The Bagwell Conspiracy
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
At the beginning of the 2004 season, a buddy and I engaged in a debate about whether Jeff Bagwell used steroids. While initially not convinced that Bagwell used steroids, circumstantial evidence points not only to the conclusion that Bagwell used steroids, but also to the conclusion that he stands at the center of the baseball world as the steroid ring leader, the root of all steroid usage in the league. In fact, all major league steroid use can be traced directly to the Houston Astros first baseman.
Unbeknownst to the general baseball public, steroid use began in earnest with the 1992 Astros. Up to that point in his career, Bagwell had not yet developed his power-stoke, and in 1992 he set out to do something about it. Bagwell began pumping iron maniacally, and juicing up, and the difference quickly became evident. Bagwell's teammates were immediately impressed with his increase in size and production and demanded that he share the wealth.
Pete Incaviglia haunted Bagwell for months, following him through the clubhouse and cajoling him for a sample of the special juice. Incaviglia had joined the Astros in 1992, several years removed from the productive part of his career, and saw divine providence in his chance discovery of Bagwell's magic potion. Once he finally convinced Bagwell to share, he immediately began juicing and pumping through the end of the season with an eye on 1993. Released by the Astros that winter, he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in December. As he gathered his things from the clubhouse at the Astrodome, Bagwell was there to help him pack, slipping him a "goodie bag" on his way out of the clubhouse.
Incaviglia would loyally adhere to the juicing regimen which Bagwell recommended for him, and his new teammates in Philadelphia wanted in on the action. Incaviglia was reluctant at first, but when care packages arrived for him during spring training in Clearwater with a "Kissimmee, FL" return address on them, he knew that Bagwell would keep him supplied. So Incaviglia shared his juice with new teammate Lenny Dykstra, and the Phillies had quite a year. Incaviglia hit 24 homeruns in only 116 games, more than he had hit in the previous two years combined. But the story of the 1993 Phillies was Dykstra, who hit 19 homeruns, nine more than his previous career high and 13 more than the previous year's total, and led the league with 143 runs scored and 194 hits as the Phillies made it to the World Series, losing in a dramatic game six on Joe Carter's walk off home run (Carter's link to Bagwell is as yet undiscovered).
Karl Rhodes, one of the youngest members of the 1992 Astros, began using 'roids to help his power stroke in the fall of 1993. A year later, as a member of the Chicago Cubs, Rhodes would hit three home runs on opening day 1994. This power surge would not last, and he would only hit 5 more homers in 94 games that year. His perseverance ultimately paid off, though, and Rhodes became one of the most prolific power hitters in the Japanese Major Leagues. But his effect on the Cubs would be more significant - the seed had been planted in the mind of a young Cubs outfielder, Sammy Sosa, who would watch carefully the exploits of those around with an eye towards the future.
In the off-season between 1994 and 1995, the Astros traded Bagwell's teammates Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley to the San Diego Padres for Derek Bell and Phil Plantier, amongst others. Bagwell never took to Bell and Plantier, and despite desperate pleas from each of them for Jeff to help them with their own hitting troubles, Bagwell refused to help his new teammates and they never regained their strokes. However, Caminiti and Finley did quite well in San Diego. In addition to their own personal power surges, Caminiti and Finley were able to sell their new Padres teammates on the juice. Wally Joyner was impressed with the former Astros' offensive improvements, and juiced up himself for 1997, increasing his home runs total by more than half, and raising his slugging percentage from .404 to .486. Greg Vaughn, who had hit 41 homeruns in 1996, objected to the usage, pointing out that he had topped Caminiti by one homer despite his refusal to juice. But when his power shorted out in 1997, he quickly caved and spent the entire off-season juicing up and returned to hit 90 home runs in the next two seasons combined
Karl Rhodes' opening day outburst had been enough to catch Sosa's attention, but it took the arrival of Luis Gonzalez in 1995 to really sell Sosa. After being traded to the Cubs in the middle of the season, Gonzalez told Sosa that he had not yet tried steroids, but that Finley and Caminiti had been hitting them pretty hard back in Houston, and they were expecting big things. The following year, 1996, Sosa and Gonzalez watched from Chicago as Caminiti's home run production jumped from 26 the previous year to 40, and Finley's jumped from 10 home runs to 30 home runs. Sosa was impressed, but having hit 40 that year himself, he still didn't feel the need to start pumping with 'roids. Only when, like Greg Vaughn, his home run total slumped in 1997 (from 40 to 36) would he take Gonzalez's advice and begin juicing. What happened in 1998, of course, has become baseball history.
