As much as anyone in the past 50 years, Craig Biggio has been the face of the Houston Astros.
Just run down his accomplishments for a minute.
World Series appearance
7-time All-Star at two different positions
4-time Gold Glover
5-time Silver Slugger
2,850 games as a Houston Astro
His statistical record is all we have left of Biggio as an Astro, along with highlights and memories. The stats are what will get him into the Hall eventually, but it's the memories that cement his place in my mind as one of the greatest players I ever watched.
* * *
Growing up with the Astros in the late 80's and early 90's, Biggio was my favorite player. It was a hard decision, picking between Bidge and Jeff Bagwell, but for some reason, I always sided with the scrappy second baseman. His was the only jersey I had growing up. I liked both players, but Bidge was a step above.
For one thing, he seemed so completely to be everything that was Right And Good about baseball. He was, again, scrappy. He made the most out of his abilities. He was an offensive player at two non-offensive positions. He transitioned out of catcher for the good of the team (and probably his career).
He was always dirty, which meant something. His batting helmet was just covered with pine tar from the word go every season. He got hit by pitch after pitch, literally taking one for the team. He got on base so much, setting up Baggy to drive him in.
He also walked up to bat to U2, my favorite band, which seemed Important.
In short, I was always impressed, maybe even awed, by Jeff Bagwell. But, I loved Craig Biggio.
* * *
The numbers easily show how great a player he was. Biggio had eight seasons with at least 20 home runs, and only two seasons in 20 where he didn't have at least 20 doubles. He topped 50 doubles twice and had seven seasons with at least 60 extra-base hits.
He stole 20 or more bases nine times and had a career stolen base percentage of 76.9. He finished with all the counting numbers you could ask for with 3,060 hits, 291 home runs, 414 steals, 1,844 runs scored and 1,175 RBIs. Only 14 players in MLB history scored more runs than Bidge did.
Do you know how many players since 1938 have had at least 700 plate appearances in a season without grounding into a double play? Just one. Craig Biggio.
Only two second basemen in history hit more home runs than Bidge's 291. Of course, some of those came with him playing other positions. Still, he's got plenty of ink showing how good he was.
By WAR standards, Biggio was one of the top players of his era. He tallied 70.5 fWAR, which ties him with Barry Larkin for 86th all-time. Since Biggio entered the leage in 1988, only 14 batters have more fWAR than him.
* * *
There are two halves to Craig Biggio's career and I've never really forgiven the Florida Marlins for that.
In 2000, a lost season in Houston's run of division titles from 1997-2001, Biggio suffered the only major injury of his career. Preston Wilson slid into Biggio on what was definitely a cold, dark night in balmy Miami on August 4, 2000. Bidge was trying to turn a double play and just got caught up in a bad play. He never blamed Wilson or the Marlins, but I sure did.
Before that injury, Biggio had 1,969 career hits, 160 home runs, 402 doubles and 358 stolen bases in 464 attempts. He had a career batting average of .291 and a career walk rate of 10.7 percent with a career strikeout rate of 13.2 percent. For a middle infielder, he was an offensive force.
After that? Not so much. Biggio's declining years after his knee injury declined quickly. From Age 35 through 41, Biggio had 1,091 hits but the rest of his offensive stats plummeted. He hit .265/.333/.432 over his last 1,050 games and 4,602 plate appearances. That meant he had a walk rate of 6.8 percent and a strikeout rate of 15.3 percent.
Biggio lost bat speed, so he compensated by trying to turn on more fastballs. That led to some big home run seasons, including 24 homers in 2004 and 26 in 2005. But, the general lack of contact started in 2002, when his batting average fell to .253 and only topped 265 once in the next six years.
It's the end of the line Biggio that people remember most clearly now, and that split is also when I changed a bit as a fan. I remember in that 2001 season, when Biggio got his 2,000th hit, trying to figure out how long it'd take him to get to 3,000 and whether he could get there.
I wanted him to get that mark, because I wanted him to be a lock for the Hall of Fame. After the knee injury, though, I was very unsure whether he could get there. I cringed at some of his late-career performances, like the 2006 season when he hit 21 homers (topping 20 for the third straight season), but saw his double total fall and his contact rates also falling.
