As a lifelong New Englander, Jeff Bagwell dreamed of playing for his favorite boyhood team, the Boston Red Sox. How thrilled he must have been to be selected by the Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 amateur draft. His parents were Sox fans and Jeff was soon close to home, playing third base at Boston's AA affiliate in New Britain, CT.
There was one problem. The Red Sox had perennial All-Star Wade Boggs as their third baseman, putting up numbers that would lead him to the Hall of Fame. At AAA, the Red Sox had Scott Cooper, an older third base prospect who was almost ready for the big leagues.
The Day That Changed His Life
The Red Sox were involved in a pennant race in 1990. They wanted another relief pitcher to help anchor their bullpen and the out-of-contention Houston Astros were dangling veteran righthanded reliever Larry Andersen in trade. The trade deadline was quickly approaching and, if the Red Sox wanted a reliever they could put on their post-season roster, they needed to move soon.
Rumor is that Houston General Manager Bill Wood wanted Cooper but the Red Sox refused. They counter-offered Bagwell and, with the clock ticking, Wood relented. Bagwell was known as a quick bat who fielded well and hit for high average but he was not known as a power hitter.
The trade went down on August 30th and the news must have been devastating to the Bagwell family. It was the best thing that ever happened to him. For his part, Andersen did as the Red Sox hoped, posting a sub-2.00 ERA down the stretch. But the deal has gone down as one of the worst in Red Sox history.
Switched To First Base
Bagwell went to Spring Training in Kissimmee in 1991 believing he would start the year in AAA. Ken Caminiti was established as the Astros' third baseman. But Jeff brought a hot bat that couldn't be cooled off and the Astros had a hole across the diamond at first base. The Astros offered to switch him and keep him with the parent club. Bagwell accepted.
It all must have seemed so odd to the 22-year-old. He was in the majors but in a strange uniform in a strange league at a strange position. He had trouble believing he had made it to the big leagues.
He started out 2-for-18 in his first five games as an Astro and had gone 0-for-2 against John Smoltz in the Monday night contest at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Craig Biggio had touched Smoltz for a solo homer in the sixth inning to tie the game at 1-1 as both teams turned the contest over to their bullpens. The Braves sent lefthander Kent Mercker to the hill in relief of Smoltz to start the eighth.
Turns On A 1-2 Pitch
Bagwell came up with two outs in the ninth after Caminiti singled and fell behind in the count. Then Jeff took a rip at a fastball and sent it on a rope into the bullpen behind the left field fence for a two-run homer and a 3-1 lead. Al Osuna retired one batter then Curt Schilling, another young off-season acquisition being groomed as the Astros closer, worked around a Mike Heath triple for the save.
It was the shot of confidence that Bagwell needed. He went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, batting .294 with 15 homers and 82 RBIs. Three years later, he was the National League's Most Valuable Player.
The Astros had found, arguably, the best offensive weapon in the team's history and all it took to get him was a set-up reliever.
ATLANTA - Before the game Monday, Astros manager Art Howe was asked a leading question. Which hitter would he like to see get hot during a three-game series in Atlanta?
Because rookie first baseman Jeff Bagwell entered the series with a .111 average, it was obvious he was among the leading candidates.
When Bagwell came to bat in the ninth inning with the score tied at 1, his average was down to .100. One swing of Bagwell's bat, however, granted Howe's wish.
To say nothing of relieving Bagwell's anxiety.
Bagwell hit his first major-league home run, a two-run shot off Atlanta reliever Kent Mercker to give the Astros a 3-1 victory. The Astros have won four of their last five games and are 4-3 on the young season. This marks the first time they've been over .500 since the end of the 1989 season.
"It's a confidence-builder, no question," Bagwell said. "I've been swinging at pitches that aren't strikes - including that at-bat where I hit the homer. I'm new up here, and I want to show what I can do, and I think I might have been trying too hard."
Howe didn't need the home run from Bagwell to convince him of the rookie's ability. He saw all he needed during spring training when Bagwell's .333 average convinced the Astros to move him from third base to first base two weeks before the start of the season.
"He just has to relax," Howe said. "He's in there. He's the first baseman. I can't make it any more clear than that."
All of the Astros' scoring came on home runs. In the sixth, Craig Biggio hit his second of the season off Braves' starter John Smoltz to tie the game. Smoltz and Jim Deshaies both allowed only four hits and one run through seven innings.
Al Osuna, who retired the only two batters he faced, was the winning pitcher. Curt Schilling got the final two outs for his second save of the season. It was not routine, though. After a triple by Mike Heath, left fielder Luis Gonzalez and center fielder Steve Finley collided while chasing pinch hitter Tommy Gregg's fly ball. Finley held the ball and survived the bump from Gonzalez.
"It was a little too exciting for me," said Schilling, who seems to be growing into the closer the Astros hoped he would become. "But Fins had never dropped one on me yet. I'm just glad that Bagwell broke loose. To me, it was a question of when he would, not if he would. Everybody that's seen him knows he can swing the bat."
