By CHRIS DUNCAN
The Associated Press
Monday, February 26, 2007; 5:56 PM
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jeff Bagwell walked into the Houston Astros clubhouse on Monday as if he'd never been gone, hugging former teammates and catching up.
But after a few minutes, Bagwell was off to the coaches' locker room around the corner to begin his new life _ the one that follows one of the greatest playing careers in franchise history.
The 38-year-old retired in December, forced to give up baseball because of an arthritic right shoulder. He's a coach now, a job that's part of a personal services contract that kicked in when he quit.
On Monday, with a fungo bat in one hand and a simmering cup of coffee in the other, the Astros' career leader in home runs, RBIs and extra-base hits took the field as a supervising instructor.
"It's already a little weird just kind of walking out here, with no tape on my wrist, not in that little circle," Bagwell said. "But I'm not really that sad about that."
Bagwell, who played 15 seasons in Houston, will split time between the major and minor league complexes, advising hitters and offering tips on fielding and baserunning.
By his own admission, Bagwell didn't do much on his first day. He leaned on his bat and made wisecracks to assistant coach Matt Galante as his former teammates ran the bases.
"Matty," Bagwell yelled, already smiling, "you brought me down here to do this?"
Bagwell said the days leading up to his arrival felt just as unusual, as he sat at home knowing he was missing the start of spring training.
"It's been a little strange, picking up the paper," Bagwell said. "I think I've been a little grumpy at the house. But I'm OK with it. It's just different."
At midday, Bagwell made the short walk to the minor league side, a role he takes much more seriously.
"It's going to be over there that I'll have the most influence, where I can go and talk to those kids," Bagwell said. "That's what I'm looking forward to."
He gave third basemen _ including Roger Clemens' son, Koby, some fielding tips _ then watched several hitters from behind a batting cage.
When he spoke, the young players listened to his every word.
"You know these things work," outfielder Eli Iorg said. "He says things, and they stick with you, because you know he knows what he's talking about."
Bagwell, a Boston native, came up through the Red Sox minor league system. He remembers when he was an impressionable rookie in nearby Winter Haven in 1989 and Boston legends Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams watched him in batting practice.
"That was a big deal for me," Bagwell said. "In no way, shape or form am I Yastrzemski or Williams. But that was a huge deal for me. It's kind of neat seeing people like that walking around."
Bagwell hopes he can make a similar impact on the Astros minor-leaguers.
"With these kids, it's kind of neat because you can give them your thoughts and your experiences and they kind of go, `No way you felt like that,'" Bagwell said. "You can see it means something to them and that's been what's great. That's what kind of drives me to keep being around those kids."
Bagwell came to spring training last season under very different circumstances. The Astros said he was too injured to play another season, but Bagwell wanted a chance to at least try.
By the end of spring training, Bagwell still couldn't throw and knew he was finished. But the Astros and their insurance company wrangled for months over the $17 million Bagwell was due last season.
A year later, Bagwell has gained perspective and acceptance of how his playing career ended.
"It's something you've got to go through," Bagwell said. "It's just the fact that I physically cannot do it. So, it's no big deal. It's been a lot easier for me."
Even if he excels at coaching _ and he's not yet sure if he does _ Bagwell said he has no interest in becoming a manager in the future. The best thing about retiring from baseball, he said, is the extra time it gives him with his two daughters in Houston.
"I don't want to be away from my family for that long," Bagwell said. "My two girls, I enjoy picking them up from school."
Notes:@ RHP Chad Qualls, who's had a stiff shoulder since the start of camp, threw his first bullpen session on Monday. "That looked like Qualls to me," Garner said. "It was kind of like his first day, and he looked good." ... The Astros installed a cannon-like pitching machine in their indoor hitting cage that fires tennis balls at up to 140 mph. The machine's purpose is to improve players' hand-eye coordination. Each ball has a colored number and players test their vision by identifying the numbers as the ball comes at them. "The one thing we don't train like the rest of our bodies is our eyes," said Garner, who first used the machine when he managed in Milwaukee. "It's a good idea."