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Jeff Bagwell was so great that even his pop ups were wonderful

In which we appreciate the most beautifully weird pop ups ever to pop

Jeff Bagwell was a marvel. You have to be one to get into the Hall of Fame. If you happen to be a first baseman, your bat has to be particularly marvelous for you to reach Cooperstown. Bagwell hit .297/.408/.540 across 15 years with the Houston Astros, tallied 449 home runs, won an MVP in 1994 and also took home Rookie of the Year in 1991. So, yeah, pretty good.

But even if Bagwell hadn’t been one of the premier sluggers of his era (or any era), he’d have been worth watching. That’s because his stance was incredible. I’m using the word in its most literal sense: if you had never before encountered Jeff Bagwell and were presented with his batting stance, you’d basically never believe it was real. It looks like a drunk man attempting to fend off a seagull. While pooping.

I’m only barely exaggerating.

Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell #5 prepares to swing the bat
Hide ur seagulls
Getty Images

Somehow, Bagwell was able to lift his front foot, get it down again, go into a half-stand and then use his hips to lead his upper half and whip his bat through the strike zone at speed. How he did this consistently enough not to strike out 500 percent of the time is beyond me. His stance was the beginning of a barely-contained industrial process that looked on the verge of catastrophe every time. But, as Bagwell’s career numbers demonstrate, catastrophe tended to happen to the pitchers he was facing instead.

His teammate Craig Biggio used to claim that Bagwell was ruining an entire generation of hitters with his nonsense, but the squat worked just fine. And, in fact, there was something oddly compelling about all the parts lining up just right to send baseballs screaming over the left field wall. It was like watching some gloriously weird Rube Goldberg machine pull off some ridiculous, inevitable stunt.

Except ... not that inevitable. Even a hitter of Jeff Bagwell’s caliber was out more often than not. And while some of those outs looked relatively normal, insofar as Bagwell ever looked ‘normal’ at the plate, in some of them things went delightfully awry:

Jeff Bagwell pops out Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Pop ups happen when batters make contact just a little lower than they ought to, hitting the baseball on its lower half and sending it floating harmlessly into the sky. With Bagwell’s squat-and-explode stance, this was something he had to be particularly watchful for. Sometimes he wasn’t quite watchful enough, and those rare instances are some of my favorite baseball memories of the era.

We’ve talked a little bit about the mechanics of Bagwell’s swing and how long his bat stayed level through the hitting zone. But when that swing went wrong, it did so as an absolutely ludicrous uppercut. He’d stand up almost straight, and his bat would uncoil heavenward, as though he was attempting to launch the ball into space. He hit pop ups with such intense fury it almost looked as though it was deliberate. Bagwell was the first player to hit the Astrodome ceiling, and the only real surprise there is that the baseball didn’t puncture the roof.

So here is the machine going haywire. Bagwell was such a finely tuned hitter that if anything was out of alignment the effect was marvelously chaotic. His pop ups were dislocated carnage, yet somehow made the rest of his game more impressive. By presenting us with a failure state, they were a demonstration of the precision of the mechanism. They were also beautiful in their own bizarre right.

Here’s the only video of the phenomenon we could hunt down. It’s Game 3 of the ‘05 World Series, and Bagwell is past his prime and injured on top of that. He is, in fact, only a couple of games away from retiring. But still, this is glorious:

Bless that man.