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Bagwell Only Wants to Have a Hand in It

Jeff Bagwell is dominating National League offensive statistics. He could have 80 or more runs batted in by the All-Star break. He could become the league’s first triple crown winner since Ducky Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937.

But the Houston Astro first baseman has only one objective.

“My only goal is to get through 162 games with two hands,” he said on the bench at Dodger Stadium. “I’m tired of taking my uniform off with one.”

Unyielding in stance and approach, Bagwell is reluctant to withdraw his hands from inside pitches.

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In each of the last three years, Ben Rivera, Andy Benes and Brian Williams have done what others couldn’t--stop the hitter teammate Craig Biggio compares to the Metroliner.

“No one gets locked in for longer periods,” Biggio said. “We just jump on and ride the train.”

High, tight fastballs from Rivera, Benes and Williams, however, produced derailments, breaking Bagwell’s left hand.

“I haven’t paid much attention to statistics since 1994,” he said. “I had 39 homers and all I could think about was 40. I never got there.”

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Rivera broke Bagwell’s hand Sept. 12, 1993. Benes did it Aug. 10, 1994, and there was no reason to come back. The players went on strike Aug. 12.

Bagwell won the most-valuable-player award for that frustrating and abbreviated season with remarkable statistics: 116 RBIs in 110 games, a .368 batting average, 104 runs, 32 doubles, 39 homers and 300 total bases.

How do you duplicate that production? Bagwell said at the time it would be virtually impossible, but he began 1995 trying--burdened some by the MVP albatross and the weight of an emotional divorce.

“It’s a tough enough game when your mind is right,” he said. “Mine wasn’t. I set certain criteria for myself after ’94 and began to think maybe I wasn’t that good. I let off-the-field problems snowball.”

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He batted .183 through May, feeling so lost at times that he wondered if he had ever swung a bat.

Finally, in early June, he looked in a mirror and said that’s it.

“I was tired of thinking about everything else except what I should be thinking about,” he said. “I was determined to make it fun again.”

He batted .339 in June and drove in 31 runs in July, but on the 30th of that month he suffered another broken hand when hit by Williams.

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Bagwell came back to bat .313 with five home runs and 21 RBIs in September, triggering a charge that left the Astros one game behind Colorado in the wild-card race.

Bagwell finished with quality numbers--.290, 21 homers, 87 RBIs in 114 games--but it was an “emotional, up-and-down, roller coaster of a year that I feel has made me a better person and player. I came out of last year having learned a lot about myself, believing I can cope with anything.”

And appreciative, he added, of being injury free.

“I’m not one of those players who say they don’t read the papers,” he said. “I do. I want to know what other guys are doing, and I obviously know what I’m doing. It’s hard to escape. I see it in the papers, and writers are bringing it up in interviews all the time. However, the only thing important to me after the last three years is being able to put the uniform on.

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“We have a tendency to gripe and moan about the schedule and having to come to the park every day, but I don’t take anything for granted any more. I can’t wait to come out every day.”

Considering the zone he’s in, Bagwell might be excused for sleeping at the park.

He discourages talk about the triple crown because he doesn’t think the Astrodome will yield enough homers and doesn’t consider himself a home run hitter. However, he came to Los Angeles leading the league in RBIs (“I seem to be a more focused hitter with runners on base”), slugging percentage, on-base percentage, doubles and total bases.

He was third in batting (.340) and tied for fifth in home runs (20).

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An air-cushioned pad sewn in the back of his batting glove provides protection for his left hand and has withstood hits.

Bagwell said he accepts being pitched inside, but a brawl ensued last September when he was hit on the hand by Xavier Hernandez of the Cincinnati Reds shortly after returning from his third break.

Hernandez is now a Houston teammate supported by Bagwell, a team leader who has openly criticized the Astros’ inconsistency and attitude of some teammates.

“Sometimes I think we have guys who are just going through the motions, and that’s not going to cut it here,” Bagwell said. “Sometimes it’s like we have nine different guys out there doing nine different things.

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“It’s ridiculous the way this club has looked. This team is too good to be playing under .500.”

