To think Jeff Bagwell would one day reach athletic immortality was unfathomable during his time as a two-sport athlete at Xavier in the mid-1980s.
He was hardly a slouch. On the soccer pitch, he set school records for goals in a season. As a first baseman and later the team’s shortstop, he got two hits almost every game. In 1986, his senior season, he was also Xavier’s best pitcher, beating Shelton 2-1 in the CIAC Class LL state tournament by mixing a knuckleball with his fastball and curve.
There was some attention from area colleges, the best offer a partial baseball scholarship from the University of Hartford which Bagwell accepted. But to envision he’d one day be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame – the call finally came Wednesday evening after seven years on the ballot – was unfathomable back then.
“Who can tell with anybody at that age, no matter how good they are,” said Rich Magner, head of the guidance department at Xavier and an assistant baseball coach during Bagwell’s time. “But it’s hard to believe that somebody who’s now in the Hall of Fame spent four years here walking through the building. That’s getting harder for me to grasp every hour. I’ve met some other Hall of Famers, and I’m sure they were regular guys who went to regular high schools, too. But I can’t say I ever really knew one.”
Bagwell, to be inducted on July 30, enters Cooperstown along with Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez, one of only 220 former major league players elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Bagwell is just the third from Connecticut, joining Bridgeport’s Jim O’Rourke and Waterbury’s Roger Connor, both of whom played in the 19th century.
New Haven’s Dan Gooley sensed he might have a future major leaguer on his hands not long after meeting Bagwell in the fall of 1987. Gooley coached Turk Wendell at Quinnipiac four years earlier and saw the same drive to succeed not long after a memorable first meeting with Bagwell. On Gooley’s first day on the job, the two shook hands in Hartford’s baseball offices.
“I thought I was shaking hands with a blacksmith,” Gooley said. “He was so strong, he crushed my hand. I told him ‘I can’t even spell your last name yet, will you take it easy on me?’”
Bagwell soon emerged as one of the top players in the country. His work ethic, Gooley says, was off the charts. Each day before practice, Bagwell spent 30 minutes working on a different aspect of the game. One day it might be extra hitting, or defense, or working with a pitcher to better understand left-handed pickoff moves.
A dead-pull hitter his first two seasons, Bagwell spent the summer and fall before his junior year working with Hartford assistants Randy Levine and Moe Morhardt on driving the ball to right-center field.
“He bought into it,” Gooley said. “And the whole baseball world opened up to him.”
Bagwell terrorized New England pitching as a college player.
He belted four home runs in a doubleheader at Maine. Against UConn, score tied in the bottom of the 11th, Bagwell knelt in the on-deck circle as a reliever warmed up. He turned to Gooley in the dugout and said, “Skip, it’s over,” before belting the first pitch over the light tower at East Hartford’s McKenna Field. At a college showcase at Fenway Park, with scouts for every major league team watching, Bagwell lined a shot off the Green Monster with such force that it nearly bounced all the way back to the infield.
When Bagwell left school, he held program records for career batting average (.413), home runs (31) and RBIs (126) despite spending just three seasons at Hartford. He signed a pro contract after the Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round of the 1989 draft.
It’s often noted that Bagwell, as a minor league player, hit only six home runs. Those suspicious of how he’d go on to belt 449 major league homers fail to recall that power is what drew scouts to him in the first place. Or that he spent only one full season in the minors, batting batted .333 for Double-A New Britain in 1990.
Opportunity knocked when he was traded to Houston straight up for Larry Anderson, widely regarded as one of the worst moves in Red Sox history. At Astros training camp he battled Ken Caminiti for the starting third base job before being moved to first base, where he’d remain for the next 15 years.
He’d win National League Rookie of the Year in 1991 and MVP in 1994. In 2000, he became the first National Leaguer to hit 45 home runs, drive in 100 and score 150 during the same season. Only a degenerative shoulder, which ended his career at age 37, kept him from 500 career homers.
Gooley has kept in close touch with Bagwell over the years.
“He’s a humble, fun-loving guy with tremendous work ethic,” said Gooley, who retired after four decades as a college coach. “You try to figure out in your own mind where he stands in your life, and he’s the most dominant college player I’ve ever had. I’m excited for him, his family, friends, teammates and coaches.”