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SECOND EFFORT A WORK ETHIC INSTILLED BY HIS FATHER HELPED THE ASTROS' CRAIG BIGGIO CONVERT FROM ALL-STAR CATCHER TO GOLD GLOVE INFIELDER

April 01, 1996
April 01, 1996

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April 1, 1996

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SECOND EFFORT A WORK ETHIC INSTILLED BY HIS FATHER HELPED THE ASTROS' CRAIG BIGGIO CONVERT FROM ALL-STAR CATCHER TO GOLD GLOVE INFIELDER

Craig Biggio leads the sort of idealized life that one associates
with black-and-white TV. He calls his father-in-law Dad. His
wife, Patty, is attractive and vivacious, and she knows where
everything is. (She studied nursing in college, but now she's a
full-time mom.) Craig and Patty have two young boys, Conor, 3,
and Cavan, 11 months, who bounce around happily in the morning
and take long naps in the afternoon. Shelbee, the family mutt,
is a good sleeper too, and she knows all the warm spots in the
house. The house itself--in the charming, sea-battered town of
Spring Lake, on the New Jersey shore--is a timeless, fixed-up
beauty with an appropriate name, Home Plate, a view of the ocean
and the comforting proximity of millionaires.

This is an article from the April 1, 1996 issue Original Layout

The Biggios are doing all right themselves: Over the winter,
Craig, a sure-handed free-agent second baseman with light feet
and a peppy bat, agreed to stay with the Houston Astros for at
least another four years, for at least $20 million. He's 30, a
man, but he looks boyish, like Kevin Bacon in Diner. In the
off-season Biggio is home most nights for dinner; Patty's a good
cook. For lunch, he heads into town. He pops over to Spring Lake
Pizzeria, on Third Avenue, or to Joseph's Delicatessen, near the
train station. At Joseph's the regulars still actually talk
baseball, mostly New York Yankees baseball. "You gonna sit down
or what?" Joseph asked one morning in January. Biggio was eyeing
the salads and meats and cheeses. "Can't. Going out to the
Island," Biggio answered. He grew up in Kings Park, N.Y., a
middle-class commuter town on the north shore of Long Island,
and he was about to go home again, to visit his youth. He
ordered a tuna sandwich to go.

"He coulda been a Yankee," Joseph said, to nobody in particular.

"I don't know," said Biggio, who was a first-round amateur draft
pick of the Astros in June 1987 and was in the majors to stay a
year later. "I'm kinda happy in the National League." He grabbed
his sandwich, waved good-bye, and he was off.

At Joseph's they know the Yankees figured prominently in
Biggio's baseball development. While he was growing up, his idol
was Thurman Munson, then the Yankees catcher. Biggio broke into
the majors as a receiver, even went to the 1991 All-Star Game as
a catcher. The next season he migrated to second and made
himself, many baseball people think, the best defensive second
baseman in the National League.

"Around here, it's always, 'When you gonna play for the
Yankees?'" Biggio said, without a hint of complaint. He was now
behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Suburban, big and white, with
Texas plates. Biggio, a righty, handled the wheel with his glove
hand as he released his sandwich from its wrapping with his
throwing hand. "On the Island, you get, 'When you gonna sign
with the Mets?'"

Coming off a 1995 season in which he batted .302, had career
highs in home runs (22) and RBIs (77), and led the majors with
123 runs scored, Biggio was one of the winter's most
sought-after free agents. Before re-signing with Houston he had
a brief flirtation with the Yankees and a longer one with the
Mets, plus serious talks with the Colorado Rockies, the St.
Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres. The Astros didn't
offer him the most money, but Biggio signed with them anyway.
Maybe some New Yorkers just don't want to play in New York?

Biggio shrugged. "New York's tough, no question," he said,
steering north on the Garden State Parkway, heading for New York
City. "The thing with me is that I want to finish what we
started in Houston. I played on some rebuilding teams, tough
years. In 1994 we were good--we were right there--but then came
the strike. Last year a lot of our players got injured. I want
to show we can win in Houston.

"That's from my father. He'd always say, 'Finish what you
start.' In ninth grade I didn't want to play baseball. I was
more into football. The baseball team was bad, and the season
had started, and I wanted to quit. My father said, 'You finish
what you start.'"

