George W. Smith, former Courant Sportswriter, passed on Feb. 9 at age 76. He covered many subjects in the CT sporting world over 25 years including a Xavier H.S. kid who has a date in Cooperstown this summer.
When the baseball scouts would come around to watch Jeff Bagwell at Xavier-Middletown High School, they weren’t impressed.Too short, they said of the 6-foot shortstop.
“Mickey Mantle was only 5-11,” retired Xavier coach Terry Gartska said. “Stupid them.”
Gartska, who coached 26 years before retiring last year, knew they were missing a good one. Gartska was right. Thursday the Astros first baseman was named National League Most Valuable Player.
“From day one I knew he had something special,” Gartska said. “He played every position except catcher for me, and the only reason he didn’t catch was because I had a very good catcher. He was also my best pitcher.”
Bagwell batted .403 as a junior and .396 as a senior. He also went 6- 4 as a pitcher his senior year and was named All-State. He also was All-New England and All-State in soccer, scoring 56 goals in his career, a Xavier record.
The scouts may have left, but Middletown native Bill Denehy kept coming back. Denehy, who had pitched for the Mets, Senators and Tigers, was the new baseball coach at the University of Hartford.
“I saw him as a junior for the first time and the thing that impressed me the most was that he had an awful lot of power to the opposite field,” said Denehy, who lives in Florida.
Denehy wanted Bagwell badly. So did Hartford’s soccer coach, Allan Wilson.
“Wilson came to me and asked if I’d like to share a scholarship on him,” Denehy said. “I told him no way. I wanted Bagwell full time.”
Denehy had Bagwell almost a year before the coach was fired after an ugly brawl in a game against UConn.
“A lot of coaches like to take credit for developing a player,” Denehy said. “I feel very fortunate that I didn’t screw him up. Jeff always had a tremendous work ethic. You never had to get on his case. I never had to tell him twice. When other kids might have doubted your methods, he never did. He was very structured as a young person.”
Still, Denehy and Bagwell had their moments. Bagwell’s boyhood ambition growing up in Killingworth was to play shortstop for the Red Sox. He was Hartford’s starting shortstop when the Hawks opened his freshman season in 1987 in Florida. He hit for the cycle his first game and had four hits in the second. He played one more game at short before Denehy, seeing his power, decided he belonged at third.
“If you think I’m too slow to play short, why don’t you tell me to my face?” Bagwell asked Denehy.
Denehy looked Bagwell straight in the eye and slowly said: “You are too [expletive] slow.”
The dirt on the MVP
At Hartford, Bagwell was the leader of the Crunch Bunch, the Hawks’3, 4, 5 and 6 hitters in the late 1980s. He also was a charter member of the Hogs, a number of teammates known for their rugged style.
“Jeff was a no-nonsense, hard- working, let-it-hit-you-in-the-teeth ballplayer,”former teammate Brian Crowley said. “He wasn’t flamboyant, but he always shined.”
Crowley was a member of the Crunch Bunch along with Bagwell, Chris Petersen and Pat Hedge. Crowley batted third, followed by Bagwell, Petersen and Hedge. The career statistics of the four: Crowley, 115 RBI, 29 home runs; Petersen, 79 RBI, 10 home runs; Hedge, 107 RBI, 26 home runs; and Bagwell, 126 RBI, 29 home runs, in three seasons.
Still, his teammates couldn’t have imagined Bagwell would someday become one of the best players in the major leagues.
“No way,” Crowley said, “but I couldn’t be happier for him. It’s good to see someone from the Northeast win the award. It’s good for the University of Hartford and our region to let people know we play good baseball here, too.”
Petersen said consistency is a Bagwell trait.
“He always seemed to hit, no matter who was pitching,” said Petersen, a manager for Enterprise Rent- A-Car in Elizabeth, N.J.
Hedge, who, like Crowley, played a couple years in the minors, knew Bagwell was special.
“Anyone that really knew him shouldn’t be surprised,” said Hedge, who works as a strength and conditioning coach for the Orioles. “He always had that drive. He always loved to play and practice the game. There was no stopping him once he put his mind to something.”
Appetite for the game
The thing that separated Bagwell from other hitters was his concentration.
“I think Jeff could hit .300 in a hurricane,” Denehy said.
“He could wait longer on a breaking ball that is going out of the strike zone and then take the pitch,” Petersen said.
“He had that [fraction] of a second better read on a pitch. That’s why he could hit a pitcher who threw slow or fast,” said Crowley, a special education teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in New Britain.
Petersen, a fellow Hogger, was Bagwell’s soulmate on the team. Crowley and Hedge were part of a group called the “F Troop,” players who didn’t get their uniforms dirty. Hedge was Bagwell’s weightlifting partner.
“Jeff was a true Hogger, you know, the kind of player who would spit, swear and chew,” Hedge said. “Crowley and me stayed pretty clean.”
Bagwell’s love for the game was hard to miss.
“He always had a strong resolve. He wasn’t afraid of anything,” Crowley said. “He would stand in there against anybody and he always had that look in his eye that said, `Sooner or later I’m going to get you.’ ”
Petersen roomed with Bagwell when Jeff played for the New Britain Red Sox in 1990. He and Crowley remember how Bagwell took the news he had been traded to Houston just before the Eastern League playoffs.
“He came over to my house a couple of days later and was still down over the trade,” Crowley said. “I told him it would probably work out for the best. It certainly has.”
“There are two things that haven’t changed about Jeff,” Petersen said. “He still hits the [heck] out of the ball and he still thinks about other people before himself.”
Bagwell invited Petersen to be a member of his wedding party in Houstonand also arranged a couple of golf dates. Petersen said he didn’t have any golf clubs so Bagwell bought him a set and sent them to his home.
“On the day of his wedding, we got up early and he decided to go out for breakfast,” said Petersen of the wedding two years ago. “Being the Hogger he is, we went to McDonald’s.
“There we are at 8 o’clock in the morning, in our tuxedos at a McDonald’s and little kids are running up to him for autographs. It’s his wedding day and there he is in his tux, signing autographs on Big Mac wrappers.’