At 28, in his sixth season, Bagwell is often overlooked when the game’s premier players are discussed. Manager Terry Collins shook his head and said:

“When you’re mentioning the best all-around players in our league, when you’re talking about guys like Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Matt Williams, you better have Jeff on that list. He does so many more things than just hit for power.”

Collins cited a 1994 series in Pittsburgh in which the Pirates over-shifted to protect against Bagwell pulling the ball and he responded with seven opposite-field hits.

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“He also has so much pride that he’s never satisfied,” the manager said. “He goes hitless and is out for early batting practice the next day.

“He’s never lost that drive. I believe that everybody needs time off occasionally, but Jeff says he’s had enough time off the last three years.”

Indeed. Bagwell’s 1996 approach is hands on--both hands.

ALL-STAR STUFF

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Fan voting ends today. Bagwell was second to Fred McGriff of Atlanta in the most-recent NL tabulations at first base, one of the normal number of gaffes in what is nothing more than a popularity process.

In the NL, fans have it right only at catcher (Piazza) and third base (Williams). They have McGriff at first, Biggio at second and Barry Larkin at short. It should be Bagwell at first, Mike Lansing at second and Mark Grudzielanek at short. The fans have an outfield of Bonds, Tony Gwynn and David Justice. It should be Henry Rodriguez, Dante Bichette and either Bonds, Ellis Burks, Sammy Sosa or Gary Sheffield, who are almost impossible to separate.

In the AL, fans have done better. They have it right at catcher (Ivan Rodriguez), second base (Roberto Alomar), first base (conceding that Frank Thomas over Mo Vaughn is a tossup) and third base (conceding that Wade Boggs over Dean Palmer is a tossup). They have Cal Ripken Jr. at short, when it should be Alex Rodriguez. They have an outfield of Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. It should be Belle, Griffey and Brady Anderson, with Jay Buhner replacing Griffey, his injured teammate.

TRUTH OR DARE

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Acting Commissioner Bud Selig, who did it again this week, has denied any interest in becoming full-time commissioner so often, while each time letting it be known (or claiming) that there are many owners begging him to take the job, that he is beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf.

In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article this week, Colorado Rocky owner Jerry McMorris said Selig would have “substantial and overriding support” if he wanted the full-time position and no problem getting the three-fourths vote, which is the most curious aspect, if true.

McMorris, who did not return calls, seems to be saying that after almost four years of labor strife, with baseball’s image still badly needing repair, the only thing the owners want in a commissioner is someone they know won’t arbitrarily or capriciously meddle in their affairs. Another handmaiden, which is not to question Selig’s integrity or love for the game.

It is to say he doesn’t bring any pizazz at a time when personality and perception are critical.

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He is perceived to be neither vibrant nor independent, simply one of their own.

As Dodger owner Peter O’Malley said in response to the latest Selig buzz:

“Baseball needs a dynamic, full-time commissioner to restore the public’s confidence in the game.”

Said San Diego Padre owner John Moores: “My strong preference would be for someone with a sales and marketing background or somebody who is a poet with a real passion for the game like George Will. I think there’s a deep affection for Bud, but I’d be hard pressed to make a case for him [as commissioner]. I would want to know his plans for baseball. Every signal he has given is that he’s only interested in the interim position. I’ve taken him at his word.”

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NAMES AND NUMBERS

--Bagwell’s emergence in Houston as one of baseball’s most productive power hitters represents one more ghost in the Boston Red Sox haunted house. Then-General Manager Lou Gorman traded Bagwell, a young third baseman who had Boggs and Scott Cooper ahead of him and had shown no evidence of minor league power, to Houston in August 1991 for veteran relief pitcher Larry Andersen in the hope he would help produce a pennant.

It didn’t happen. The star-crossed Red Sox finished second in the East, and Andersen went on to help the Philadelphia Phillies win an NL pennant in 1993. He is now pitching coach of the Reading (Pa.) Phillies in the Eastern League.

--Billy Wagner, who struck out seven Dodgers in 2 2/3 innings Thursday and has 23 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings since his recent recall, won’t be rushed into either a starting or closing role with the Astros this year. The 24-year-old left-hander, Houston’s No. 1 draft pick in 1993, is ticketed to join Donne Wall, Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds in the 1997 rotation, but he obviously has the stuff to play a significant role on a spot basis this summer.

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