Commentary

Craig Biggio's HOF credentials

Hard-driving former Astros star deserves a place in Cooperstown

Originally Published: January 6, 2013
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

This is the enduring image of Craig Biggio: sitting at his locker after a game, his No. 7 Astros jersey covered with dirt in a pile next to him, the picture of exhaustion. His cut-off, sleeveless T-shirt displays a gun show seldom seen on a second baseman, the rest of him is a chaotic mass of eye black, pine tar, bruises and abrasions, a snapshot of his nightly commitment. And his only acknowledgment that he plays the game harder than the rest came the time he laughed and said, "I've taken more Advil than anyone on earth."

The enduring tribute to Biggio came from an ex-teammate and former best friend, Ken Caminiti, who once called him "a psycho," adding, "He comes into me so hard at third base, I look at him and say, 'What are you doing?' He lets pitches hit him on the elbow on purpose. I tell him that he's going to get hurt bad doing that … and for what?"

For what? To win. It was always about winning for Biggio. But now the games are over, he hasn't wrapped eight layers of tape around the handle of his bats for five years, and all those hard slides, all those balls taken off his chest protector, or off his chest, all those extra ground balls and all those times he went to the cage and beat up 100 baseballs after a rough night at the plate, all of the record 285 times he was hit by a pitch, and all those Advil, were worth it for this year, this week: Biggio's potential election into the Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeCraig Biggio
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCraig Biggio needed three hits to reach 3,000 on June 28, 2007. He got five instead.

He is not the best player on this year's controversial ballot, not when it includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, but Biggio might have the best chance of being elected because he has no known connection to performance-enhancing drugs, and because his numbers -- look at all his numbers -- are Cooperstown-worthy. He is, by most any statistical measure, one of the 10 best second baseman of all time.

Biggio had 3,060 hits, 21st most ever, more than Rod Carew. Biggo had more hits in the live-ball era (since 1920) than any player whose primary position was second base. Biggio had the fifth-most doubles, more than Hank Aaron. He had the 31st most extra-base hits, more than Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle. He scored the 14th-most runs, more than Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. And Biggio's 146 runs scored in 1997 are tied for the second most in a season in the expansion era (since 1961). He played in more winning games than George Brett. The list of players in history with 250 home runs and 400 stolen bases are Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan and Biggio. That's it. That's the list. He is one of four infielders ever to have a 20-homer, 50-steal season.

In 1997, Biggio was hit by a pitch 34 times, the third-highest season total in the 20th century, and did not ground into a double play -- then the fifth full season in history by a player without a GIDP. It was a sabremetrician's dream season: Bill James calculated that no GIDPs and 34 hit by pitches in a season is roughly equivalent to 100 points added to a batting average. That year, Biggio had a WAR of 9.3, higher than the best season of second basemen Roberto Alomar (7.1) and Ryne Sandberg (8.4), each of whom are in the Hall.

Biggio's career WAR of 62.1 is comparable to Alomar (62.9) and Sandberg (64.9), but Biggio accumulated it while playing three premium defensive positions: catcher, second base and center field. He and Tom Daly (1895; he threw under-handed on long throws from second base to first) are the only players to play a full season at second base and a full season behind the plate. Biggio is the only player to also have played a full season in center field; he is the only player in history to record 1,000 at-bats as a catcher, a second baseman and a center fielder. He won four consecutive Gold Gloves at second base. When he arrived in the major leagues as a catcher in 1988 at age 22, Nolan Ryan said he loved throwing to him because he knew he could bounce a two-strike curveball knowing that the maniacal little guy with a size 7 hat behind the plate would hurl his body in front of the ball.

There was never anything artistic about the way Biggio played. He was what he was: the son of an air traffic controller; a rough, tough guy from Smithtown, N.Y.; a Long Island kid whose baseball hero was Yankees catcher Thurman Munson.

He sticks his face in front of the hardest ground balls I've ever seen. That little bastard isn't afraid of anything.

