Some Kind of Slugger

The labored hum of an aging, industrial-strength air conditioner emanates from near the manager's office at the visitors' clubhouse in Shea Stadium. A rival drone can be heard from outside the clubhouse door as water-sucking Zambonis attempt to dry a corridor in the belly of the 40-year-old stadium. A 45-minute rainstorm has dumped two inches on the city of New York, and the Borough of Queens is flooded. Sections of the tunnel that connects the Mets' dugout and clubhouse are underwater, as are area roadways.

The Astros' bus, charged with transporting approximately half the team from hotel to stadium, has taken nearly two hours to cover the ten-mile span. The first of these commuters enters the clubhouse at 5:57, an hour and 13 minutes before the scheduled first pitch. Only those who arranged for their own transportation -- car service, cab or subway -- reached the stadium in time to take batting practice in the cage underneath the stands.

Although some Major League clubs -- most notably the Orioles and Yankees -- have team rules prohibiting pregame stereo play in the locker room, the Astros aren't one of them. But the only music to speak of in the visitors' clubhouse is an advertisement for The Very Best of Randy Travis, which plays during the commercial break of the televised tape loop that is ESPN News. Jeff Bagwell, one of the early arrivals, can't explain the relative silence. And he says he misses the days when the starting pitcher picked the tunes.

"If I heard Hank Williams Jr., I knew that Roy Oswalt or Scott Elarton was pitching," he says. "I kind of liked it. It helped me identify the day."

Bagwell is no musical sophisticate. He's never downloaded an MP3 and carries no music player at all on the team's road trips. "Just at home and when I'm in my truck," he says of his listening habits. "That's it."

And he relies on the good graces of the Astros family -- teammates, staff and fans -- to keep him flush with compact discs. "I'll be signing autographs and they'll be like, 'Here. Listen to this,' " Bagwell says of the musical gift givers. Brad "Ausmus has made me some CDs, just because I'm computer illiterate. Which is not good, but that's just the way it is."

Defying the stereotypes associated with truck drivers, Bagwell will listen to almost anything except C&W. "I always laugh at these guys," he says of his teammates with country leanings. "How do you listen to C&W? It makes you feel bad. 'I lost my dog,' 'My wife left me,' and all that kind of stuff."

Bagwell will admit to listening to Elton John, Billy Joel -- all manner of classic rock -- and even his friend and former teammate Moises Alou's merengue albums. Of course, Bagwell doesn't speak Spanish. "I don't know what they're saying, but I enjoy it," he says.

Still, even casual Astros fans know what Bagwell's partial to.

"Metallica. That's my favorite group."

Which is the reason why it so often reverberates from the loudspeakers at Minute Maid Park. Every time the first baseman walks from the on-deck circle to the batter's box, a Metallica song plays. But Bagwell wants to make one thing clear.

"I've never picked anything. They do that for me. I'm not going to go up to the guy and go, 'Hey, man, can you play such-and-such Metallica?' To me it's really not part of the game."

Yep, Jeff Bagwell is definitively old-school. Home runs. Heavy metal. No-nonsense, play-through-the-pain rock and roll. And while you're at it, turn that mother up. Which, of course, is just one of the reasons that the Astros faithful love him.

"It's for the fans," he says of the at-bat music. "So the fans will go, 'Oh, hey, Bagwell must like Metallica.' But I've got other things to worry about."

So we're clear, then. Bagwell, though a Metallica fan, does not pick his music, even though it's Metallica that's played. But is he aware of his musical accompaniment?

"I hear it every once in a while if there's a pitching change or something like that," he grudgingly admits. "But normally I'm pretty focused."

Although for ballpark regulars Bagwell and Metallica go together like peanut butter and jelly, the first baseman has never seen the heavy metal mavens perform live. But that's about to change. A full three months before their 2004 tour brings Metallica to Texas, Bagwell has already marked his calendar. "They're going to be in Houston the 16th" of November, "so I'm making plans to do that."

So while Bagwell doesn't eat, drink and sleep rock and roll, music does have its place and time. And that time begins with the trip to the ballpark.

"I used to listen to Creed back when that first album [My Own Prison] came out, when they were pretty much a hard rock band," he says. "I used to listen to that every single day going to the ballpark. Every single day. The first two songs on that album. I had a Mercedes -- a fast Mercedes -- and I'd hit this one spot and I'd always have that playing. It was a feel-good thing. It meant absolutely nothing to what was going on. But, hey, you never know."

"Absolutely nothing" may be what you'd call a kind of harmless denial. What Bagwell's not saying is that he's superstitious. Many ballplayers (maybe most), whether they admit it or not, are. Some prefer to think of their personal predilections as mere habits, but if good-luck charms can cause a ground ball to unexpectedly skid past the shortstop for a cheap base hit, there must be bad-luck charms as well.

"I've never gotten a hit the day that I listen to Kid Rock," Bagwell says, "so that [album] never goes on when I'm going to the stadium. Believe it. I've never gotten a hit listening to Kid Rock. And for some reason, being a baseball player, you think about that.

"Not that I don't like Kid Rock. I like him a lot. If I'm going to play golf, I'll listen to Kid Rock. If I'm going to the stadium, I won't listen to Kid Rock."

And while there are obvious similarities between rock stars and Major League heroes -- the travel, the notoriety, the all-but-obscene incomes -- the first baseman's not so certain that names like Biggio and Bagwell fit in the same category as players like Hetfield, Hammett and Ulrich.

"I mean, obviously you're talking about Metallica," he says. "You're not talking about Jeff Bagwell. It's a little bit different. I'm sure those guys can't do a lot of things that they'd like to do: enjoy peaceful meals and things like that. I'm sure that's part of the deal."

Bagwell says he has no problem getting a meal on the road, that he goes unnoticed in New York, Atlanta, Chicago. Despite trophies for Rookie of the Year, League MVP and a better-than-passing shot at Cooperstown, the first baseman doesn't seem to accept the fact that he too is a headline attraction.

"Houston people know who I am," he admits, "but people in Houston are generally different than most places. You hear the whispers. 'Oh, that's Jeff Bagwell, that's Jeff Bagwell.' But that's about it.

"I mean, the only one who would know what it's like to be a rock star is that guy," he says, pointing to the close-at-hand Roger Clemens. "He's a rock star."

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Rob Trucks