Because Bagwell's home run did not go into the seats, Braves' personnel were able to retrieve it. Bagwell will send it to his mother, who is fascinated by home runs.
"My mom is a big home-run fan," Bagwell said. "She doesn't care if I get 190 hits, she wants to see home runs. I keep telling her I'm not going to make a living hitting home runs. I'm a line-drive guy. I'll make my living hitting doubles."
Of late, Deshaies is making his living pitching games in which he gets no decision. In 34 starts last year, Deshaies had seven wins, 12 losses and 15 no-decisions. This season, he is 0-0-2.
Though he trailed only 1-0 through three innings, it didn't appear Deshaies would be around long in this game. Due mainly to four walks, Deshaies had thrown 60 pitches in three innings, hardly the sort of efficiency that equates to a lengthy stay on the mound.
But as he often does, Deshaies gained strength as the game went on. He walked no one after the third inning, allowed only two hits in his final four innings of work, retired 10 of the last 11 Braves he faced and used 109 pitches through seven innings.
And once again, he came away with nothing to show for it.
"Early on, it was a real struggle," Deshaies said. "About the fourth or fifth inning, I just decided to throw the first pitch over for a strike and let things happen."
Two of Deshaies' walks came during a rocky first inning. He got ahead of Deion Sanders 0-2, but ended up walking the leadoff hitter. A double by Mark Lemke and walk to Ron Gant loaded the bases with none out.
Deshaies escaped with only one run scoring on a sacrifice fly by David Justice. He got Francisco Cabrera to hit into an inning-ending double play.
Deshaies again walked Sanders and Gant in the third inning, but he again avoided trouble by getting a double-play ball. This one was an eye-catcher. Shortstop Eric Yelding ranged up the middle, caught Lemke's sharp grounder and tossed blindly to second baseman Casey Candaele to start the double play.
On offense, the Astros had no such excitement. Smoltz saw to that. After walking Yelding to start the game, Smoltz got eight consecutive routine outs before a two-out double in the third by Yelding, who snapped an 0-for-9 slump.
Finley struck out, starting another period of near silence by the Astros. Through the fifth, the Astros had only Yelding's walk and double and a fourth-inning ground-ball single by Ken Caminiti, his first of three hits.
Deshaies began to find himself in the middle innings, getting seven of eight hitters during one stretch through the fifth. He was doing his job, keeping the game as close as possible despite not having his best command.
One swing of Biggio's bat in the sixth inning drew the Astros even. Smoltz was sailing, having retired nine of the previous 10 batters he faced, when Biggio drilled the first pitch over the fence in left.
It was Biggio's second home run in seven games. Last season, Biggio didn't hit his second homer until May 19, the Astros' 36th game. In addition, Biggio extended his hitting streak to six games (he sat out one game over the weekend) and has scored at least one run in every game he's played.
"I'm just concentrating on hitting the ball hard this year," Biggio said. "But your story (Bagwell) just walked over to his locker. Go talk to him. There's nothing like that first one."
Especially when the first one breaks up a tie game in the ninth inning and comes when your average is down to .100.
"When you're a kid and when you're in the minors, you daydream about your first home run," Bagwell said. "This one couldn't have been any better in a dream."
Game data courtesy of Retrosheet
Houston Astros 3, Atlanta Braves 1
Game Played on Monday, April 15, 1991 (N) at Atlanta-Fulton County StadiumHOU N 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 2 - 3 6 0 ATL N 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 - 1 5 0BATTINGHouston Astros AB R H RBI BB SO PO A Yelding ss 3 0 1 0 1 1 0 2 Finley cf 4 0 0 0 0 2 7 0 Biggio c 4 1 1 1 0 1 2 0 Gonzalez lf 4 0 0 0 0 1 3 0 Caminiti 3b 4 1 3 0 0 0 0 1 Bagwell 1b 3 1 1 2 0 0 9 0 Rhodes rf 4 0 0 0 0 2 3 0 Schilling p 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Candaele 2b 3 0 0 0 0 0 3 5 Deshaies p 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 Ramirez ph 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Henry p 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Osuna p 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Davidson rf 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Totals 32 3 6 3 1 8 27 8FIELDING - DP: 2. Caminiti-Candaele-Bagwell, Yelding-Candaele-Bagwell.BATTING - 2B: Yelding (2,off Smoltz). HR: Biggio (2,6th inning off Smoltz 0 on 2 out); Bagwell (1,9th inning off Mercker 1 on 2 out). SH: Bagwell (1,off Smoltz). Team LOB: 4.Atlanta Braves AB R H RBI BB SO PO A Sanders lf 2 1 0 0 2 1 3 0 Lemke 2b 4 0 1 0 0 0 2 1 Gant cf 1 0 0 0 3 0 2 0 Justice rf 3 0 0 1 0 0 4 0 Cabrera 1b 3 0 0 0 0 0 5 0 Bream 1b 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 Blauser 3b 4 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 Heath c 4 0 3 0 0 0 8 0 Belliard ss 3 0 1 0 0 0 1 1 Gregg ph 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Smoltz p 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 Pendleton ph 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Mercker p 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 Totals 29 1 5 1 5 2 27 6BATTING - 2B: Lemke (2,off Deshaies); Heath (1,off Deshaies). 