-- Former teammate Mark Portugal

Biggio's thick, coarse, unruly hands are not those of a second baseman, they are the hands of a catcher, a football player, a wrestler, a carpenter, all of which he was in spirit in all those years with the Astros, the only team for which he played. Biggio wrestled in high school, but he hated it because "you can't run in wrestling." Many baseball players can really play golf, but for Biggio, there was not enough running and not enough contact. "I saw him lose 18 golf balls in six holes," Bagwell once said with a big smile. But Biggio loved to play football; "greatest high school football player I've ever seen," former teammate Pete Harnish once said. Biggio was a running quarterback who became a running back, and was going to Penn State to play football but didn't have the grades, so he went to Seton Hall to play baseball. Four years later, in 1988, he was in the big leagues. That first year, in between games of a doubleheader, he saw Astros third baseman Buddy Bell, in the twilight of his career, with a needle stuck in his damaged knee so he could play the second game of a doubleheader. That's when Biggio said he understood what this was all about.

Biggio, and later, Bagwell played that way, and led that way. One year, Astros manager Larry Dierker tried to give Biggio a game off in the middle of a stretch that included a 12:15 p.m. game in Houston, followed by a 12:05 doubleheader the next day in Chicago, followed by a 12:05 p.m. game the next day. Biggio barged into Dierker's office, talked his way back into the lineup, saying, "We've got young players here. We're all tired here. But the veterans have to show them that you have to play." And that's how the Astros played. "If someone dogs it here," Biggio once said, "then they're not here for very long."

[+] EnlargeCraig Biggio
Brian Bahr/ALLSPORTDirty uniform. Torn pants. That's how Craig Biggio played the game for 20 seasons.

When Biggio was moved from catcher to second base in 1992 because there was a bigger need at second base, "he took ground balls every day, never missed a day, all by himself," said former Astros coach Matt Galante. "He played almost every inning of every exhibition game that spring. Do you know how many veteran players would do that? There was no one like Bigg." Biggio was never smooth or gifted as a second baseman, nothing close to Sandberg or Alomar, who was so elegant, who could throw from so many different angles. Biggio had one arm slot, he would catch a ground ball, stand straight up and throw from straight over the top, just like a catcher. But he never bailed on the double play, and Ray Miller, a former pitching coach and manager, said, "He sticks his face in front of the hardest ground balls I've ever seen." Biggio did that because, as former teammate Mark Portgual said, "That little bastard isn't afraid of anything."

Except lightning. In a high school All-Star game in 1982, Biggio, playing second base for the first time in his life, was on the field when lightning struck. The impact knocked Biggio to the ground, and momentarily knocked him out. He awoke in the fetal position. He saw the shortstop, 40 feet away. "His sock was on fire, there was hole in his chest," Biggio said. The shortstop died on the field that day, and Biggio said, "for months, when there was lightning, I would go to the basement. It took me about 10 years to get over that."

Biggio wasn't afraid of anything else, including a pitched ball. Mickey Mantle was hit 13 times in his career. Tony Gwynn was hit 24 times. Biggio was hit 285 times, and yet the only time he said that it ever really affected him was when the Cubs' Geremi Gonzalez hit him in the helmet in 1997. "It felt like I got hit in the head with a hammer," Biggo said. "My wife and our kids, and their class from school, were sitting upstairs in the luxury box. She was screaming, 'Please, get up!' That scared the daylights out of me."

On the field, nothing else fazed him. Bagwell once described him as: "Peanut head, no facial hair, unbelievably hyper. He's a little kid. He's 12." He played the game with a childish enthusiasm, and no one played the game harder than Biggio. So hard, in fact, Gwynn once said of Biggio, with equal parts reverence and concern, "You don't have to go out there and maim." But Biggio knew it was the only way he could play in the big leagues; he had to play harder than everyone else. When the Astros went to Detroit for the first time, Biggio looked around Tiger Stadium, and said, "This is where Ty Cobb played."

That attitude is why not all opponents liked him. It was why he would slide into third base so hard even though his best friend in the world, Ken Caminiti, was the third baseman.

And for what?

For this week. For Jan. 9, 2013: the day that Craig Biggio should be elected to the Hall of Fame.

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