Some 197 miles separate Seton Hall University and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but for Craig Biggio the journey has lasted much longer than the three-hour and 37-minute drive from South Orange, N.J., to Cooperstown, N.Y.
It was 30 years ago when Biggio first showed up at the Hall as a promising young ballplayer out of Kings Park on Long Island. On Sunday, after three years of eligibility, he officially became a member of the Hall, as he, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez were welcomed into baseball’s most prestigious fraternity. Needless to say, Biggio was excited to officially join it.
“What an amazing class to be part of,” Biggio said in his acceptance speech on Sunday. “Big Randy J was a teammate and I tell you, man, he was an incredible competitor… John Smoltz – we had a lot of history together – but most of all I will never forget when we finally beat you guys (the Atlanta Braves) in the playoffs… Pedro, you brought you’re A-Game out there every time you pitched. You were a little guy, but you pitched like the Big Unit. These guys are Hall of Fame players, but they’re better people.”
The day was a monumental one for the Houston Astros, as Biggio became the first player in franchise history to be inducted. For him, that meant something special.
“It means a lot to me,” he told reporters on Saturday at a press conference. “I was loyal to the city, I was loyal to the organization and to be able to be the first guy to go in – I’m glad we got a guy in there now. That means a lot to me and it means a lot to my teammates that I played with over the years and, obviously, the franchise and the city.”
Coincidentally, the ‘Stros are not alone in celebrating the singularity of Biggio’s induction, as he is now the first Seton Hall Pirate to be inducted into a major sports Hall of Fame. Looking back on it, the former high school football standout is glad he chose to play baseball in blue and white rather than test his luck on a collegiate gridiron. He cited Seton Hall’s rich baseball history; a history that continued throughout his time there.
“You look at the group of guys that we had there and the coaching staff – they were great,” the 20-year MLB veteran said Saturday.
Some of those guys included Mo Vaughn and John Valentin, both of whom would also go on to have successful big league careers. Then there was head coach Mike Sheppard, whose leadership kept the talented bunch on track.
“Shep was great,” Biggio said Saturday. “Shep was tough – he was a Marine and he kept you in line. When you’re a young kid and you go away to college and you think you know it all but you haven’t even scratched the surface on life yet, you need a person to keep you in line and be a disciplinarian.”
On Sunday, with Sheppard and his family in attendance, Biggio was sure to acknowledge the man who played such a large part in shaping him into someone who is now a Hall of Fame ballplayer.
While Martinez clearly had the loudest contingent of fans on Sunday, the crowd, one of the largest Cooperstown has ever witnessed, was overwhelmed by a sea of Astros’ orange and navy and filled with chants of “B-G-O.” After playing in those colors for his entire career, many of those in attendance were there specifically to see Biggio.
“He was a kind of a person that we should all strive to be in life,” said Astros fan James Taylor, who made the 1,713-mile trip from Houston to mid-state New York. “A good family man, a loyal teammate and the money wasn’t what he was there for. He was there for the love of the game.”
“He gave everything to the game every time he played,” Taylor’s wife, Brenda, added.
For Biggio, the continued support from fans means the world – a quick look at the Sunday crowd and it seemed like he was the best-represented 2015 inductee in terms of names on the backs of shirts. He talked about how important it was to him that he could make an impact on their lives.
“They appreciate the way you want to play the game and I appreciated them for the journey that we went on,” Biggio said Saturday. “The biggest compliment you can get is from the fans and the people that say ‘You were my idol,’ or people who used to say ‘I bring my kid to watch you play.’”
Mark Nenefee, age 12, was one of those kids. His father and his two brothers were all in town for the ceremony.
“Craig Biggio,” the Houston native quickly answered when asked who his favorite player was. “He’s tough and an all-around great baseball player.”
A great baseball player indeed – hence his enshrinement among baseball’s immortals. The face of the Astros throughout his career, Biggio ended up with 3,060 hits, a .281 average, 668 doubles, 291 home runs, 1,175 RBI, 414 stolen bases and 75.1 offensive wins above replacement when he retired in 2007. He was also hit by 285 pitches, a modern record.
“Did I ever hit you?” Smoltz jokingly asked Biggio after Sunday’s speeches were all wrapped up.
Drafted as a catcher out of Seton Hall in 1987, Biggio would go on to win four Gold Gloves at second base while also playing outfield in the majors. He also won five Silver Slugger Awards and finished in the top-10 in National League MVP voting on three occasions. An All-American with the Pirates and seven-time All-Star in the pros, Biggio has both his collegiate No. 44 and Astros’ No. 7 retired. A recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award in 2007, he is also dedicated to supporting and promoting The Sunshine Kids, a charity group dedicated to helping children with cancer. For Biggio, the group has been an important part of his journey.
“The Sunshine Kids are a big part of my life and one of the reasons I stayed in Houston for 20-plus years and continue to live there today,” Biggio said, drawing attention to the organization in his speech.
Speaking of attention, plenty was paid to Biggio this past weekend. Prior to Sunday, Biggio wanted to take it all in – the reflection of his career, Sunday’s ceremony and, of course, the fans.
“Cooperstown is baseball,” he said Saturday in regards to the history, fans and overall vibe of the town. ”This place is what baseball is about. Simple as that.”
Of course, all of that can get to a guy. Biggio admitted to feeling some butterflies in the days leading up to Sunday, but when the time came he delivered a speech that was short and sweet – one filled with laughs and emotion. It was a beautiful bow tie on a distinguished career.
“In baseball, tomorrow is not guaranteed and I tried to play every game as if it was going to be my last,” he said. “I want to thank the game for everything; the game has given me everything. My family, my friends, respect, but most of all, memories of a lifetime. Thank you, very, very much from the bottom of my heart.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GPhillips2727.