3B: Heath (1,off Schilling). SF: Justice (1,off Deshaies). Team LOB: 7.BASERUNNING - SB: Gant (2,2nd base off Deshaies/Biggio).PITCHINGHouston Astros IP H R ER BB SO HR Deshaies 7 4 1 1 4 2 0 Henry 0.2 0 0 0 1 0 0 Osuna W(1-0) 0.2 0 0 0 0 0 0 Schilling SV(2) 0.2 1 0 0 0 0 0 Totals 9 5 1 1 5 2 0Atlanta Braves IP H R ER BB SO HR Smoltz 7 4 1 1 1 5 1 Mercker L(0-1) 2 2 2 2 0 3 1 Totals 9 6 3 3 1 8 2Umpires: HP - Charlie Reliford, 1B - Joe West, 2B - Mike Winters, 3B - Paul RungeTime of Game: 2:45 Attendance: 6729Starting Lineups: Houston Astros Atlanta Braves 1. Yelding ss Sanders lf 2. Finley cf Lemke 2b 3. Biggio c Gant cf 4. Gonzalez lf Justice rf 5. Caminiti 3b Cabrera 1b 6. Bagwell 1b Blauser 3b 7. Rhodes rf Heath c 8. Candaele 2b Belliard ss 9. Deshaies p Smoltz p ASTROS 1ST: Yelding walked; Finley flied to left; Biggio struck out; Gonzalez popped to third; 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 0. BRAVES 1ST: Sanders walked; Lemke doubled to left [Sanders to third]; Gant walked; Justice lined out on a sacrifice fly to center [Sanders scored (RBI)]; Cabrera grounded into a double play (third to second to first) [Gant out at second]; 1 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. ASTROS 2ND: Caminiti grounded out (second to first); Bagwell flied to right; Rhodes grounded out (third to first); 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. BRAVES 2ND: Blauser flied to center; Heath singled to center; Belliard flied to right; Smoltz flied to center; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. ASTROS 3RD: Candaele flied to left; Deshaies struck out; Yelding doubled to left; Finley struck out; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. BRAVES 3RD: Sanders walked; Lemke grounded into a double play (shortstop to second to first) [Sanders out at second]; Gant walked; Gant stole second; Justice flied to right; 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. ASTROS 4TH: Biggio popped to second; Gonzalez popped to shortstop; Caminiti singled to right; Bagwell flied to center; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. BRAVES 4TH: Cabrera popped to second; Blauser grounded out (second to first); Heath doubled to center; Belliard grounded out (second to first); 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. ASTROS 5TH: Rhodes struck out; Candaele flied to right; Deshaies grounded out (third to first); 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. BRAVES 5TH: Smoltz was called out on strikes; Sanders struck out; Lemke popped to first; 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 0, Braves 1. ASTROS 6TH: Yelding grounded out (shortstop to first); Finley grounded out (first unassisted); Biggio homered; Gonzalez flied to right; 1 R, 1 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 1, Braves 1. BRAVES 6TH: Gant flied to left; Justice grounded out (shortstop to first); Cabrera flied to center; 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 1, Braves 1. ASTROS 7TH: BREAM REPLACED CABRERA (PLAYING 1B); Caminiti singled to right; Bagwell out on a sacrifice bunt (first to second) [Caminiti to second]; Rhodes struck out; Candaele flied to center; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 1, Braves 1. BRAVES 7TH: Blauser lined to left; Heath flied to center; Belliard singled to shortstop; PENDLETON BATTED FOR SMOLTZ; Pendleton flied to right; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 1, Braves 1. ASTROS 8TH: MERCKER REPLACED PENDLETON (PITCHING); RAMIREZ BATTED FOR DESHAIES; Ramirez flied to right; Yelding was called out on strikes; Finley was called out on strikes; 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 1, Braves 1. BRAVES 8TH: HENRY REPLACED RAMIREZ (PITCHING); Sanders flied to center; Lemke grounded out (first unassisted); Gant walked; OSUNA REPLACED HENRY (PITCHING); Justice grounded out (second to first); 0 R, 0 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 1, Braves 1. ASTROS 9TH: Biggio grounded out (third to first); Gonzalez was called out on strikes; Caminiti singled to right; Bagwell homered [Caminiti scored]; Rhodes flied to left; 2 R, 2 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Astros 3, Braves 1. BRAVES 9TH: Bream grounded out (first unassisted); SCHILLING REPLACED RHODES (PITCHING); DAVIDSON REPLACED OSUNA (PLAYING RF); Blauser lined to left; Heath tripled to right; GREGG BATTED FOR BELLIARD; Gregg flied to center; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Astros 3, Braves 1. Final Totals R H E LOB Astros 3 6 0 4 Braves 1 5 0 7