A trade in 1995 which sent Phil Nevin to the Detroit Tigers would change several careers. Nevin himself was not yet convinced that he wanted to juice up. But he discussed the Bagwell experiment with his Tigers teammates, and many of the Tigers players were eager to get some of the juice. In the years to come, Tony Clark, Bobby Higginson, Melvin Nieves, Damion Easley, Bob Hamelin, and Travis Fryman would each experience a brief period of offensive productivity before prematurely fading into obscurity. Ironically, Luis Gonzalez would arrive in 1998, reuniting with Nevin after having briefly rejoined the Astros for a season, all the while resisting the temptation to juice up.
Gonzalez took his own advice that off season, though, having seen so many teammates do well with the juice, and began pumping steroids into his puny little body. As the veins began to pop out of his arms, his hits began to fly out of the park, and Gonzalez watched his home run production increase each of the next five years, from 10 home runs in 1997 to a high of 57 home runs in 2001. Gonzalez would reunite with Finley in Arizona in 1999, and together they were able to convince Jay Bell and Matt Williams, two veterans in the twilights of their careers, into juicing as well. Bell and Williams, each of whom hit 20 home runs the year before, increased their home run totals to 38 and 35 respectively, and managed to salvage their eroding skills and prematurely fading careers.
Perhaps the most shocking participant in the great San Diego juice-up of 1997 was none other than future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. After several seasons of being one of the greatest hitters of all time, Gwynn went into the off-season of 1996 having not played more than 141 games since 1989. In 1996, Gwynn had watched his teammates enjoy fabulous years while he suffered through an injury plagued year in which he played only 116 games, hit only 3 homeruns and drove in only 50 runs. So, desperate to regain his stroke, Tony joined in the 'roid parties at Greg Vaughn's house
, packing on several pounds of undetectable muscle under the layers of fat on his body, and emerged in 1997 ready to pack some punch with his lunch. He rebounded with a career high 17 homeruns, 100+ RBIs for the first (and only) time in his career, and a career high 220 hits while batting .372, the highest full-season average of his career. At season's end, Gwynn had set career highs in hits, doubles, homeruns, RBIs, and slugging. In each of the next two seasons, Gwynn would again hit double digits in the homerun column, but his body paid the price for his new addiction, and he would never again play a full season after that fateful 1997 campaign.
An oddly significant link in the Bagwell steroid chain was a player who did not actually participate in the juicing. Rickey Henderson played for the Oakland Athletics in 1995, on a team with an up and coming Oakland prospect by the name of Jason Giambi. Henderson left the A's as a free agent and joined the Padres for a two year stint. When he returned to the A's in spring of 1998, Giambi and mates were coming off of a mediocre 1997 season in which the team's home run hitter, Mark McGwire (the only untainted player in this whole controversy)
, had been traded to St. Louis. Henderson quickly relayed to the A's players what had been going on in San Diego, and the A's players begged him to call Bagwell and get some juice for them. Henderson made the call, and in 1998, Matt Stairs and Jason Giambi had career years while Ben Grieve won the Rookie of the Year award. The following season Henderson moved on, but 'roids were all the rage in Oakland as Giambi demolished all of his previous offensive career highs in winning the MVP, Stairs hit a career high 38 homers, newcomer John Jaha hit 35 home runs after hitting only 18 in the previous two seasons combined, Grieve increased his home run total to 28, Miguel Tejada hit 21 in his first full season, and rookie Eric Chavez hit 13 in only 356 at-bats. The A's would continue to receive shipments from Bagwell, with the greatest benefits being reaped by Giambi and Tejada in the form of huge free agent contracts in the coming years.
