For those still wondering whether any loyalty is left in
baseball, consider the case of Astros All-Star second baseman
Craig Biggio. A free agent of enormous appeal after his enormous
1995 season, Biggio turned down more lucrative offers from the
Rockies, the Cardinals and the Padres to sign a four-year $22.4
million deal and stay in Houston, where he began his career in
1988. "When you spend so much time in a city, you become close
to a lot of people," Biggio says. "It was a very difficult
decision, but the bottom line was, I wanted to finish what we
started."

Alas, such loyalty is uncommon in the game. Despite his fealty
to Houston, Biggio may finish out his contract in Northern
Virginia. Astros owner Drayton McLane has said that if
attendance this season fails to reach 2.5 million, he will sell
to a group of investors who would most likely relocate the team.
In its 34-year history the Houston franchise has never hit that
attendance mark; only three times has it topped 2 mil. But the
return of the 30-year-old Biggio should mean that Houston will
draw big, because Houston will win big. Last year Biggio was the
most productive number 2 hitter in the league, earned his second
straight Gold Glove and became the first Astro to start in the
All-Star Game since pitcher J.R. Richard in 1980. His value is
such that first baseman Jeff Bagwell delivered an ultimatum
after '95: Either re-sign Biggio or trade me. "[Biggio is] the
difference between losing 100 games and winning the division,"
says reliever Todd Jones.

A healthy Bagwell will mean at least as much to their
championship chances. Last year Houston struggled during the 30
games Bagwell missed while he was sidelined with a broken left
hand for the third year in a row. Though his open batting
stance leaves that paw exposed to pitches, a special plastic and
foam pad should offer some protection this year.

In rightfield Derek Bell emerged as a bona fide cleanup hitter,
finishing fourth in the NL in batting, swatting .410 against
lefties and driving in 86 runs despite missing the last 30 games
with a blood clot and a torn thigh muscle. Over the winter new
Houston G.M. Gerry Hunsicker acquired yet another "B" with
righthanded sting to go with Biggio, Bagwell and Bell: ex-Expos
third baseman Sean Berry, 29, who blasted double-digit homers
for the third straight year.

Unfortunately, the newest B comes with bad hands and a wild arm
that won't enhance the D on the left side of the infield, where
third-year shortstop Orlando Miller has yet to prove he is more
than adequate. Furthermore, swapping middle reliever Dave Veres
for Berry may well cost Houston W's and SV's. Veres (5-1, 2.26
ERA) pitched in half the Astros' games last summer, serving as a
lifeline for the borderline starting staff, which completed only
six games. "We have to ask some people to step to the forefront
in a way they haven't done in the past," Hunsicker says. "I
think the division title will come down to pitching."

More specifically, it will come down to the arms of two former
All-Stars: righty Doug Drabek, 33, and lefty Greg Swindell, 31.
Both are in the last year of contracts that pay more than $4
million per annum, but neither excelled in '95. Nor did
righthander Darryl Kile, 27, who walked 5.2 batters per nine
innings last year. The arrival of new pitching coach Brent
Strom, who handled him at Triple A Tucson, may help straighten
out Kile's curve and return him to his All-Star, no-hit form of
'93.

Until last season, lefthander Mike Hampton had started only
three games in the bigs. But at 23 he is now the most reliable
member of Houston's rotation; after battling through torn elbow
ligaments, he exhibited a nasty cut fastball and showed
tremendous poise in 24 starts. Not far behind Hampton is righty
Shane Reynolds, 27, a converted reliever with a biting
split-finger who fanned 175 while walking only 37 in his first
full season as a starter. In the bullpen, Houston is counting on
the recovery of John Hudek, the 1994 rookie of the year
runner-up, who underwent surgery last July to remove a rib that
was causing circulation problems in his pitching arm.

Only a complete breakdown on the mound will keep the Astros from
seizing their first division title since 1986--thanks to Biggio.
"We're going to make it work and win a championship," he says.
"I want to help get the city back on its feet."

--Hank Hersch

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL With the loyal Biggio still in town, things are looking up for Houston. [Craig Biggio]

BY THE NUMBERS

1995 Team Statistics (NL rank in parentheses)

Batting Average .275 (2)
Home Runs 109 (12)
ERA 4.06 (5)
Fielding Pct. .979 (12)

GET WELL SOON

Last season the Astros were 67-47 with Jeff Bagwell in the
starting lineup, compared with 9-21 without him. No player's
absence hurt his team more, although a few came close. The
players listed below all started 75 games or more last season
but also spent part of the year on the disabled list. In each
case, the club's winning percentage was at least 150 points
lower when the player did not start.

Players Whose Absence Most Hurt Their Teams

In starting Not starting
lineup
W-L (Pct.) W-L (Pct.) Diff.

Jeff Bagwell,
Astros 67-47 (.588) 9-21 (.300) -.288
Paul O'Neill,
Yankees 71-48 (.597) 8-17 (.320) -.277
Gary DiSarcina,
Angels 60-38 (.612) 18-29 (.383) -.229
Greg Gagne,
Royals 59-53 (.527) 11-21 (.344) -.183
Mike Piazza,
Dodgers 64-46 (.582) 14-20 (.412) -.170
David Justice,
Braves 78-42 (.650) 12-12 (.500) -.150

PLAYER TO WATCH

At the Astros' spring training camp in 1994, Tony Eusebio was a
26-year-old catcher with a .105 career average who had no
options left. So he proceeded to go 20 for 33 (.606) to make the
Opening Day roster, backing up Ed Taubensee and Scott Servais.
Eusebio hit .296 in 55 games that year; his first big league
homer came when he blasted a changeup 434 feet to dead center.
By the end of 1995 Taubensee and Servais were both gone and
Eusebio had come within one hit of a .300 season. An
opposite-field hitter whose eye at the plate has become sharper
with experience, Eusebio is reliable defensively and will
platoon with lefthanded-hitting Rick Wilkins. "[In 1994] I was a
stranger here," Eusebio says. "It's a little different now. They
know I can hit the ball."

PROJECTED LINEUP With 1995 Stats

BATTING ORDER BA, HRs, RBIs, SBs

CF Brian Hunter .302, 2, 28, 24
2B Craig Biggio .302, 22, 77, 33
1B Jeff Bagwell .290, 21, 87, 12
RF Derek Bell .334, 8, 86, 27
LF James Mouton .262, 4, 27, 25
3B Sean Berry[*] .318, 14, 55, 3
C Tony Eusebio .299, 6, 58, 0
SS Orlando Miller .262, 5, 36, 3

BENCH

OF Derrick May .301, 8, 41, 5
C Rick Wilkins .203, 7, 19, 0
OF John Cangelosi .318, 2, 18, 21

STARTERS W-L, ERA

RH Doug Drabek 10-9, 4.77
LH Mike Hampton 9-8, 3.35
RH Shane Reynolds 10-11, 3.47
LH Greg Swindell 10-9, 4.47
RH Darryl Kile 4-12, 4.96

RELIEVERS SAVES, ERA

RH John Hudek 7, 5.40
LH Dean Hartgraves 0, 3.22
RH Todd Jones 15, 3.07
RH Doug Brocail 1, 4.19

[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)