Jan. 22, 2006, 12:58AM
How to put a price tag on friendship
By RICHARD JUSTICE
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Even hard hearts have soft spots. To prove it, I asked Drayton McLane about Jeff Bagwell.
"In 14 years, this is the most painful thing I've done," he said. "I have a great personal relationship with Jeff. I consider him a friend."
That friendship may not survive the next few weeks as McLane attempts to collect a $15.6 million insurance claim that would end Bagwell's playing career with the Astros.
"Somewhere a painful decision is going to have to be made," McLane acknowledged.
That decision apparently already has been made, at least in McLane's mind. Why else would he be filing the claim?
"If it wasn't Jeff Bagwell, you'd know what the decision was," he said. "If it wasn't someone I've had a warm, great relationship with."
And yet ...
"What does $15.6 million mean to this franchise?" he asked.
Bagwell wants a chance
So here we are. After six playoff appearances, after standing beside each other in victory and defeat, after celebrating births and mourning deaths together, McLane and Bagwell have come to a fork in the road.
McLane doubts Bagwell's right shoulder — the one that has been operated on twice, the one that has bothered him for five years — will allow him to continue as an everyday player.
"Unfortunately, playing is more than just hitting," McLane said. "To be a professional baseball player, you need to be able to play the field."
Bagwell believes he's being written off prematurely. He has been swinging a bat and lifting weights for weeks. He has begun to throw again.
He says he's on schedule to play first base on opening day. He's angry a decision is being forced upon him so early.
"If they want to make it a business, then it's a business," he said last week.
The problem is timing. The deadline for filing the insurance claim is Jan. 31. McLane's attorneys have told him that if Bagwell so much as steps on the field in spring training, the Astros probably can't collect a dime of the insurance money.
McLane to file a claim
Once the disability claim is filed — and McLane said it will be filed — Bagwell will be examined by an insurance company's doctors. He might even be asked to go onto a playing field and show whether he can throw.
McLane defines "disabled" as Bagwell not being able to throw. Whether the insurance experts agree is another matter.
"If this were an American League team and he didn't have to play the field, that would be different," McLane said.
Bagwell believes no determination can be made until he has returned to the field and done the things baseball players do every day.
"I don't know how this thing could be resolved until deep into spring training or unless Jeff says, 'I can't continue,' " said Barry Axelrod, Bagwell's agent. "Jeff isn't saying that. He's saying just the opposite."
The Astros are investigating whether the insurers would allow Bagwell to test the shoulder during spring training before deciding his status.
"We are exploring all the options," general manager Tim Purpura wrote in an e-mail. "These policies are very vague, somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation."
McLane wishes it hadn't come to this. He said he loves Bagwell more than any player he has had. He loves his low-key personality, his competitiveness and the professionalism with which he has carried himself.
He knows the Astros are unlikely to have another one like him.
"He has been the heartbeat of the Houston Astros for at least the last 10 years," McLane said.
He says the last thing he wants to do is push Bagwell, 37, toward retirement. Yet that's what he's doing.
No meeting of the minds
This is how the Astros operate. They are a business. Of this, McLane makes no apologies.
And why should he? The Astros have been to the playoffs six times in nine years doing it his way.
There always have been two Drayton McLanes. One is the backslapping guy you see on television. Behind closed doors, there's another McLane.
That one is all about the bottom line. He's tough, cold and demanding. He ordered the trade of Billy Wagner. He showed the door to Jeff Kent. He allowed Roger Clemens to become a free agent.
That McLane isn't warm and fuzzy. Bagwell has known for years that there are two McLanes.
He sat at his locker and gossiped with one of them after big victories. He met the other during contract negotiations. Now he's face to face with bottom-line Drayton.
Bagwell is furious. He chose his words carefully during a recent interview, but he made it clear he thinks he deserves a chance.
"I've been a company guy forever," he said. "I'm moving out of that zone. I want to make sure I do it the right way."
McLane understands the anger.
"He needs to see the big picture," McLane said.
The same could be said of McLane. Bagwell is one of the reasons the Astros are one of baseball's best franchises. After all these years, is it too much to ask McLane to give this guy one last chance?
Yet it's easy for me to ask McLane to risk $15.6 million for a player who may be unable to help. In the end, it's business.
Can't measure heart, desire
McLane took out an insurance policy when Bagwell signed a five-year, $85 million contract in December 2000. That policy is supposed to protect the Astros in case Bagwell became disabled. McLane believes Bagwell is disabled. Bagwell disagrees.
Bagwell suspects doctors will tell McLane exactly what he's hoping to hear: that Bagwell has a bad shoulder and that he may never be able to make a major-league throw. He hasn't been able to do that for a couple of years anyway.
There's a chance that simply attempting to make throws will do more damage to the shoul-
der, preventing Bagwell from even swinging a bat.
I asked McLane if he understands that Bagwell is upset he might not be allowed to put on a uniform this spring and find out what he can do.
"There's a lot at stake," McLane said.
The problem is that doctors can't measure heart and desire. The Baltimore Orioles traded Doug DeCinces after the 1981 season because of his bad back. They believed he was nearing the end of his career.
The doctors were wrong. DeCinces had five more productive seasons with the Angels because he was diligent in his rehab work and because he cared more than most other players.
Bagwell has every bit the drive DeCinces had. He cares just as much. The question is whether hard work and desire will overcome a degenerative shoulder condition.
"It's like everything else with physicians," McLane said. "They can't quantify everything, but they can sure say, 'Here's what's wrong, and here's what you need to do.' I think the shoulder has been a problem for a number of years. It has deteriorated. He had additional surgery.
"Every time you have surgery, it takes its toll. We don't know what will happen now."
The Astros tipped their hand about where they think this is headed when they pursued Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada. Had they made that deal, their payroll would have topped $100 million (before Bagwell's salary is deducted).
When that trade fell apart, they signed veteran outfielder Preston Wilson. His signing indicated they expect Lance Berkman to be the everyday first baseman.
In other words, no Jeff Bagwell.
It's a tough call
Is McLane prepared for a nasty public divorce?
"It's a difficult thing that's occurring," he said. "I've had so many people say, 'We want to see the old Jeff Bagwell.' I want to see the old Jeff Bagwell. People see their stars as they were."
There's no need to feel sorry for Bagwell. He has had a wonderful career even if he never plays again.
Statistics guru Bill James lists him as one of the top 50 players of all time. His baseball salaries will total about $133 million.
He's just not ready to walk away. He loves the game. He loves the teammates and the crowds and the adrenaline rush. He wants to keep playing for the same reason that McLane, 69, keeps working.
If only there wasn't a $15.6 million risk. McLane said Bagwell might yet end up in spring training if doctors decide his shoulder will continue to heal. Or if the insurance company decides he's not disabled enough for a payout.
"We want to do what's right," McLane said. "If he can't play, then we need to account for that in the way we put the team together. The first thing they tell you in medical school is, 'Don't fall in love with your patient.' That's what I'm guilty of here."
He's also prepared to play hardball.
"If the doctors say he can improve as the season goes along, then I'm for him coming," he said. "We bought insurance, and so we've got to know, can he play or is he unable to play?"