Henderson's influence was felt throughout the league as he moved from team to team the next few years. His stint with the Mets in 1999 brought Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Robin Ventura into the exciting world of steroids. For Alfonzo, 1999 was the only year in which he would be truly productive, and set a standard to which he would continue to fail to live up for years to come. For Ventura, steroids meant career resurgence as he raised his average almost fifty points and exceeded his homerun totals over the two previous seasons combined. The most subtle impact, though, was on Piazza, who had always been a power hitter since emerging with the Dodgers in 1993. Steroids allowed him to keep his power numbers up in 1999 (40 HR, 100 R, 124 RBI, all up from the previous season) despite playing in 10 fewer games.
Greg Vaughn, meanwhile, was so taken with the 'roids that in 1999 that when he was traded to the Reds for Reggie Sanders, he brought his 'roids and his knowledge with him. Once in Cincinnati, he had little trouble convincing a young struggling Reds prospect named Sean Casey to juice up. In 1999, Casey would hit 25 home runs before quitting the juice once he became the team's starter. He has never recaptured his 'roid-induced stroke from that season. Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee, a former Bagwell teammate who had initially shunned steroids, was seen hanging out with Vaughn throughout spring training, and then suspiciously increased his home run total from 11 the previous season to 21 despite playing in 4 fewer games. Utility outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds (increased from 6 homers to 17 homers in just 5 more at bats), centerfielder Mike Cameron (from 8 homers to 21 homers in only five more games), and infielder Pokey Reese (who tripled his career total of five in just one season as he hit ten homeruns) all reaped the benefits of "training" with Greg Vaughn in 1999.
Reggie Sanders arrival in San Diego was as serendipitous for him as Vaughn's arrival had been for the Reds. While Caminiti, Finley, Vaughn, and Gonzalez had all departed, Gwynn and Joyner were still on the team, and willingly shared the juice with their new teammate. Sanders responded immediately, regaining the power stroke from earlier in his career and hitting 26 homeruns while scoring a career high 92 runs as his slugging percentage went up 109 points.
Sadly, not all of Greg Vaughn's influence was good on the Reds was good. Vaughn departed for Tampa Bay that off-season, but steroid fever had hit Cincinnati. So, when the Reds acquired Ken Griffey, Jr. in 2000, the Reds players welcomed Griffey with open arms, ready to share their locker room and their juice. But Griffey's juicing proved to be ill-fated. An already legendary slugger in his own right, Griffey didn't need steroids. But he was eager to impress the fans in his new city. From the first moment he started pumping 'roids into his body, he went from a nimble, athletic, power-hitting centerfielder to a fragile burden on his team, serving more time on the disabled list with strains, pulls, ruptures, and tears, than he would on the field, and derailing what at one time was a surefire Hall of Fame career.
Mike Cameron had been sent to Seattle in exchange for Griffey. For Seattle, he marked the arrival of salary relief, energetic play in centerfield, and, of course, the juice. Cameron brought Bagwell's "magic potion" with him to Seattle, and several of his new teammates quickly became the offensive monsters which Cameron's teammates in Cincinnati had become the season before.
Jay Buhner had one more summer in the sun, increasing his home run total from 14 to 26. Edgar Martinez had a career year, increasing his homerun total from 24 to a career high 37, while driving in a career high 145 RBI.
Seattle's noble first baseman John Olerud refused at first to participate in the illicit juicing, but a year later he began to reconsider as his age began to catch up to him and the front office was putting the pressure on him to increase his production or else. One of Olerud's teammates that year had been on many teams in his career, so Olerud asked him if he had any advice. That teammate, none other than Rickey Henderson, responded that if Olerud would use steroids like his Mariners teammates, he could probably hit 20 home runs just like another first baseman that he had played with while he was on the Mets in 1999. After informing Rickey that Olerud himself had been the first baseman with the Mets that year, Olerud decided to join in the fun and juiced up at Mike Cameron's house in Marietta, Georgia in the off-season, and hit 20 homeruns for the first time in three years.