He hung on, maybe too long, to get his counting stats, but I certainly wasn't going to begrudge him that.
* * *
Biggio will face plenty of criticism from people who didn't watch him closely. Heck, he'll face plenty of criticism from people who did, like my boss at the News, who recently wrote that Bidge didn't deserve to get in on the first ballot because he wasn't a dominant player.
That raised my hackles, but it's pretty typical for the anti-Bidge HOF case. He never won an MVP, so he obviously wasn't the most dominant player in the sport and doesn't deserve to get in. He wasn't the player that Robbie Alomar was and wasn't the hitter that Jeff Kent was. He switched positions too much, so he was never great at any one of them.
I can understand that to an extent. Biggio and Alomar actually have very similar careers. Both second baseman came up in the same year (1988), but Alomar's career ended by 2004 with him short of 3,000 hits. He also didn't really suffer the kind of late-career injury Bidge did, so saw most of his decline come gradually. Still, Bidge had a higher career WAR than Alomar, and Robbie is in the Hall already.
Kent was the more powerful hitter, banging out 377 career home runs, but walking less than Bidge, striking out more, playing worse defense and never stealing more than 13 bases in a season. That's why he lags behind both Bidge and Alomar in career fWAR at 61.1.
What about Ryne Sandberg? He was probably the better defender than Bidge at second, but had a worse career walk rate, was a comparable base stealer and still totaled less career fWAR at 62.6. He, like Alomar, played fewer seasons than Bidge, thus not getting the counting stats that Bidge did.
Then, there's the playoff argument, that Biggio flamed out in so many big situations, he can't be a Hall of Famer. Except that Sandberg made the playoffs just twice, with his team losing both times. Alomar won two World Series, but was terrible in the first one and bad in both Baltimore's loss to the Yankees in 1996 and the O's loss to Cleveland in 1997. Sure, he hit .480 in the '93 Series, but Bidge had a .385 OBP in the '05 NLCS and had an ungodly 1.105 OPS in the NLDS win over Atlanta in 2004.
People are going to criticize no matter what, though. They'll state that Biggio was rarely dominant while ignoring his '98 season when he hit 50 doubles, 20 homers, stole 50 bases, batted .325 with a .403 on-base percentage and a .503 slugging percentage, but finished fifth in the NL MVP voting behind those two home run guys Sosa and McGwire who people say don't deserve to be in the Hall either.
No matter that Biggio and Tris Speaker are the only two players in MLB history with 50 doubles and 50 steals in the same season. Or that Biggio is the only one to hit 20 homers along with those 50 doubles and 50 steals.
Or that Bidge made getting hit by a pitch into an art form, finishing second all-time with 285 free passes. Only Hughie Jennings had more, and he's in the Hall of Fame.
* * *
Over the years, I've changed as a sports fan. I've become a professional sports fan, writing here and in other places about these sports I love so much. But, the passion I had for things when I was younger is already leaving. Jose Altuve is great and fun to root for, but he's not Important like Biggio was in his prime for me.
That's why one of the highlights and most terrifying moments of last season covering the Astros was seeing Biggio in the clubhouse one Sunday before a game. He was just sitting, chatting with Matt Downs and I just watched for a while, quietly waiting to go talk with Brad Mills.
I couldn't believe I got to be in the same clubhouse as Craig Biggio, but was terrified that I might actually be called upon to talk to him and wouldn't be able to manage anything more than a squeak. I'd turn into the Chris Farley Show and in one fell swoop, lose any and all credibility as a working sportswriter.
That's why I wanted to write about Biggio today. He was and is my favorite player of all time. I'm not sure whether he will get into the Hall of Fame, and don't even know if I did a good job of making a case for him. In my head, he doesn't need a case. He's Everything That's Right And Good About Baseball. I'll tell my son about watching Biggio play.
None of that is rational, and I'm fine with that. I'll be rational about this year's team and everything else. Bidge is just different.
He should be a Hall of Famer and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.