ll try and address as many of your concerns as possible, hoping that you’ll keep an open mind as we walk through what’s a complicated and, ultimately, subjective issue. And we’ll try and do the same, as well.

First things first, Bagwell has denied using steroids. Often.

Here’s an interview from as far back as 2001. And another one from 2004. And finally, here he is again, in 2010, flatly denying using steroids

I never used [steroids], and I’ll tell you exactly why: If I could hit between 30 and 40 home runs every year and drive in 120 runs, why did I need to do anything else?

And I don’t know that we (or you, or anyone else) really truly knows what a cheater looks, plays or walks like, but Bagwell’s career ascension, and ultimate decline, does not fit any of the prevailing steroid narratives. There are no egregious single-season outliers, in terms of power. He never hit 50 home runs; in fact, at a time when balls were flying out of stadiums, he only had three seasons of 40+ home runs. And you don’t see the suspicious late-career resurgence that seemed to mark so many guys like Barry Bonds (who hit 73 HRs when he was 36) or Roger Clemens (who won his 7th Cy Young when he was 41).

Bagwell’s power did surge in his early 30s – but it coincided with his move to Minute Maid Park, which was literally designed around his power stroke (short left field fence). He topped out at the age of 35 and then, like most “mortals,” he declined. There isn’t anything at all suspicious about that; in fact, it’s normal.

* Bagwell was not a “light-hitting” minor leaguer; he hit 48 doubles in 812 minor league plate appearances. For some perspective, in 1996, he set a career high with 48 doubles in 719 plate appearances. And keep in mind, he never played triple A; he went directly from AA to MLB. Power is something that develops. Players – especially young players with little-or-no college experience who are adjusting to wood bats and bigger parks (not to mention, better pitchers) – rarely step onto a minor league field and start launching bombs.

But the frame and stroke are usually evident, and scouts absolutely noted Bagwell’s power when was still in the minor leagues. Astros County posted five different scouting reports of Bagwell from 1988-90, and they all mentioned his power:

The Hall of Fame released an amazing collection of old scouting reports about a year ago. They have 5 reports, by three scouts from 1989 and 1990, on Bagwell. Bagwell’s power is mentioned prominently in all five reports. Jon Niederer, a scout for the California Angels, scouted Bagwell as a 20 year in 1989. Physically, he described Bagwell as having a “compact, very muscular build,” and described him as having “explosive, line drive power to all fields. – balls he hit really take off.” In two separate reports, Donald Lobassierre noted “power to all fields” and “good upper body strength.”

Also, it should be noted, Bagwell posted a .410 on-base percentage in the minors; .409 in 15 MLB seasons: the guy was a tremendously gifted hitter with incredible hand-eye coordination, control and plate discipline. Guys who have that? They hit, and they hit a lot.

* He also didn’t start “hitting monster home runs in the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park”; in fact, that’s indefensibly wrong. He played his first nine seasons in the Astrodome and, FYI, hit 15, 18 and 20 HRs in his first three seasons. In his fourth season, when he was 26, he had a jump (39) – but that’s surge is not historically odd. We’ve addressed this on the blog; I’ll quote:

Babe Ruth, the season he turned 25, saw his home run total jump 86% (from 29 to 54). Hank Aaron, in his fourth full Major League season, saw a 69% increase (26 to 44) while Ken Griffey, Jr. saw a 67% increase in his fourth full season (27 to 45). Three of baseball’s most revered power hitters – and they all saw their power take a giant leap forward at roughly the same age/level of Major League experience as Jeff Bagwell.

* Since you specifically mentioned it, we assume you can provide his pre/post-PED cap size?

* Muscles. Yes, he bulked up considerably. And yes, given the era, it doesn’t require a leap of faith to assume PEDs helped him; after all, MLB wasn’t, for the majority of his career, testing for PEDs and we know it was prevalent throughout the sport.

But you mentioned the rampant rumors – you don’t find it curious that for all the voluminous investigations, reports and books conducted on the specific subject of PED use in baseball, that Bagwell isn’t implicated in a single one? He never failed a drug test (that we know of) and he’s not mentioned in Jose Canseco’s book, the Mitchell Report, the BALCO investigation, the Biogenesis investigation, or any other high-profile, PED-related scandal. And he hasn’t been implicated by a former teammate, friend, trainer or either of his two ex-wives. In fact, Bagwell was in the middle of a high-profile divorce that included salacious allegations of drug use; yet, despite Bagwell’s (allegedly) reputation-smearing role as the “other man,” no one – not even the spurned ex-husband – said a thing about PEDs.

We certainly understand the suspicion. BUT, independent of any evidence – and there is NONE – we have to assume he’s innocent. It’s been 10 years since his career ended, and MLB has been on a witch hunt since at least 2003. And nothing has EVER surfaced about Bagwell.

* Your chronology of Bagwell’s physical decline is simply not accurate, nor is your description of his injury. He did not suffer a “complete body breakdown;” he had (has) an arthritic shoulder, which is actually hereditary and not linked to PED use in any way, shape or form. (You’re welcome to try and find the link, though.) He had multiple surgeries on it (2001, 2005, and, according this article, was contemplating full shoulder replacement in 2010) and, as a consequence, could not maintain the same workout regime he had prior to the injury, which is why he did look smaller over the final four years of his career (though, that’s relative – he was still bulky in 2005, his final season). And yes, he’s thinned out considerably in his post-playing career – his shoulder remains a physical impairment and without any prescriptive need to work out, has stopped and, as a result, shrunk.

Again, suspicion is understandable and can be healthy. But not if it’s used to justify closing one’s mind and only parsing through the evidence that fits their long –ago established conclusion.

* Regarding Biggio and his denial, we don’t believe he’s ever directly addressed Bagwell’s rumored steroid use; we certainly couldn’t find any comments where he’s been asked directly (which would make sense, considering he’s also under suspicion in some circles). Feel free to send those tepid comments from Biggio our way, though, so we can properly address them.

If you have the time, or the curiosity – we addressed most of your concerns on the blog – feel free to read the piece and we look forward to continuing the dialogue.

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