Culture / Sporting Life

Jeff Bagwell Talks About Being an Alcoholic For the First Time — All-Time Astros Great Opens Up to Help Kids in Recovery

Archway Academy's Sober High School Moves Bagwell Deeply, He Speaks About His Disease in Public Forum

BY // 10.20.20

Sitting on a stool in the kitchen, wearing his customary black shirt and black jeans, Jeff Bagwell addresses the demons that have hounded him. Yes, Jeff Bagwell is an alcoholic. And for the first time, the Houston Astros Hall of Famer does not care if anyone knows it.

In fact, he wants to share his story if it means helping the teenage alcoholics and substance abusers who are trying to turn their lives around at Archway Academy, the only sober high school in Houston.

“Well, I am Jeff,” Bagwell says. “And I am an alcoholic.

“Addiction, whether it’s drugs or alcohol is just a challenge. Put it that way. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. To have no control over yourself where alcohol, for me, controlled my life. Where from when you wake up in the morning to whenever I went to sleep, it was all about where’s my next drink.”

Bagwell makes these extraordinary remarks in Archway Academy’s 13th annual luncheon Tuesday afternoon. Usually, Archway holds its most important fundraiser of the year at River Oaks Country Club. COVID-19 does not allow for that in 2020. So Bagwell talks to Archway board member Randy Lack in a videotaped conversation for the live virtual luncheon.

A copy of Bagwell’s Hall of Fame plaque — and other baseball mementos — can be seen over Bagwell’s shoulder. But this day is about anything but baseball for one of the greatest Astros of all time. Instead, it’s about sharing his descent into a personal hell and his continuing recovery from it. (Bagwell says he has not had a drink since 10/17/2017.)

“At times you lose hope,” Bagwell says. “I think you don’t value your life anymore. I remember looking in the mirror in the morning, at 7’o’clock in the morning, and saying. ‘What are you doing, man? You’re killing yourself.’ And still could not stop.

“Because for me to get through the day, I had to have drinks.”

Jeff Bagwell hit 449 home runs in the Major Leagues, won a league MVP award, had numerous clutch moments. But he’s never been more courageous than he is in sharing the story of his addiction. Bagwell’s troubles were not unknown to anyone who spent a significant amount of time around the Astros over the last decade or so. He’s also taken the time to talk to and try to help other addicts in more private settings. But this is the first time Bagwell has addressed his alcoholism in any kind of real public way.

He seems to be inspired by those kids at Archway, who’ve moved him so much.

Jeff Bagwell was nervous about his Hall of Fame speech, but he came through. As usual.
Jeff Bagwell was nervous about his Hall of Fame speech, but he came through. As usual.

Bagwell talks of leading a meeting and seeing 10 to 15 Archway kids leaning on a side wall, listening to him. “I’m thinking about how hard it was for me to be in that seat at that time, to be sober and I think what it could be like for these kids,” Bagwell tells Lack. “To try and tell kids about sobriety in my life — and they haven’t really even started theirs.

“It’s something that was a very, very impactful for me. . . The struggles that I had. . . I just couldn’t imagine putting it on a 15, 16, 17-year-0ld kid. It was just something that meant something to me. How do these kids do that?. . . I can’t imagine at that age.”

The 52-year-old Bagwell could not get those kids struggling with a disease that brought him, a famous athlete, to his knees, out of his mind. Particularly, when he attended a Walk the Line ceremony at Archway. This is where a counselor or teacher asks the group if they’ve ever did or tried to do this or that. If you did, you walk the line, physically step over a line marked out on the ground with everyone else in the group who has.

“Then she says, ‘Have you ever tried to commit suicide? Cross the line,’ ” Bagwell says. “And say there was 70 kids there. At least 65 crossed that line. And that just hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Jeff Bagwell is not crying, but he looks close under the black framed glasses he’s wearing. One of the toughest baseball players ever knows how powerless addiction makes someone feel. On this day, Bagwell’s goal is just to help Archway Academy break its $300,000 fundraising goal for the luncheon to allow more kids in recovery get the support they need to finish high school. (About 70 percent of Archway’s students depend on scholarships to attend the school.)

So Bagwell, who’s never really liked to talk about himself, will share his story now.

“At times you lose hope. I think you don’t value your life anymore. I remember looking in the mirror in the morning, at 7’o’clock in the morning, and saying. ‘What are you doing, man? You’re killing yourself.’ And still could not stop.” — Jeff Bagwell

“Today is an opportunity for you to live out loud,” Lack tells Bagwell about talking about his alcoholism in this public way.

“Obviously, we never overcome this disease,” Bagwell says. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re a recovered alcoholic.’ No, I’m in recovery. It’s always there. It’s always waiting. And for me, I was very, very fortunate to have people around me that loved me and supported me. And didn’t give up on me. That’s part of the reason why I’m here today.

“And if they did give up on me, I don’t think I’d be sitting here or in any other seat. I would not be alive.”

Jeff Bagwell’s Family Fought to Save Him

Bagwell talks of having numerous family interventions with his current wife, Rachel Bagwell, and his kids pleading with him to stop drinking. The last one, not close to the first one, somehow stuck with him and he started to take the first steps in recovery.

“If every single person went to an AA meeting, the world would be a better place,” Bagwell says.

This Archway Academy luncheon, chaired by John Flournoy, also showcased the stories of former students and parents of former students in beyond powerful videos. Like Erica, who first toured Archway with her probation officer and has gone on to college with an Archway board member and her husband paying for her classes at Houston Community College. Or Austin, who was doing heroin before his recovery and noted that “the average life expectancy of someone shooting heroin is three months.” Austin found Archway to be an understanding place where his recovery could find solid footing. “The counselors were dancing more than the students were,” Austin says in describing his first welcome look at Archway.

Sasha Coles, the executive director at Archway, helped host the virtual event with Flournoy and her passion (breaking into heartfelt tears after watching some of the videos) jumped through the screen.

Jeff Bagwell may be the headliner because he is the famous baseball player. But he’d be the first to tell you that his story pales in comparison to the courage shown by these teenagers in recovery.

He’s exposing parts of his life he has never talked about before in this luncheon that’s geared around trying to help those teens. Kids who don’t have his advantages.

“As bad as it was,” Bagwell says of his own alcoholism. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Bagwell talks honestly about his kids being able to talk about being the children of an alcoholic. He is not trying to hide anything anymore. One of the greatest Astros ever is an alcoholic. And he is not attempting to keep that from anyone.

“It’s apparent his work in the recovery community is going to be lasting,” Flournoy says of Bagwell.

“I’m a grateful alcoholic,” Bagwell says. He’s still alive, still fighting, still working on his active recovery every single day. In many ways, Jeff Bagwell’s never stood taller than now.

For more information on Archway Academy or to donate to the school, go to its full website.

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