My most vivid memory of Jeff Bagwell happened in a mid-summer game just after Minute Maid Park opened. I can’t recall the exact game, but if I had to guess, it was this one: June 20, 2000.
The Astros were playing the Dodgers. It was the first year Houston was in then-Enron Field. We were sitting in the top deck along the first base line. It was late in the game and they had just opened the roof.
The sun had just set, so the light was still dying above the railroad tracks. Bagwell, quiet for most of the game, came up to bat and launched one of his trademark moonshots into left field.
I got to see the ball soar out into that creeping darkness and hang there, like it was setting the stage for that bigger white orb popping up later in the night.
It was just about as perfect a baseball moment as I’ve experienced.
That the moment was authored by arguably the greatest Astro ever made it better. That the greatest Astro was also so very imperfect made it poetic.
At the end of his magnificent career, it’s those imperfections that will define Bagwell.
His time with the Astros began with one of the most lopsided trades in modern history.
His batting stance was often imitated, completely impractical and highly successful.
His greatest season ended with a broken hand, a broken season and a cancelled World Series.
For years, his marvelous regular season play was overshadowed by four postseason failures. As if 15-odd games of struggling can erase a thousand of brilliance.
His career just happened to coincide with an era in baseball marred by a steroids issue ignored by writers, owners and players until it couldn’t be any more.
His final few years were destroyed by a debilitating injury he fought through until he couldn’t fight any longer.
When he was playing, there wasn’t another Astro on the roster who left fans in awe quite like Bagwell. But, Bagwell’s personality wasn’t so big as to suck the air out of a room.
He seemed a quiet guy, one that ran a welcoming clubhouse. He left room for big personalities like Randy Johnson to fit in seamlessly while also incorporating standoffish ones like Jeff Kent just as easily.
He lost two good friends during his playing career to tragic ends.
His post-playing career has been dogged by baseless whispers about PEDs and a messy trial that brought his private life briefly into the public eye. Neither of these things were fair, but as my dad said, life’s not always fair.
Bagwell’s winding road to the Hall of Fame crystallized all this. He should have gotten in on the first ballot. He was that transcendent when he played. There aren’t five first basemen in history better than him.
All those imperfections also lead to inevitable what-ifs.
What if the 1994 strike hadn’t happened?
What if Walt Weiss hadn’t made that catch?
What if Kevin Brown weren’t the devil?
What if his shoulder hadn’t given out?
What if he had hit some of those shiny, round milestones we all love?
What if he’d played on a coast instead of in Houston?
What if the Astros had won the World Series with him in 2004?
Bagwell’s career will always be inextricably linked to Houston’s other Hall of Famer, but it’s also defined by all those imperfections.
Not one of us is perfect. On that night back in 2000, as I watched that home run ball soar into the night sky, I didn’t think about the cracks in his career.
I just basked in the baseball moment that the greatest Astro made perfect.
That was enough for me.