IN HOUS­TON, BIG­GIO 2ND TO NONE

His Hall plaque will be first to sport Astros cap

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL - Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Sports Dan Schloss­berg

Had the Hous­ton Astros kept Craig Big­gio be­hind the plate, the Hall of Fame might have proved be­yond his reach.

Catch­ers don’t play ev­ery day, as he did in three sea­sons af­ter mov­ing to sec­ond base, to cen­ter field and back to sec­ond.

“They knew I could run and didn’t want to lose my speed,” says Big­gio, elected to Cooperstown this year in his third try. “Art Howe took me to lunch and said he wanted me to move to sec­ond base. I had made the All-Star team as a catcher in ’91 and was just start­ing to feel com­fort­able there, so I said I’d have to think about it. Once we agreed, I de­cided I wanted to be­come the best sec­ond base­man I could.”

Ac­cord­ing to long­time Astros broad­caster Milo Hamil­ton, who ar­rived in Hous­ton three years be­fore Big­gio sur­faced in 1988, “They worked with him all spring. (Coach) Matt Galante used a glove shaped like a ping-pong pad­dle, with a flat sur­face, to make sure he had the ball. He would get it and make the pivot. He made the tran­si­tion beau­ti­fully.”

Big­gio not only won a Gold Glove at the new spot but also blos­somed as a premier lead­off man. He hit an Na­tional Lea­guere­cord 53 lead­off home runs, sec­ond to Rickey Hen­der­son, dur­ing a 20-year ca­reer spent en­tirely with the Astros.

He also be­came the only player with at least 600 dou­bles, 250 homers, 400 stolen bases and 2,700 hits.

“He cer­tainly helped my ca­reer,” says Jeff Bag­well, whose abil­ity to drive in runs was en­hanced by Big­gio’s abil­ity to reach base. “Ev­ery­body talks about Rickey, but for five or six years Craig was the best lead­off man in base­ball. I got to see it first­hand.”

Detroit Tigers man­ager Brad Aus­mus, a catcher who be­came Big­gio’s team­mate in 1997, agrees. “I would have loved to have a lead­off man like Craig,” he says. “In 1997-98, prior to his knee surgery, he might have been the best lead­off man in the game.

“Giv­ing up catch­ing helped. He be­came a much bet­ter player once he had his legs un­der him. He drove the ball, hit more dou­bles, hit some home runs and was able to steal more bases.

“He played the game harder than any­one I ever played with. He al­ways went full speed on a ground ball to the in­field. He was blue-col­lar, old school and led by ex­am­ple.”

From 1993 to 1999, Big­gio led the Na­tional League in to­tal dou­bles and runs and ranked sec­ond in hits, third in stolen bases and fourth in walks. He did some­thing es­pe­cially re­mark­able in ’97, when he didn’t ground into a dou­ble play all sea­son (744 plate ap­pear­ances).

Big­gio and Bag­well, along with Derek Bell and Lance Berk­man, formed the Killer B’s, a quar­tet that kept the Astros in con­tention. The club reached the post­sea­son six times, in­clud­ing a lone trip to the World Se­ries in 2005. Much of the credit be­longs to Big­gio.

“As a lead­off man, your job is to get on base and get your­self into scor­ing po­si­tion,” he says. “You walk, you get hit by a pitch, you get on and you steal a base. Dou­bles are made out of the bat­ter’s box. You need to know the out­fielder’s arm and when to push the en­ve­lope a lit­tle bit.”

Big­gio had 668 ca­reer dou­bles, more than any other right-handed hitter, and was hit by a pitch 285 times, tops in the mod­ern era. He also stole 414 bases — a key fac­tor in the per­pet­u­ally dirty hel­met that be­came a trade­mark for Big­gio.

A team player who moved from sec­ond to cen­ter field af­ter the Astros signed Jeff Kent, he was back at sec­ond when he notched his 3,000th hit in his last sea­son, 2007. The last Hall of Famer with such ver­sa­til­ity was Paul Moli­tor, the man­ager of the Min­nesota Twins.

“That’s a fair com­par­i­son,” Hall of Fame Pres­i­dent Jeff Idel­son says. “Both were in­cred­i­bly tal­ented de­fen­sive play­ers with great bat speed as well.”

A first-round draft choice out of Se­ton Hall, Big­gio was a Long Is­land kid whose idol was Thur­man Mun­son. “My brother loved the Yan­kees, but I didn’t root for any team,” he says. “I liked the way Mun­son played the game and the way he loved his fam­ily.”

Ac­cord­ing to Idel­son, Hous­ton loves Big­gio, who not only spent his en­tire 20-year ca­reer with the Astros but also will be the first man in the Hall of Fame gallery whose plaque will sport an Astros cap. “Our bus count is track­ing ahead of last year, when we had al­most 50,000 peo­ple,” Idel­son says. “It seems the en­tire state of Texas is com­ing to Cooperstown to see Big­gio in­ducted.”

His speech needs to be short­ened, Big­gio thinks.

“We got some stuff on pa­per and are start­ing to prac­tice,” Big­gio says, “but we un­der­stand there are four guys who are go­ing to talk.”

1996 PHOTO BY MICHAEL S. GREEN, AP

Craig Big­gio com­bined good field­ing with speed on the basepa­ths and pro­duc­tion at the plate in his 20-year, Hall of Fame ca­reer.

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