Biggio steps up to coaching challenge

HOUSTON -- When St. Thomas High School here was looking late last spring to replace baseball coach Ken Schulte, the Eagles had a natural starting point for recommendations in volunteer assistant Craig Biggio.

Someone with a résumé that includes 3,060 career big league hits in 20 seasons with the Houston Astros could surely help locate a worthy person for a primo program at the all-boys school on Buffalo Bayou. In Schulte's four seasons, the Eagles reached the TAPPS Class 6A final in 2005 and '06 and won their 19th and 20th private school state titles in 2007 and '08.

The search ostensibly ended once St. Thomas asked Biggio to help look. His self-nomination was framed in the understated Biggio way:

"I'm here every day," he said. "What the heck."

So Biggio, one of the most beloved Astros ever, signed on to become varsity baseball coach. Only days after he accepted the St. Thomas position (without a salary), his uniform number was retired by the Astros.

"It's just being around baseball still," said Biggio, 43. "I kind of retired to be around my kids because I've been gone for my whole life. So just coming over here as an assistant and being with these kids every day … the involvement that I got last year from the other side, the coaching side of baseball, the teaching aspect of baseball, it's opened up some new doors for me as far as my thinking. And I'm excited about it."

Conor Biggio, a sophomore, is the Eagles' starting shortstop. Younger son Cavan figures to join the program, too.

St. Thomas has a 12-9 record; the school of 715 plays a lot of larger schools in and around Houston. Biggio said much of what he has discovered is simple reinforcement of what he already knew.

"Kids are going to be kids," he said. "Fifteen-year-olds are going to act like 15-year-olds, and 18-year-olds are going to act like older guys. The best player and the worst player, you have to treat them the same. I tell the guys baseball's not a fair game. It's all about adversity."

St. Thomas has long had a successful baseball program. One of its previous coaches was also a former major leaguer. That was Larry Miggins, who played briefly with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1940s and settled in Houston when the Cards' biggest minor league affiliate was the Houston Buffs. (Miggins had eight ball-playing sons, meaning the family fielded an entire starting nine by itself.)

Last season, Biggio decided to spend his first spring after big league retirement helping Schulte during Conor's freshman year. Now, in Texan terms, he's the big hat -- though he didn't bring along that crusty batting helmet from his Astros days.

Not every high school baseball coach is asked for his autograph before and after games.

"It's definitely a lot different than it would be for a regular coach," Biggio said. "I try to do the best I can with it."

Eagles senior shortstop Tim Redden was 9 years old when he got an autograph from Biggio.

"But I've never told him," he said quietly. "Last year, I was in awe. But after a couple weeks out here, when you get to know him, it's just like having another coach. He's just a regular guy."

A regular guy who can impart 20 years of major league experience to 50-plus high school players.

"Everything he talks about is probably better than what any other coach would say," said junior Patrick Hicks, a pitcher-first baseman. "You know everything he tells you is right. If you follow what he says, then you'll succeed."

It didn't even take Biggio long to master giving signs from the third-base coaching box.

"He doesn't do them fast where we can't understand," Hicks said with a hint of appreciation.

Some things feel for Biggio like he never left the big leagues, while others are quite different.

"It's baseball; it's the everyday grind," he said. "The biggest difference is the big leagues has a full-staff grounds crew, equipment manager, this and that.

"Here, it's you."

With two weeks to go in their district season, the Eagles are 3-2 with four games left to play.

"We have a good balance of younger guys and older guys," Biggio said. "It's a good mix, kind of like building a big league club. We didn't have a lot of varsity players coming back, but the strength in general is guys believing in each other."

Said shortstop Redden: "We've got a quality group of guys. We don't really excel in any one area, but we're solid in every area."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.