To the joy of baseball buffs everywhere, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines finally earned their rightful place in Cooperstown yesterday. Arguably the greatest defense catcher of all-time in Ivan Rodriguez would join them to round out the 2017 Hall of Fame class.
What were these three like before they were superstars?
--- Jeff Bagwell —
While Bagwell drew some scrutiny over his career with one of the most awkward swings in the game, he made it work. And it worked well.
Bagwell put together an outstanding junior season for the University of Hartford, slashing .429/.552/.759 with 10 home runs and the local(ish) Boston Red Sox took notice. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1989 MLB Draft. I was always a fan a Bagwell, there was a lot to like, but (as the resident Yankees fan) my favorite moment of his career came a year later when the Red Sox traded him — then a third baseman blocked by another future Hall of Famer — to the Astros for Larry Anderson. Anderson would make 15 appearances out of the bullpen before bolting to San Diego in free agency a few months later. Bagwell became a Hall of Famer.
There isn’t a whole lot to look at in regards to Bagwell and the minor leagues. He hit for average and posted insane strikeout-to-walk ratios, but never even saw a Triple-A pitch in his career, even in his few rehab appearances along the way. His final season in the minor leagues (1990), for the Red Sox Double-A New Britain team, saw Bagwell slash .310/.384/.419 in one of the toughest stadiums to hit in in the league (then Beehive Field). He was more of a gapper in his younger years, leading the league with 34 doubles and just four home runs, but it was also all about his plate discipline as he struck out 57 times and walked 73 in 569 plate appearances.
Heading into the 1991 season he became Baseball America’s 32nd best prospect in the game. By season’s end, he earned the first of many accolades, taking home the 1991 Rookie of the Year Award slashing .294/.387/.437 with 15 home runs and 26 doubles for the Astros.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
--- Tim Raines —
Raines last few years on the ballot were much like the latter rounds of the Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago fight in Rocky IV. He had his fair share of naysayers early in his eligibility, but slowly, the crowd started cheering ‘Rock, Rock, Rock!" By last year, the whole arena of the baseball world was standing, rooting for the little guy to final get his due. Yesterday, he finally did.
Much like Bagwell, Raines minor league career was short lived. Raines was drafted in the fifth round of the 1977 MLB Draft, out of Seminole High School in Sanford, Florida, home of 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein. Known for his speed, Raines would make a living being the best base thief and leadoff hitter not named Rickey Henderson throughout the early part of his career.
He made his professional debut in 1977 with Gulf Coast League Expos and climbed a new rung of the minor league ladder in each successive season. He became known for decent average (usually hitting around .290) with the ability to walk way more than he struck out. He saw a quick cup of joe in Montreal in 1979, appearing in six games as a defensive replacement or pinch runner, going 2-for-2 in stolen bases and scoring three runs.
His final season in the minor leagues was in Triple-A for the Denver Bears, and the second baseman (that’s not a typo) would be the Minor League Player of the Year. He slashed .354/.439//501 while going 77-for-90 in stolen base attempts. He again showed patience at the plate, drawing 61 walks and striking out just 42 times in 497 plate appearances. By 1981, after a brief four year minor league career, Raines was off and running and never looked back.
--- Ivan Rodriguez —
Rodriguez was signed as a mere 16 year old back in July of 1988. Then seen as a light-hitting catcher with an arm that rivaled no other, the Texas Rangers quickly worked him up the ladder.
He made his professional debut at the age of 17 in the South Atlantic League as there would be no rookie level ball for Pudge. While at the plate he put up the uninspiring numbers expected of him (.238/.278/.355) you can argue he was even better than expected behind the plate, making just 11 errors in 798 total chances and being the anchor for a pitching staff featuring the likes of Rob Nen and Darren Oliver (fun fact: he even caught 44 year old Tug McGraw’s lone appearance that season).
Rodriguez entered the1990 season as Baseball America’s top prospect in the Florida State League (here’s their scouting report) and he impressed by hitting .287 in a very pitcher friendly league. Of course, the defense and that rifle surprised no one.
He entered the 1991 season as Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect, his final season in the minors. He slashed .274/.294/.389 with three home runs for Double-A Tulsa. He got the call to the big leagues, as a 19 year old, on June 20th 1991 and went 1-for-4 with two RBI. He would go on to become a key component in one of the most electrifying offenses of the 1990s, win 10 straight Gold Gloves (13 total) and even capture a World Series in 2003.
Now, he's a first ballot Hall of Famer.