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Culture / Sporting Life

Jeff Bagwell’s Closest Friends Share True Behind-the-Scenes Hall of Fame Moments

Jim Crane’s Crazy Dancing Included

BY // 08.03.17
photography Photos Courtesy Rachel Bagwell and Debbie Festari

Jeff Bagwell’s closest friends and family could tell he was nervous like he’s never been in the batter’s box. Public speaking is not Bagwell’s thing. It never has been. Craig Biggio played that rah-rah get the clubhouse going role with the Houston Astros when the two Hall of Famers played together. Bagwell would pull guys aside and tell them whatever needed to be said privately instead.

So yes, the new Baseball Hall of Famer felt the shakes like the most unsure Class A ball rookie.

“He was very nervous,” says Debbie Festari, one of Bagwell’s close Houston friends who got to go along on his Cooperstown Hall of Fame ride. “He spent a lot of time and effort (working on) his speech. He’s so humble that he has a hard time talking about himself.

“Everyone knew he was nervous, but he gave such a beautiful speech that touched on almost everybody who helped him. That’s Jeff. He’s just such a humble guy.”

The inside story of Jeff Bagwell’s long-awaited Hall of Fame weekend is even more fascinating than the public moments. And Bagwell’s friends took PaperCity behind the scenes with exclusive photos (flip through the gallery above this story) and tales you won’t hear anywhere else.

Like the one about Jim Crane’s crazy turn on the dance floor. Yes, the Astros owner certainly embraced the moment — and one Hall of Fame party in particular.

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“Jim Crane and his wife (Whitney Wheeler) were cutting a rug on the dance floor,” Festari laughs. “Most people have never seen Jim Crane like that before. He was having the time of his life.”

And the newly married Crane made sure all of Bagwell’s close friends and loved ones had a great time too. The Astros flew the entire Bagwell contingent up to Albany, bused them to Cooperstown, picked up their hotel rooms and took care of everything else on the trip too. “The Astros were first class in every way,” Festari says.

For Festari and her husband Rudy, the owners of the Festari for Men clothing store, getting to experience Bagwell’s Hall of Fame moment with him represents a dream come true. They’ve known Jeff for almost 15 years, having met him through the clothing store that’s something of a professional athlete magnet, and developing a close friendship. Many holidays and vacations together followed.

“We’re honored to be a little part of it, to be invited by him and (his wife) Rachel to come and be part of the family and close friends celebration,” Festari says.

Other close Houston friends of Bagwell’s — Brenda and Patrick Hicks, Stephanie and Danny Mushin, Deneige and Derek Dooley — also came along for the moment, invited into a Hall of Fame inner circle weekend.

For a baseball nut like Rudy Festari, joining Bagwell meant hitching a ride into a sports fantasyland. There were the greats of the game — Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, George Brett, Mike Piazza and of course, the Astros’ own Nolan Ryan, Larry Dierker, Jose Cruz and Craig Biggio, all milling about, all seemingly approachable. It played out on the picturesque streets of Cooperstown — and included a scene straight out of another era.

All the Hall of Famers participated in a parade right down Main Street, right through the heart of a town seemingly frozen in time.

“The parade was unbelievable,” Debbie Festari says. “Seeing how the fans reacted to all the players… you just don’t expect to see something like that.”

Inside Jeff Bagwell’s Hall of Fame Speech

The induction ceremony itself brought its own moments. Nerves and all, Bagwell delivered.

“When he spoke directly to Rachel and to see her crying…” Festari says. “And he spoke of his friends who passed so movingly. He was so close to Ken Caminiti (the troubled slugger who died of a drug overdose at age 41) and Darryl Kile (the talented pitcher whose heart failed him at age 33).

“He was so close to them.” So close that you could still hear the ache in Bagwell’s speech all these years later.

Under a relentless upstate New York sun on a blue skies day, Bagwell would seemingly touch on everyone who helped him along the way, even mentioning several clubhouse attendants by name. But nothing topped his moving tribute to his 89-year-old father Robert, who struggled at times in the sun and had to leave the ceremony a little early (luckily, Bagwell wasn’t one of the last inductees to speak).

Robert Bagwell made sure he was front and center for his son’s speech. In many ways, he was the hero of it.

“You showed me respect, how to have respect and to walk through this life as a man,” Bagwell said from the podium, virtually speaking directly to his dad as the entire baseball world watched. “That’s something that I’m very proud of.

“You are just a wonderful father, and I’m so happy that you’re here for this day for me. I know it means a lot to you. We’re in this together, my friend.”

For Jeff Bagwell himself, the wonder of the weekend never seemed to stop. His closest friends wondered if he even could process it all in the moment.

“He kept saying it was surreal for him,,” Festari says.

Now, Bagwell is set to return to Minute Maid Park and speak to the crowd before Saturday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays. In some ways, this will be getting back to baseball for the only first baseman in MLB history with 400 home runs and 200 steals — and only the 10th player all time at any position to achieve such a double.

“He really loves this current Astros team,” Festari says. “There’s been many times this season when he’s come over to the house to watch. He can’t stop talking about the young guys. Carlos Correa, (George) Springer), (Jose) Altuve… he thinks all those guys are the real deal.

“They’re his kind of players.”

That’s Jeff Bagwell. Always talking about someone else. This is a different type of Hall of Famer. One who makes sure his friends are part of any show.

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