MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Bagwell's work ethic resonated with teammates

Bagwell's work ethic resonated with teammates

HOUSTON -- When Lance Berkman was hitting .095 during his first month in the Major Leagues, he had the usual questions young players have about whether they're good enough to play at this level.

That's when Jeff Bagwell pulled him aside.

2017 Hall of Fame election results
Votes Player Percentage
381 Jeff Bagwell 86.2%
380 Tim Raines 86.0%
336 Ivan Rodriguez 76.0%
327 Trevor Hoffman 74.0%
317 Vladimir Guerrero 71.7%
259 Edgar Martinez 58.6%
239 Roger Clemens 54.1%
238 Barry Bonds 53.8%
229 Mike Mussina 51.8%
199 Curt Schilling 45.0%
Complete voting results »

"I think he's going to give me a great piece of advice," Berkman said. "Here's a veteran player that really wants to see me do well."

OK, here goes.

"He puts his arm around me and says, `You know, Lance, you might want to think about hitting a few more balls on the barrel,'" Berkman remembered.

And?

"And that was it."

Berkman smiled at the thought.

"Well, I wish someone had told me that beforehand," he said. "That was great advice."

And with that, a rowdy crowd of fans, teammates and friends roared with laughter Monday afternoon at Union Station, adjacent to Minute Maid Park.

Berkman was speaking as part of an Astros pep rally to celebrate last week's announcement that Bagwell will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Humbled Bagwell lauded by teammates, fans

Former teammates and managers as well as a long list of old friends showed up to laugh some and to tell some jokes. Wrapped into the funny stuff were moments when they wanted Bagwell to know what he had meant to them.

"I speak for a lot of guys," Berkman said, "when I say, `Jeff, thank you for your example. Thank you for being an older brother to me. We love you and are ecstatic for you. This thing is long overdue.'"

That was the tone of virtually all the remarks. That Bagwell was a great player. That he was a great teammate. That he prided himself on doing everything well and insisted, firmly but gently, that others do the same.

Berkman on Bagwell's impact

In 15 seasons, Bagwell was a four-time National League All-Star as well as a Rookie of the Year (1991) and Most Valuable Player (1994). He was a nearly perfect combination of power, patience, baserunning and defense. And along with Craig Biggio, he led the Astros to six postseason appearances between 1997 and 2005.

"He was a dream to have on your team and a nightmare to manage against," said Phil Garner, who did both in his years with the Brewers, Tigers and Astros.

 Astros owner Jim Crain said one of the first things he noticed after buying the club in 2011 was a sign posted in the team's workout room.

"Work hard, play hard or leave." -- Jeff Bagwell

That was one of the first messages Bagwell attempted to communicate to Berkman. When Berkman limped to first base and then headed to the dugout after being plunked by a pitch in a spring game, Bagwell pulled him aside the following day.

"Don't let anyone see you experiencing pain," Bagwell told him. "Just stay in there and wear it. And don't ever take yourself out of the game. Wait for the guy to come get you."

If it sounded like a small thing, it wasn't.

"It really taught me a lesson about there being a right way and wrong way to do things," Berkman said. "Being a Major League Baseball player isn't just about being a player. It's about being a professional. When I think of Jeff, that's what I think about. Someone his teammates loved. Someone who loved coming to the ballpark every day."

Biggio discusses Bagwell to HOF

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who is Bagwell's closest friend in baseball, nodded toward Biggio, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015, when it was his turn to speak.

"Like most Houstonians, I wish that Jeff and Craig had gone in together," Ausmus said.

Pause.

"Actually, I wished Jeff, Craig and I could have gone in together," Ausmus said.

He, too, had a more serious message about his admiration for Bagwell.

"When it comes to the Hall of Fame, I think we sometimes get too caught up in numbers," Ausmus said. "The thing for me about Baggy: He's what Hall of Fame players should be.

"Hall of Famers are the best of the best. They should be able to do everything. Run the bases? Best I've seen. Drive in runs? One of the most feared hitters in the game over a 10-year period. Gold Glove-caliber defender? I watched Baggy field bunts on the third-base foul line."

As for Bagwell, he's sorting through a tidal wave of emotions since Wednesday's announcement of his election. Two summers ago when he was in Cooperstown to celebrate Biggio's induction, he was struck by how many Astros fans had shown up.

He was particularly impressed by the numbers of families, of sons and daughters, moms and dads. He said that occasionally late in his career he would notice how many fans were wearing Bagwell and Biggio jerseys at Minute Maid Park.

Maybe, just maybe, he'd had more of an impact than he ever thought possible. Having grown up in New England, he remembered how he felt about the Red Sox's greatest players.

"Hall of Fame?" he asked. "That's like Ted Williams-type stuff. Carl Yastrzemski. That's crazy stuff. I'm trying to soak it in. This is something special for me.

"I think a lot of times we don't look at the magnitude of what we've done for people. Maybe baseball really does bring families together. Like it did for me watching the Red Sox play. If we did that, if we maybe made something nice for people, that's a pretty cool deal."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.