[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/jayz.png” caption=”JIMMY ZANOR” align=”right” force_circle=”off”]
MIDDLETOWN >> Jeff Bagwell owes Marty Ryczek some money. Make that duffel bags full of money.
Baseball’s newest Hall of Famer was a goal scoring machine for Ryczek’s Xavier soccer team in 1985. It was Bagwell’s senior year. College baseball coaches were clamoring for the Falcons slugger and Ryczek, who coached at Xavier from 1979-1991, also felt he could have played soccer at the next level.
But while they sat by the Xavier soccer pitch after practice one gray-sky October day, Ryczek gave his star player some advice.
“I told him I was getting calls from a lot of colleges about him as a soccer player,” Ryczek recalled. “I said it would be my suggestion that if you have a chance to go play baseball you should go play baseball because I’m pretty certain you’re never going to make a living playing soccer professionally. Not because he wasn’t good enough but because there wasn’t a lot of money out there at the time.”
Bagwell then told Ryczek that he was going to take a scholarship offer to play baseball at the University of Hartford.
“I said, that’s really good,” Ryczek added. “I said, ‘you never know, when you get out of there maybe someday you’ll get a chance to play professional baseball.’ He says to me, quote, ‘Well, coach, if I ever make it I’ll give you half of what I make.”
Fast forward to 1992. The year after Bagwell was voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Ryczek took his family to see Bagwell play in Philadelphia.
“We’re outside the clubhouse. I say, ‘Hey, Baggie, you remember several years ago when we were sitting at the field at Xavier and we were talking about your future?’ He goes, ‘You mean when you told me I should play baseball and I would give you half of all the money that I made.’ No coach, I don’t remember that.”
And Bagwell and Ryczek just laughed.
Bagwell was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday. But his athletic exploits on Randolph Road are still an important part of his and the school’s legacy.
“He was someone you could count on all the time,” Terry Gartska said.
Gartska coached baseball at Xavier for 32 seasons. He guided the Falcons to the school’s only state championship in 1980, just a few years before Bagwell, a Killingworth native, enrolled at the Middletown school.
“Jeff played everywhere,” Gartska said. “He was our best pitcher. He played shortstop, second base, centerfield. I don’t think he played first base, how about that?”
Gartska remembered walking to the mound during a state tournament game. The Falcons were getting trounced and their pitching staff was depleted. Bagwell had pitched just the day before.
“I went over to talk to the pitcher and Jeff came over, I think he was playing second base, and said, ‘Give me the ball,” Gartska recalled. “I said, Jeff, you just pitched.’ He said give me the ball. I gave him the ball and we got out of the inning 1-2-3.”
Bagwell went on to hit 449 homers and drive in 1529 runs in 15 seasons for the Astros. His most impressive stat, however, may well have been the school-record 36 goals he scored his senior year. And, the fact that Xavier played 19 games that fall and Bagwell scored at least one goal in every game.
“It’s almost like DiMaggio’s hitting streak,” said Bagwell’s classmate and teammate Dave Sizemore. “I can’t imagine in this day and age the way soccer is played, that record will ever be touched. It’s amazing. In 19 games, we didn’t get shutout. And he scored in every single game.”
Sizemore was the goalkeeper for the ‘85 Falcons, which tied their first game before winning 17 straight. The Falcons finally lost to Holy Cross-Waterbury in the state semifinals.
“Jeff would be the first to say he wasn’t even the best player on our team,” Sizemore said. “There were guys who were year-round soccer players that from a technical standpoint had probably a little better skills, whether it was dribbling or crossing the ball left foot to right foot. But what set him apart was he just had a knack for scoring.”
Bagwell was the center forward on a three-man front line. Guilford’s Jimmy Foley was one of the wings.
“Jeff was there to score but he was real humble about it,” Ryczek aid. “He’d score a couple of goals and have an amazing performance but he’d say I didn’t do anything. My teammates just gave me the ball and I scored. They did all the work.”
It was that humbleness and the “letting his play do the talking” at Xavier that stayed with Bagwell throughout his entire major league career.
“When he hit a home run in baseball he would just run the bases,” Sizemore said. “There wasn’t a crazy bat swing or the raising of the arms. It was just run the bases and do it professionally like you’ve been there before. Every time he scored a goal it was the same thing. There was never showing up another player or running to the nearest flag and doing some sort of belly flop or dive. That was never, ever a part of his celebration.”
You can expect a Xavier flavor at the celebration in Cooperstown this summer. Don’t be surprised to see a Xavier banner hanging from the balcony at the Otesaga Resort Hotel. Or seeing members of the Falcons’ famous Black Hole cheering section camped out in the hotel’s lobby.
Xavier retired Bagwell’s number back in 1999. His No. 9 jersey hangs inside the gymnasium.
“We’re obviously very excited about Jeff getting into the Hall of Fame,” said Sizemore, an academic dean who also teaches history at Xavier. “I’m sure we’re going to do some other things in the upcoming days and weeks to recognize him again. We just want to make sure that he knows he’s still an important part of the Xavier legacy, even though our playing days were 30 plus years ago.”
Ryczek is also planning a trip to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He’ll be looking for his money.