IN HOUSTON, BIGGIO 2ND TO NONE
His Hall plaque will be first to sport Astros cap
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.”
Craig Biggio combined good fielding with speed on the basepaths and production at the plate in his 20-year, Hall of Fame career.