December 15, 2006 will be remembered for years to come as the day an entire generation of Astros fans—in Houston and around the world—watched their hero step away from the limelight and into retirement. It didn’t come without warning; the writing has been on the wall since 2005 when a degenerative shoulder condition limited first baseman Jeff Bagwell to a mere 39 games.
During his tenure in Houston Bagwell represented everything that was right about the sport of baseball. He was a hard-worker on and off the field. He, along with Killer B stable-mate Craig Biggio, was always one of the first to welcome new players to the ball club and help them feel at home. He was a tremendous athlete who always seemed humble about his accomplishments. He was a humanitarian with numerous foundations and charities benefiting form his good nature over the years. And now, with his playing days officially behind him, he is a man who can take a step back and examine the legacy he left behind, not only in Houston, but in baseball as a whole.
The first question many people will ask when a player like Bagwell retires is whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. Based solely on the numbers one might say it could go either way. He didn’t reach either of the two “automatic entry” milestones, 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. However, the speculation is that had he remained healthy he surely would have. He finished his career with 449 home runs and 2,314 hits. It probably would have taken him two healthy seasons to reach the 500 homer plateau and perhaps another five or better to top 3,000 hits, at 38-years-old the latter would seem unlikely but not impossible.
Bagwell also falls just shy of a career .300 average, another milestone that receives heavy focus from the Hall of Fame voters. Although any Hall voter worth his salt will agree that a .297 average ain’t too shabby. His 1,401 walks rank 24th all-time, right behind Hank Aaron and he is 33rd all-time in home runs, just three behind one of his idols, Carl Yastrzemski.
Stats aside, much of Bagwell’s Hall of Fame worthiness comes not from his impact on the record books, but his impact on the city of Houston and the Astros franchise. Much like two players on the ballot this year—Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr.—Bagwell spent his entire big league career with one team and helped turnaround a franchise that had become lackluster at best. Alongside Craig Biggio, Ken Caminiti, Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran and a whole host of others over the last 15 years Bagwell led the Astros to four division titles and the team's first NL pennant in 2005. His efforts also helped to increase attendance and urge the financing of a newer, much more modern stadium.
Debate his statistics and debate his overall impact on the game all you want, but in this fan’s eyes Jeff Bagwell—without question—belongs in the Hall of Fame.