Another Seattle teammate joined the gang in Marietta that off-season - newly acquired Bret Boone from the Atlanta Braves. Bret Boone's juice-induced transformation was prodigious, as he set career highs in every offensive category, raised his home run total from 19 to 37, driving in almost twice as many runs as the year before, and hitting .331 after consecutive seasons of .252 and .251. Boone quickly caught the eye of his brother Aaron in Cincinnati, who would have his own "roid-naissance" the following season, increasing his home run total from 14 to 26.
But in the end, it was Jeff Bagwell's influence over a young catcher by the name of Scott Servais which has created all of the controversy which is now rocking Major League baseball. In 1992, Servais entered the season as a 25 year old catcher with 16 major league games under his belt. Servais had 205 at bats in 1992, and served the Astros solidly behind the plate, but the front office was concerned about Servais's production, as he failed to hit any home runs at all and his slugging percentage was under .300. Bagwell helped the young catcher out, and in 1993, in only 53 more at bats, Servais hit 11 home runs and doubled both his runs scored and his RBIs. Servais would later be traded with Gonzalez to the Cubs, and take part in the "Sosa talks." Servais would spend three more seasons with the Cubs, a team which has never been concerned with setting goals for its players and incouraging the players to reach them, so Servais was able to give up on offensive production and focusing on his catching. When the Cubs released Servais after the 1998 season, the San Francisco Giants came calling, and Servais signed eagerly. Little did the Baseball world know that the most significant off-season move since the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees had just taken place.
In 1999, Giants left fielder Barry Bonds was suffering through an injury plagued season when he happened upon Servais in the clubhouse one evening. Bonds knew that Servais had played with Sosa the year before, and asked Servais if he knew any secrets which had been helping Sammy. Servais was taken aback by Bonds approach, as Servais usually only saw the top of Bonds head over the back of Bonds black leather lazy boy. Once he recovered from his shock, Servais gladly told Bonds of Sosa's secret, and confided that he was confident that the Oakland boys had been juicing as well. Bonds was enraged at the notion that other players had not shared this valuable information in the name of sportsmanship and brotherhood. Nevertheless, Servais offered to give Bagwell a call, which Bonds quickly took him up on. Only after promising repeatedly that the juice was not for Bonds, Servais convinced Bagwell to send him a year's supply. Servais was not re-signed that off-season, but he had already made the greatest contribution he could have made to the Giants. Soon, Bonds begrudgingly shared his supply of juice from Bagwell with his Giants teammates (except Ellis Burks, who thought that players reaping benefits of which other players could not take advantage was unfair), and the entire 2000 Giants starting lineup hit double digits in homeruns. Over 2000 and 2001, Bonds, Jeff Kent, and Rich Aurillia would all have career years, Benito Santiago and Andres Galaragga would experience career resurgences, and the Giants would go on to the World Series in 2002.
Unfortunately, the collective 'roid rage of the Giants clubhouse was too much for one team, and Jeff Kent and Dusty Baker parted ways with the Giants after the 2002 season. Dusty was heard saying on the way out of the door at Pac Bell that he was headed to Chicago, "because I can win anywhere if a guy is on the juice."
Jeff Kent, tired of being in Bonds' shadow, left for greener pastures in Houston. His arrival in Houston gave rise to an ironic moment between Jeff Kent and the steroid mastermind himself, Jeff Bagwell. Bonds had never known where the juice was coming from, as he continued to get it through Servais even after Servais had left the team because Bagwell would never have sold to Bonds. Thus, Jeff Kent assumed that the juice was coming straight from Servais. One day in June, 2003, with Bagwell mired in a slump, Kent approached Bagwell in the hallway leading into the clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, and offered to get him some of the juice he was getting from a connection back in San Francisco, and that maybe the juice would help him get his stroke back. Bagwell looked at Kent with a momentary look of astonishment, and then smiled. His smile became laughter, and he threw his arm around Kent and walked him into the clubhouse. Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, and Craig Biggio looked up expectantly at Bagwell as he entered the clubhouse, and Bagwell stopped and turned towards Kent.
"We've got it all taken care of, big guy. All taken care of."