From South Orange to Cooperstown
Seton Hall Athletics
The phone rings in a Texas home at exactly 12 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2015.
The caller ID reads New York, N.Y. The man sitting on the couch next to the phone is antsy. He is worried someone is playing some sort of joke on him. With family around him he answers the call. After two years of disappointment and narrowly missing election, it is finally the news he wants to hear.
Craig Biggio is informed that he is getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Biggio said Monday morning. “You’re hoping for that phone call to come. It was very emotional for me just because I came so close in the year before… It was pretty special, I’m not going to lie.”
Biggio, a Houston Astros legend and Seton Hall University alum, has been up for enshrinement into Cooperstown for three years. Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America previously failed to get him the 75 percent of votes he needed, despite being one of just three eligible players with 3,000 hits not in the Hall.
Seton Hall Athletics
The others, Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro, did not get in after being banned from baseball for gambling and being connected to steroid use, respectively.
After receiving 82.7 percent of votes on this year’s ballot, that is all in the past. Biggio is going to be in the company of baseball’s most iconic players.
“You don’t control it,” Biggio said of the voting. “We were so close and we were going in the right direction. I try to be positive in everything I ever do. For whatever reason the first couple of years went the way they went and obviously the third time I’m going in with an unbelievable class.”
The rest of that 2015 class is made up of pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.
Believe it or not, Biggio’s baseball career was threatened by another sport. He was a star football player when he was younger at Kings Park High School in Smithtown, N.Y. In 1983 he won the Hansen Award, recognizing him as Suffolk County’s best player on the gridiron. He was offered multiple college football scholarships, but ultimately Seton Hall’s rich baseball history won him over.
“Look at the history and the tradition that Seton Hall has had,” Biggio explained. “They have had a lot of unbelievable baseball players come out of there.”
Some of those players include Mo Vaughn and John Valentin. Both were teammates of Biggio’s that went on to have successful MLB careers.
“We had a lot of guys that were really good,” he said. “The coolest thing was that we all got along. We all liked each other. We all enjoyed the game for what it was worth. That’s what really made it special.”
Biggio was thought of as an infielder when he arrived at Seton Hall, but former Pirates’ head coach Mike Sheppard decided to make him a catcher when incumbent backstop Tony DeFrancesco was drafted in 1984. Sheppard did not have much of a choice given the circumstances.
“He caught a little earlier in youth ball (and high school), but we were looking at him as more of an infielder,” Sheppard, who coached Seton Hall from 1973-2000 and again from 2002-2003, recalled when talking about recruiting Biggio. “Tony DeFrancesco was our catcher and he left and signed with the Boston Red Sox. Then another guy, of all things, took off and got married. He left us and went to Texas. So, here we were without a catcher. I say to Biggio ‘Hey, I heard you caught when you were a young kid. Guess what? You’re going to catch again.’”
The transition would be seamless as Biggio would make a name for himself at the Hall from 1985-1987. He was named the New Jersey Baseball Coaches Association Player of the Year in 1986 and was named a First Team All-American in 1987 by Baseball America. A two-time First Team All-Big East selection, Biggio would lead the Pirates to their first conference championship in 1987. Biggio said that Big East championship was what stood out the most.
“It was the first year that we were in the Big East and we won it,” he said. “That was a lot of fun. It was just a bunch of blue-collar, hard working guys. We went up to Bristol and Mo Vaughn hit a home run that I think is still going. That’s probably one of my best memories because it was the first true test of what winning is all about.”
Biggio would become one the Pirates’ all-time greats by the time his career in South Orange was all said and done, setting the program’s single-season records for most runs scored and games played. He would finish with the most triples in Seton Hall history while placing in the top-10 in 18 other statistical categories, both seasonal and career. A career .342 collegiate hitter, he would end up with 27 homers, 148 runs batted in and 90 steals.
Biggio with Astros (AP Photo)
“He could always run and surprise the other team,” Sheppard said. “Biggio was they type of guy who would draw a walk and run down to first base. His running showed how aggressive he was and how much he wanted to win.”
When asked what Biggio’s Hall of Fame plaque would say if there was only room for one word, Sheppard did not hesitate.
“Hustle,” he said. “I have a saying that is unique with me which is: never lose your hustle. Craig Biggio was that kind of ballplayer.”
That hustle, combined with Biggio’s talent, was what caught the eye of the Astros, who took him with the 22nd-overall pick in the 1987 MLB draft. He would make his big league debut with Houston in 1988. It would be the only major league team he would ever know.
“I was very loyal and I think the organization was very loyal,” Biggio said when talking about his 20-year career in Houston. “It’s really hard to stay in one city, one organization your whole career, especially during that time because it started transitioning because of dollars for whatever reason be, we made it work and I think it’s really special. There’s not a lot of guys who play their whole career in one city.”
Biggio wrapped up his career in 2007, retiring with a .281 lifetime average, 668 doubles, 291 home runs, 1175 RBI, 414 stolen bases, 75.1 offensive wins above replacement and, most notably, 3,060 career hits. With 28 players a part of the 3,000 hit club, Biggio is just one of seven members to do it all with one team.
He also holds the modern record for hit by pitches with 285.
He would move around the diamond throughout his career, playing behind the plate, second base and all three outfield positions. He would win four Gold Glove Awards, all coming as a second baseman. He also earned five Silver Slugger Awards and placed in the top-10 in National League MVP voting three times.
In college Biggio wore No. 44 and donned No. 7 on his back in The Show. Both Seton Hall and the Astros have retired his numbers.
A seven-time All-Star, Biggio was and still remains a humanitarian. He won MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award in 2007 for his charitable efforts off the field and is the lead spokesperson for the Sunshine Kids Foundation, which supports children who are battling cancer.
These days Biggio is also serving as an assistant to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. He helps out at spring training each year and also does some scouting for the organization. His two sons, Conor and Cavan both play ball at Notre Dame. They, along with Biggio, his daughter Quinn and wife Patty, reside in Texas. The couple met at Seton Hall, where Patty is also an alum.
After a distinguished career filled with spectacular days and ever-lasting memories, Biggio has one more date to look forward to. On July 26 he will officially be enshrined among baseball’s immortals, along with the rest of the Class of 2015.
“As far as my speech is concerned, they don’t give you a lot of time,” Biggio said about the upcoming ceremony. “You want to make sure that you address everybody that had an impact on your life. We’ll be working on it, we’ll be thinking about it – I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about the people, the relationships that I’ve had over the course of my 20-year playing career and my Seton Hall days and growing up as a kid.”
“I intend to be there,” Sheppard said.
Reflecting on it all, Biggio is still taken aback by everything that has happened.
“I loved playing the game,” Biggio said. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I played every game like it was going to be my last game. All of a sudden – being a kid from Long Island, went to Seton Hall, played his whole career with one organization and then now obviously getting a phone call going to the Hall of Fame – it’s really surreal… There’s only 300 and something guys in the Hall of Fame and a little kid from Seton Hall University is going to be one of them.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GPhillips 2727.