As he drove, Biggio fiddled with a radar detector overhead. Next
to it, attached to the sun visor, was a dried strip of palm
frond, knotted in the shape of a cross, a Palm Sunday gift from
Biggio's father-in-law. Biggio is a devout Catholic, but he
wasn't born to it. There are Catholics on the Biggio side, but
both his parents were raised as Protestants and so was Craig. In
college, at Seton Hall, a Catholic school in South Orange, N.J.,
Biggio--upset by his parents' emerging marital problems and
feeling spiritually unfulfilled--converted to Catholicism. It
was also at Seton Hall that Biggio met Patricia Egan, of the New
Brunswick, N.J., Egans. The Egans, Biggio says, are very
Catholic. He likes the sense of family that Catholicism
promotes. "Spring Lake's a Catholic town," Biggio said. "Big
families."

He was now on the Cross Bronx Expressway, a link between New
Jersey and Long Island. As Biggio drove past the exit to Yankee
Stadium, the conversation returned to baseball. "My father was a
catcher in high school, and he got me started in baseball,"
Biggio said. "I liked catching because I wanted to control the
game. I wasn't a Mets fan or a Yankees fan--I just liked to
play--but the one guy I loved was Thurman Munson." In the Spring
Lake house, in a part of the finished basement that could be an
exhibit at Cooperstown, Biggio has one of Munson's bats
prominently displayed. The bat has no knob on the bottom, and
Biggio, a career .285 hitter, has used that style since his
college days.

Biggio was primarily a catcher at Kings Park High for three
seasons and then caught at Seton Hall for three years, in the
minors for two seasons and in the majors his first four years.
At the conclusion of the 1991 season Astros manager Art Howe
took Biggio to lunch. Howe asked him if he would be willing to
move to second base. Lunch took two hours.

"He said it would extend my career," recalled Biggio, who is
listed at 5'11", 180 pounds but appears smaller. "He said it
would help the team, let the team take more advantage of my
speed, but he also said they weren't going to force me. I went
home to Patty. We're a good team on making big decisions like
this. She said to me, 'Do you think you can do it?' And I said,
'Yeah.' I wanted to do it because everybody said I couldn't. I'm
stubborn."

Biggio had had brief experiences playing the infield before, and
they had not been good. Late in the 1991 season, a woeful year
for Houston, Howe put Biggio at second for a three-game series
against the San Francisco Giants, and Biggio felt as if he were
serving a jail sentence in a foreign country. The summer before
he started college, Biggio was making a rare appearance at
second when his team's shortstop was struck and killed by
lightning. After that, in college and in the minors and the
majors, Biggio almost never strayed from behind the plate.

"I felt like a Little Leaguer again," Biggio said, remembering
his first workouts in preparation for the 1992 season. "That
winter I spent a lot of time at an elementary school, taking
grounders off a brick wall. I went to spring training with the
pitchers and catchers, worked a ton with [third base coach] Matt
Galante. He never made the majors, but he's a great coach. I'm
like, 'What's this? No chest pad? No shin guards? This little
glove?' At first he made me take infield wearing this paddle
taped to my wrist. I had to stop the ball with the paddle. If
you didn't stop it right in the middle of the paddle, it really
hurt. I took about a thousand balls a day with that. Galante
said it would develop soft hands. He was right. After I won my
first Gold Glove in '94, I said, 'Matty, half of this is yours.'"

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Biggio is one of only two
big leaguers ever to play at least 100 games at both catcher and
second base. The other was Tom Daly, who played for five teams
between 1887 and 1903, including 12 seasons with the Brooklyn
Dodgers. Also, Galante should have a whole Gold Glove trophy by
now: Biggio won the award again last year.

Biggio pulled into the Kings Park High parking lot. It was
midafternoon. After-school sports were starting. Biggio doesn't
come to Kings Park much, not since his parents separated and
left town almost five years ago. He entered the school, asked
around for old coaches. Within minutes a dozen students had
surrounded him. Biggio talked to them as if he were in high
school himself. One kid asked him, "How good's your memory?"
Biggio, challenged, said, "You gonna test it?" The high schooler
raised the name of an old girlfriend of Biggio's, and Biggio
smiled. He found his way to the corridor that houses the Kings
Park Athletic Booster Club Hall of Fame. Biggio was the first
inductee. Two custodians, Bob Woessner and Richard Weisse, were
at work there.

"This is my section," Woessner said. "I keep it nice and clean
for you."

"Looks good," Biggio said. "I haven't been here in a long time."

"You've got a new life now," Weisse said.

Biggio said nothing. He and Weisse were high school classmates.

"What's that feeling like, when you're leaning back and you've
got all those teams wanting you?" Woessner asked.

