The support and encouragement of one’s family are often crucial to a child’s success in life, and successful baseball players are no exception. And so, in 1994, when the New York Times interviewed a Connecticut police sergeant about her baseball player son, it came as no surprise when the woman boasted that he’d been playing ball since before he could walk. “When he was six months old,” she told the paper, “we'd throw a ball to him and he would throw it back." As babies go, it was an impressive feat, one of many that the sergeant’s son had accomplished in the years since. But there were even bigger accomplishments to come, the woman hinted. "My greatest thrill would be to see him in Cooperstown, in the Baseball Hall of Fame."
It is likely that Sgt. Janice Bagwell’s words elicited quite a few eye-rolls and chuckles among readers at the time, her son Jeff having played just a few seasons in the majors at the time. By last week, however, when Sgt. Bagwell at last experienced a thrill 23 years in the making, no one was laughing. Once again, it seemed, an old adage had proved true: faith is father of fact. Or mother of fact, in this case.
Not that Janice Bagwell was always spot-on in her predictions. Four years before her Times interview, upon first hearing that the Boston Red Sox had traded Jeff to the Astros, she “cried off and on for a week,” according to the book Houston: Armed and Dangerous, a history of the Astros in the ’90s and ’00s. Both she and Jeff’s father, Robert, had grown up in greater Beantown, both had been rabid fans of the team since childhood, both had dreamed of watching their only son conquer Fenway’s Green Monster, both were thrilled when the Red Sox signed him to a minor league contract—and both were devastated by the trade. “It felt like a tragedy to me,” Janice recalled at the time.
Out of tragedy came triumph, of course, as the elder Bagwells quickly began to realize, for it was as an Astro that Jeff Bagwell’s storied career truly began. It was as an Astro that he was named Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player (the latter by a unanimous vote), as an Astro that he hit 449 home runs and posted a .297 career batting average, both of them franchise records to this day.
Janice and Robert were present at Bagwell’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 30, sitting right on the front row. In a speech before them, Bagwell noted that much of his extended family had made the trip to Cooperstown, noting that “all of us, through baseball, have gotten closer together.”
He paid tribute too to the woman who’d seen this day coming all those years ago, calling his mother simply “a superstar,” and telling the crowd that although she “struggles to get around every once in a while” these days, “she’s always proud of her son, her only baby.” Sgt. Bagwell confirmed this herself, telling Fox 26’s Mark Berman that she “couldn’t have been happier. You know the old expression ‘elevate, elevate’? That’s today. I’m elevated as high as I can go.”
Jeff Bagwell also expressed gratitude for his father’s support, a man who, unlike the sergeant, had no idea this day was coming. “Personally, it’s unbelievable,” admitted Robert Bagwell, now 89. “I never had this dream. I never thought it would ever happen. I never expected it to happen.”
These days, Jeff Bagwell is equally thankful for the support and encouragement he gets from what might be termed the Southern Bagwells, his wife and children. “My family’s from here,” he said to a crowd of thousands at a pregame ceremony at Minute Maid Park, a few days after Cooperstown. “They were born here and make a home here.” And then, looking out at the sea of No. 5 jerseys, it suddenly seemed to dawned on him that there were even more southern Bagwells out there than he'd thought, thousands and thousands of them in fact.
“It’s just an amazing ride and I’m glad that you guys, all of you, could enjoy this with me,” he told the crowd. “Because to be honest with you, I mean, what do I have? If I don’t have Houston, if I don’t have you guys as fans, we’re just a bunch of kids playing on a field.”