Bagwell's losing battle

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. – This particular morning isn't too bad. Jeff Bagwell's right shoulder is barking some, sure, but really, when isn't it? At least today his teeth don't hurt from clenching them to withstand the pain.

Over the past four years, Bagwell estimates he's endured 20 cortisone shots in his shoulder. They are nasty buggers. A doctor jams a six-inch needle – the kind reserved for horses, or Bondses – into the shoulder joint. Bagwell winces, then he plays.

The team Bagwell carried for so many years, the Houston Astros, doesn't think he can do that anymore. They want Bagwell to retire and let insurance pay his $17 million salary. Bagwell thinks he can play, so he is. And so mushrooms the seediest subplot of the spring: Bagwell against the Astros, franchise icon versus franchise.

It's not that simple. Bagwell's battle isn't with the Astros. It's with time, with age and with all the things professional athletes must come to terms with far too early.

Most of them can't.

"It's tough to play in pain constantly," Bagwell said. "It becomes a mental grind. Yet as I say that, I'm still down here trying to play. Because I do enjoy baseball. I enjoy being around the guys. And that's what I want to do, even if it does cause me a lot of pain."

The physical anguish of using his shoulder has turned him ambidextrous. Alongside it is the mental torment of knowing you're no longer wanted.

Bagwell plays the trouper well. He does not speak ill of owner Drayton McLane, whose hand is poised on the trap door of Bagwell's stage. He could call McLane a disloyal penny-pincher who's fixated with using Bagwell's salary to bring Roger Clemens back, and he'd be right. He refuses to stoop.

Instead, he throws on his uniform, a painful activity just like everything. The cushioning in Bagwell's shoulder is destroyed. Every day it's bone grinding against bone, little spurs chipping off and floating around in fluid. Eventually, Bagwell will need a shoulder replacement.

He's 37 now. Though all this talk about replacing pieces and parts discomfits him, he's prepared. Or says he is. Bagwell wants to be ready for retirement, for his athletic mortality.

"I've got no problem with that," he said. "I am well aware how close I am to the end of my career. It could be in two weeks. I've had a lot of time to think about those kinds of things over the last five years."

In 2001, Bagwell underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum. Over the next two seasons, he hit 70 home runs and drove in 198 runs. While he wasn't the feared first baseman of the mid-1990s – MVP of the strike-shortened 1994 season and the big, bad Killer B whose unorthodox swing didn't merely strike balls but launched them – he was good enough, and because he was Jeff Bagwell, no one complained.

Least of all Bagwell. Even though he couldn't throw sidearm anymore, he bit his lip. Even though his throws from first to third bounced, he stood tall. Baseball players age quickly, and Bagwell had a degenerative shoulder.

Finally, last May, he pulled himself out of a game. He didn't want to be Willie Mays.

"We've had a great ride," said Craig Biggio, Bagwell's longtime teammate. "It's been, what, 16 years? We all know good things come to an end sooner or later. We just want to give it one last dance."

So Bagwell is here to tango. He's following through on his swing with two hands, which he hasn't done in 2½ years. He takes extra ground balls every day with third-base coach Doug Mansolino.

Next week, Bagwell will start playing first base. His shoulder will sound its clarion call. If it says play, Astros manager Phil Garner said Bagwell will start Opening Day. If it says stop, Bagwell said he will write the letter to the insurance company himself.

"Bagwell and Biggio have been the stalwarts of this team and set the standard for a decade and a half," Garner said. "But we're to the end of that reign, whether this year or next year. There is that reality."

Within two weeks, Bagwell's future will be determined. Not by himself. By his shoulder. By age, and by time, and by all the things that forge the battle he knows he can't win.