When Jeff Bagwell admitted to me in August of 1998 that he used androstenedione, a steroid-like product, I could not imagine it would become the main obstacle to his Hall of Fame induction.
At that time, andro was not forbidden by Major League Baseball. Basically, nothing was. The actual anabolic steroids that had ruined hearts and shortened lives in football (Lyle Alzado, Steve Courson) apparently were not considered so dangerous for baseball players.
Commissioner Bud Selig was enamored of the home run binge of the 1990s – and the attendance boom that accompanied it. He was not very concerned about health risk that contributed to it. He blamed the union leaders for opposing drug-testing, but I don’t think he argued with them very much.
I never heard that Bagwell was taking any substance other than andro that would be prohibited today. Andro, which MLB banned in 2004 (two years after anabolic steroids), was only a small part of his training regimen that included a vigorous half hour of weightlifting after every game and a high-protein, low-fat diet – lots of egg whites, tuna, turkey and steaks.
“I took Andro-6 for a while,” Bagwell said, “and I thought it worked.”
It increased his testosterone, as steroids do. In my August 1998 reporting for the Houston Chronicle on PED’s, I quoted Dr. Lon Castle of the Baylor Sports Medicine Institute: “Androstene is a steroid, and it does make people stronger.”
It had been outlawed by the International Olympic Committee; shot-putter Randy Barnes was suspended for using it. But because it was legal in baseball and was sold at hundreds of nutrition stores across America, I did not foresee it being used to block Bagwell on the edge of Cooperstown.
My concern was that dangerous products were being used and misused not only by professional athletes but, much more often, by teenagers and middle-aged men seeking cosmetic improvement. Perhaps the Food and Drug Administration should look into it?
Not thinking he was ingesting anything improper – and having the benefit of consultation with science-minded sports trainers — Bagwell readily disclosed the andro information in answer to my inquiry, “What supplements do you use?”
So I wrote the story, and it created less media buzz than I expected, though it would bring me a first place award in Texas sportswriting from the Associated Press Managing Editors.
The bigger story broke two weeks later, when the AP’s Steve Wilstein saw a bottle of andro in Mark McGwire’s locker. Since McGwire was on pace to shatter the sacred home run record of Roger Maris, his use of a quasi-steroid created a firestorm that in due course would rage all the way to Capitol Hill.
The andro issue now dogs Bagwell as it never did while he was playing. He’s on the verge of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame after falling 15 votes shy of the 75% requirement among the Baseball Writers of America who voted a year ago.
Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press has noticed among his fellow Hall of Fame voters “a persistent skepticism over whether Bagwell achieved his lofty career numbers while playing clean.”
Lofty indeed. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1991 and by unanimous vote its Most Valuable Player three years later. He was the first National Leaguer since Willie Mays in 1955 to finish first or second in batting average, home runs, RBI and runs scored. In 2000 he scored 152 runs –- the most since Lou Gehrig in ’36.
Bagwell’s lifetime batting average was .297 (on-base .408). He would have many more than 449 home runs had he not been lodged most of his career in the stifling Astrodome, then been deprived of several years by a wrecked shoulder.
As it was, he put up better career numbers than Hall of Fame first sacker Frank Thomas, who was born the same day. Among first basemen since World War II, only Albert Pujols has amassed a better stat sheet than Bagwell.
Besides massive stats he left pleasing visuals. A Gold Glove first baseman, the best I’ve seen at charging a bunt and erasing the runner diving for third.
He was eagle-eyed at the plate. His strange squatty stance positioned his head on the same plane as the borderline-high fastballs he pounded so consistently. He ranks 27th all-time in walks.
He was as fine a leader as anyone I’ve known, in or out of baseball. Though polite and humble by nature, he was a vigilant enforcer of the principles of the game. When one highly paid Astro loafed out a ground ball, Bagwell immediately reprimanded him: “Hey, we don’t do that here.”
If character is a consideration for the Hall of Fame, and the rules say it is, Bagwell cannot fairly be denied.
Granted, he hasn’t helped his cause by being rather reclusive in recent years. By not appearing on the public stage he’s not reminding us of his accomplishments or correcting misconceptions of his development as a slugger.
When the Boston Red Sox offered their home-town product, the 21-year-old Bagwell, to the Astros, they thought they were losing a singles hitter, albeit a very good one. Carl Yastrzemski, like Bagwell a late-blooming slugger, had lobbied against trading a prospect who popped six home runs in 711 minor-league at-bats.
Even before he thought about andro, Bagwell was being urged by batting coach Rudy Jaramillo to work on power development. He was 5-11, 185 pounds as a rookie, when he swatted 15 homers. He kept gaining strength, muscling up to 210 by 1996. He crouched ever lower, focusing more on the high fastball.
He hit 18 home runs as a sophomore, 20 the next year. Then in 1994 he almost doubled his homers, to 39 in a season reduced by labor war to 110 games. That’s when suspicion rose that along with most other sluggers of that day he was aided by drugs, just as Mays and his contemporaries were boosted by amphetamines they called “greenies.”
Some of Bagwell’s supporters have tried to reshape the facts. Jerome Solomon, who was at the Chron when I reported about Bagwell on andro, wrote in 2014: “There is no evidence Bagwell used performance-enhancing drugs. None.”
None, unless you believe Bagwell’s own words, which were tape-recorded and never recanted by the invariably candid ballplayer.
But so what? Without andro, Bagwell would have had a brilliant career, though his home run production in peak years might have been 25-30. With less weight he might have run faster, stealing 20-35 bases a year instead of 10-31.
We can speculate forever on what might have been. But as far as I know, being a close-up observer of Bagwell throughout his big-league career, he worked as hard and played as hard and as well as anybody, and he played by the rules that existed at the time. What more should we expect?