Craig Biggio visits Cooperstown
Craig Biggio still seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation he found himself in.
A little more than three weeks since the longtime Houston Astros standout was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, here he was, having travelled from his Houston home and getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cooperstown institution.
“I was just a little kid from Long Island and loved to play football and baseball. I loved every minute of it. And now I’m sitting in a chair that says Hall of Fame. It’s crazy. It’s really surreal,” said Biggio at a Friday morning press conference in the Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery. “It is special because you knew the Hall of Fame, and where it was, and who was in it, and the players who were in it, but now having the opportunity to go in here myself now it’s beyond words right now, to be honest with you. I’m trying to give you the right things but it’s just hard to put into words because it’s pretty emotional.”
By the numbers
On Jan. 6, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced the Hall of Fame elections of not only Biggio but also pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. Biggio received 82.7 percent of the vote in his third year on the ballot. The Induction Ceremony featuring the four electees will be held on Sunday, July 26 at the Clark Sports Center.
Biggio’s Hall of Fame credentials are certainly impressive, though his path to stardom was unconventional. Starting as a catcher, he made the switch second baseman and eventually spent a couple years as center fielder.
Along the way, during the seven-time All-Star’s 20 seasons in Houston, the leadoff hitter with power hit .281 with 1,844 runs scored (15th all-time), 291 home runs and 414 stolen bases. The winner of five Silver Slugger Awards (one at catcher and four at second base) and four Gold Glove Awards (at second base) joined the 3,000-hit club in 2007, his last year in the big leagues. His 668 career doubles are good for fifth on the all-time list and the most by a right-handed hitter, and Biggio ranks second all-time behind Cal Ripken among middle infielders with 1,014 extra base hits.
Biggio and his wife, Patty, were at the Hall of Fame for an orientation session each new electee attends to prepare for Induction Weekend. But prior to any work came a tour, guided by Hall of Fame Vice President of Exhibitions and Collections Erik Strohl, through the national pastime’s long history.
Whether it was the costume of the Phillie Phanatic (“Phanatic is cool. We used to have so much fun with him; he was the best.”) or the impact of Jackie Robinson (“We have the greatest players in the world because of what Jackie went through.”), Biggio was constantly engaged, enthusiastic and awed by what he was looking at. When an exhibit contained information on Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, Biggio’s onetime coach with the Astros, he exclaimed, “My boy, Yogi! I saw him about a month ago. He’s the smartest baseball guy I’ve ever been around.”
When the tour ended inside the Plaque Gallery, Biggio made sure to pay respects at Berra’s bronze likeness.
“Yogi was a friend, I think that was the biggest thing. Yogi is just a real person,” Biggio said. “Yogi is one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game. And one of the most recognizable people in the world. And he was always the same. Always humble. Always just loved talking about baseball and talking about the game.
“My relationship goes beyond the playing field with him. We did a lot of things off the field, golf and stuff like that. I was truly honored to have him as a friend and be around a person like that.”
Berra was an acclaimed catcher who sometimes played the outfield. Biggio came to the big leagues as a catcher and made the switch to second base for the betterment of the Astros.
“It’s the reason why I’m here. I think if I’d have stayed at catcher I’m definitely not here,” Biggio explained. “I played 12, 13 years as a second baseman, a couple years in the outfield, and four years as a catcher. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me and the best thing that ever happened to our organization. But it wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination.”
A day filled with heroes
With a busy day planned, Biggio was often asking whether he was taking too much time in the Museum.
“There’s just too much stuff here to look at,” Biggio said. “Just let me know if I have to hurry. I’m at the candy store.”
When the travelling party arrived in the basement to check out the collections area, items Biggio had donated, including shoes, jerseys and a cap, were laid out.
“I owe everything to the game of baseball,” said Biggio, when thanked for his generosity over the years, “so I always felt that if the Hall of Fame wanted my stuff, the Hall of Fame can have it.”
Later, during the press conference, Biggio was asked what he enjoyed most about the tour.
“I had a Babe Ruth bat in my hand, so I don’t know how many people can ever say that they actually had a Babe Ruth bat in their hand,” Biggio replied. “And Thurman Munson, he was my hero, my idol growing up, and to pick up his helmet in the archives. This is why it’s a magical place.”
Munson was a legendary Yankees catcher who tragically died in a 1979 plane crash.
“Thurman was just a guy that played the game the right way. He came to play every day, he wanted to play every game, got dirty,” is how Biggio explained his affection for the onetime Yankees captain. “I was not necessarily a Yankees fan but he was my hero growing up for all the right reasons. I had a coach, Matt Galante, who coached Thurman and he said all the things I thought about him, he was. So it was really nice to be able to hear that your hero was the guy you thought he was.”
Worth the wait
According to Biggio – the only player in baseball history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs – his having to wait three years for enshrinement into the game’s most exclusive club doesn’t matter at all.
“We’re in,” he said with a smile. “We’re just honored that we’re in. Last year we came really close, being two votes shy. Hopefully this year was going to be the year, and then it was. I never looked at it as waiting three years. We’re just very honored and humbled that we’re in.”
As for having the first Hall of Fame plaque sporting an Astros cap, Biggio couldn’t be happier.
“It means a lot to me because I’m going to be going in wearing a hat but I’m wearing it for every single guy that’s ever played for the Astros and the Astros organization,” he proudly said. “To finally get a guy in is really an incredible thing but I look at it as its also for all my teammates I played with, all the teammates before that wore an Astros uniform, and all the guys afterwards. This is for everybody. This is for all of us. Hopefully we can all enjoy it.”
With the Induction Ceremony some six months away, Biggio is already planning what to include in his speech that late July afternoon.
“I’m trying to make sure I really thank everybody that needs to be thanked when I have an opportunity to speak,” he said. “I didn’t get here on my own. Everybody that has ever spoke never got here on their own. There’s so many people you’re grateful for that had an impact on your life. I just don’t want to have to sit down in that chair having forgot somebody because you’re not allowed to get back up there. That’s the biggest thing for me, to really making sure I get the list of people that I really, truly need to thank.”
And what about the trio of pitchers Biggio will be sharing the stage with that mid-summer day? He calls it “a special class.”
“The guys I’m going in with, we have a long history together,” Biggio said. “R.J. [Randy Johnson] was a great teammate, played with him for a year, and John [Smoltz] was great at what he did, and Pedro [Martinez] was great at what he did. So to be able to go in with a class of guys like that, they’re all really good people, and I’m honored to be able to go in with them.”
Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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