Being a member of the Oregon Trail generation, I recently realized that I am something of an elder statesman when it comes to the population of Americans who spend a large chunk of their time daily interacting with others online.
In the context of yesterday’s official election of Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell’s into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I realized that only a small percentage of my social media / blogging brethren can actually remember watching the man play in his mid-1990’s prime on a regular basis.
I feel somewhat privileged. And I want to share that experience.
My earliest strong baseball memories are watching my family’s Cincinnati Reds reach the world series in 1990 from our brand new home in Houston, Texas, to where we had immigrated only the year before. I have fleeting memories of names like Eric Davis and Chris Sabo and “The Nasty Boys” but no connection was made in my mind with the real figures playing baseball, and certainly no appreciation of their accomplishments despite my vast T-Ball and YMCA league experiences.
And so it wasn’t until Middle and High School, when my parents would take us to the Astrodome a couple of times per year so that we might enjoy their favorite sport as a family. Usually when the Reds were in town.
But I don’t recall a single name on those Reds teams. Because at every game I attended, there was Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, and they stood head and shoulders above any other player that I saw during that time.
I was in 11th grade when Bagwell hit 43 home runs and stole 31 bases for the 1997 Astros, the second year of an eight year run during which he hit .297/.419/.567 (154 wRC+) with 305 home runs and 139 stolen bases.
During that stretch, I went off to college and was fortunate enough to have a roommate who was a huge baseball fan and Astros devotee. The Astros were Louisiana’s team, if one was a baseball fan in Louisiana, because they were the only club available on local cable. We watched the Astros every day.
* * *
The late 1990’s were a wonderful time for watching baseball, because it wasn’t until later that we understood some of the reasons why home runs were leaving parks at record rates. It was still just innocently great baseball.
I saw records shattered, larger-than-life players, expansion of TV coverage and access to players, and an explosion of understanding of the game that came with the mainstream development of the internet.
Even so, some memories stand out from the others.
Writers and former players often laughingly talk about how intimidating certain pitchers are - Randy Johnson and his scowl; Walter Johnson’s devastating fastball; J.R. Richard. Pedro Martinez’ propensity for pitching inside. The list of pitchers labeled “intimidating” is quite long.
But rarely do batters gain that same label, at least publicly.
The very best batter I have ever seen is Mike Trout, and I’m excited to continue to watch his career. Behind him, Barry Bonds. But despite their prowess I, as a viewer from home, never labeled them in my mind with the adjective intimidating.
There are only two batters I have ever seen in person or on TV that have made me feel genuinely sorry for a pitcher.
The first was Gary Sheffield. His aggressive bat-waggle and incredibly violent swing always made me wonder if somebody was going to die when he came to the plate. [side note: a no-doubt Hall of Famer himself, and criminally underrepresented in the vote.]
The other was Jeff Bagwell. Something about his crouching stance and uber-intense focus on the pitcher while waiting for the pitch made me sure that the pitcher was quaking with fear.
I cannot think of one player currently playing who instills such pity in my heart for the poor soul on the mound than those two guys.
* * *
So during my formative years, my baseball Mount Rushmore contained only two faces, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio (in that order), and then there was everybody else.
Folks these days stubbornly defend the “Killer B’s” moniker, but I wonder how many of those web warriors personally remember their heyday. It wasn’t a clever marketing thing, at least not mostly. That nickname was deserved. It was earned. And not one player or media member during the 1990’s questioned, mocked, or disputed it. It was real, and it was the Houston Astros.
Because my experiences with baseball were centered around watching two of the greatest of all-time greats, it wasn’t until much later that I even appreciated the difficulty of the game. When you are young, you latch on to greatness and dream of being that great. But you don’t truly understand how rare and special it is.
It seems silly to even type this, but as a baseball fan now, especially as one who has a profound appreciation for the modern “spreadsheet” aspect of the game that sometimes dehumanizes players, I feel immensely privileged to have grown up watching Jeff Bagwell play baseball.
It’s a little thing. It’s not even all that important among things that go on in my life. But it was definitely a part of my life, and Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio will always have at least a small portion of the retelling of my life’s story.