"It wasn't as much fun as I thought it was going to be," Biggio
said. He turned to his classmate. "How you doing?"

"Getting by," Weisse answered. "I'm part time here, trying to
get on full time. I've still got the landscaping business on the
side, but there's a landscaper on every block now."

Biggio spent another hour or so at Kings Park High. Walking
through the locker room, he said, "See that smell? That hasn't
changed." On his way out of the school, his conversation with
Weisse lingered on his mind. "Sometimes, after you've had a
little success, you forget how tough it is just to make a
living," Biggio said, as he crossed the parking lot. "My
father's an air-traffic controller. When we were growing up, he
worked nights, weekends. Shift work. Long hours, trying to make
ends meet, providing for his family. When I was a senior, the
high school ran out of money for sports. To play baseball, you
had to pay, like, $200. That was a lot of money for us. My
father didn't bat an eye. You don't forget that."

Biggio drove by the parks and along the streets where he spent
his boyhood, down Westwood Lane and Colby Drive and Haig Place,
grand-sounding names for unprepossessing roads that served
Biggio as playing fields for stickball and football and street
hockey. He drove by his boyhood house--neat and modest. After the
separation his mother, Johnna, stayed in the house for a while;
now she's in Oklahoma City, where Craig's older brother, Terry,
also lives. Craig is close to Johnna and his two siblings; his
sister, Gwen Sinkusky, lives in Inverness, Fla. His father,
Gordon, settled farther east on Long Island.

Biggio stopped around the corner from his old house, peered into
his old backyard and noticed something amiss. "They got rid of
the shed," he said. "My father built that shed. It was filled
with shovels and wagons and hoses. Wonder why they got rid of
it? It was a good shed."

Biggio completed the journey through his boyhood--he drove along
Main Street, went down to the waterfront, past the Kings Park
Psychiatric Hospital--and he was satisfied. His life there was
as he remembered it, for good and for bad. On the ride back to
Spring Lake, he talked baseball. He talked about the genius of
Yogi Berra, Biggio's coach in his early years in Houston, who
taught Biggio not to make baseball more complicated than it is.
Biggio talked about his particular skill at stealing signs as a
base runner, and how a pitcher will make him pay for it the next
time he comes to bat. He talked about the costs of the baseball
strike and the work that must be done to make the game the
national pastime again. He talked about the value of playing an
entire career in one place, as Munson did. That's a value dear
to Biggio. He said he learned the importance of commitment from
his father. Gordon first went to work at MacArthur Airport on
Long Island before Craig was born. He works there today. Craig
was raised to understand the value of long-term relationships.

Gordon's name came up often in conversation throughout this
January day, yet it was a sensitive subject for Craig. Gordon
has not seen his younger son for six years, except from a
distance once or twice a season, when he buys a ticket and slips
into Shea Stadium to watch Craig in an Astros-Mets game. After
the game he heads home, without Craig's ever knowing he was
there. He also watches Craig on TV and follows him in box scores.

Craig leaned forward, rested his forearms on the steering wheel,
stretched his back and exhaled. "My father's a stubborn man," he
said. "He thinks my brother and sister and I sided with our
mother in the divorce. His attitude is, 'You've made your bed,
now you have to sleep in it.'" Gordon has never seen Cavan and
Conor. Said Craig: "I've written him letters, saying, 'Who cares
anymore who was right and who was wrong? You're my father,
you're my kids' grandfather. We want you in our lives.' Nothing.
I get back nothing."

Craig rolled on, in silence, for a while. During a dinner stop,
the name of Gordon Biggio was never mentioned. With his last
bite of chicken, Craig glanced at his watch. He wanted to get
home before his children went to sleep. The night was dark and
cold. He pointed the Suburban for Spring Lake, for Home Plate.
As he walked through the back door, Conor, in his pajamas, his
skin pink from a warm bath, came running, yelling cheerfully,
"Da-dee! Da-dee!" Craig Biggio grabbed his boy with his hands
and raised him effortlessly until Conor was high in the air, way
above sea level, giggling with delight.

COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON/SABADevoted family man Craig gives son Conor, 3, a run for his candy. [Craig Biggio riding tricycle and Conor Biggio riding toy tractor]COLOR PHOTO: KIRK SCHLEA Biggio is one of only two players in major league history to start 100 games at both catcher and second base. [Craig Biggio playing catcher]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Craig Biggio playing second base]COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON/SABA When Biggio was feted by Seton Hall, he saw former Astros mentor Berra, who had one more story to tell. [Yogi Berra and Craig Biggio]