By Brian McTaggart
December 7, 2005
HOUSTON—Together they’ve occupied a corner of the Astros clubhouse for 15 years and have shared the good times and bad, playful insults and heartfelt compliments and an abundance of laughter and tears.
Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio will forever be linked as the rock-solid cornerstones of a Houston franchise that achieved new heights in 2005 by reaching the World Series for the first time in its 44-year history.
When the Astros polished off the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series with a victory in Game Six at Busch Stadium, Bagwell and Biggio stood side-by-side in the dugout and gave each other a long-awaited–and well deserved–embrace.
“That was the culmination for both of them,” Astros owner Drayton McLane says. “I’ve talked to players over the years about becoming champions. We did become National League champions and went to the World Series, and we hope to take the next step next year. Bagwell and Biggio have been a huge part of this franchise.”
In a day and age when players swap uniforms frequently in search of more dollars, Bagwell and Biggio have bucked the trend by spending their entire careers with the Astros.
These Northeast natives have become as synonymous with Texas as heat and humidity, and they have their larger-than-life statues outside Minute Maid Park to prove it. And perhaps one day, they’ll have their busts in Cooperstown, too.
“He’s a very, very special baseball player,” Bagwell says of Biggio. “There’s no question in my mind he should be a Hall of Famer. He’s someone the city should be proud they’ve had the opportunity to watch.”
Reaching the World Series was a long time coming for both Biggio and Bagwell. Biggio needed a record 2,564 regular-season games to reach his first World Series, with Bagwell having played 2,150 games before reaching the Fall Classic.
“I’ve been very blessed with the opportunity to be in the postseason a few times,” Bagwell says. “The end of our careers is coming, and obviously there’s not going to be too many (opportunities) left for us. The window of opportunity for us is going out the window.”
No matter if they get another shot at a World Series title, Bagwell and Biggio are the two players by which every future Astros player will be measured, making them deserving recipients of Baseball America’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bagwell is the only Astros player ever to win the NL rookie of the year (1991) or the NL MVP (1994), in addition to appearing in four All-Star Games. He’s the franchise career leader in homers (449), RBIs (1,529), extra-base hits (969) and walks (1,401).
Biggio is a seven-time all-star at both catcher and second base, where he won four Gold Gloves in the mid-1990s. He’s the franchise all-time leader in games (2,564), at-bats (9,811), runs (1,697), hits (2,795), doubles (604) and total bases (4,283). This year, he became the only player in major league history to reach 600 doubles, 250 homers, 2,700 hits and 400 stolen bases.
From the woeful 90-loss season of 2000, to the thrilling and improbable playoff runs of 2004 and 2005, Bagwell and Biggio have certainly seen it all.
“They’ve been the heartbeat,” McLane says. “They’ve played their entire careers with one team and that’s most unusual. The people in Houston identify with them.”
The Astros fell short in their quest to bring a World Series championship to Houston, getting swept by the White Sox in four tight games. But for Bagwell and Biggio, who received much of the criticism for the Astros’ past playoff failures, the monkey was off their backs.
“It happened early in my career, and you’ve go to take the good and the bad,” Biggio says. “It was the bad early in my career, for Baggy and me. But you’ve got to put your personal numbers aside, because it doesn’t matter. If you win, nobody really cares.”
Biggio, who turns 40 on Dec. 14, continues to defy those who thought his career was almost over years ago. He returned to second base in 2005 after two years in the outfield and hit .264 with a career-high 26 homers and 69 RBIs. He signed a one-year contract extension with the Astros in October for $4 million.
Biggio will begin next season just 205 hits away of reaching 3,000. He isn’t shy about saying he wants to reach the milestone, which would likely cement his spot in the Hall of Fame.
“Not everybody is going to get a chance at something like that, and for one I owe it my family to try it,” he says. “I’m close, my family wants me to do it and I owe it to the fans in Houston. I mean, is there ever going another Astros player that close? Who knows?
“We don’t know what the future is going to hold. You have to give it a shot for them and for the game. You’ve got to try it. We’ll re-evaluate after each year. But Paul Molitor told me, ‘It’s got to be a fun thing.’ You get that close, it should be fun.”
Bagwell, 37, missed 115 games in 2005 after having surgery on a right shoulder that had been slowly deteriorating since 2001.
He had the operation in June and admittedly rushed his rehab so he could return by the end of the season. He came back by Sept. 9 as a pinch-hitter, and he drove in the game-winning run with a dramatic pinch-hit single in a 2-1 win over Milwaukee on Sept. 16.
“He’s the ultimate baseball player,” McLane says. “Baseball has been his life, and he’s done it with such class and enthusiasm.”
Because his shoulder wasn’t strong enough to throw a baseball, Bagwell was limited to pinch-hitting duties until the World Series, when manager Phil Garner had him in the starting lineup at DH in the first two games in Chicago.
Garner said the decision to put Bagwell in the batting order had more to do with fielding the best lineup than rewarding the franchise icon.
“Going back to the earlier part of the year after the surgery, I think there was probably some conversation about maybe just taking the rest of the year off and rehabbing his shoulder and getting it strong over the winter and coming back strong,” Garner says. “Jeff decided he wanted to do everything he could to try to get ready to go this year, just in case something good happened.
“And when he came back we were able to expand the roster in September and get him back on the roster. We saw him take BP, and decided to give him a few shots to drive in some runs, and he delivered.”
Bagwell is due $17.5 million next season and says he’s committed to working hard in the offseason to be able to return to his familiar spot at first base.
If he reaches his goal and is in the Opening Day lineup in 2006, it would the 16th consecutive season both he and Biggio take the field together for the Astros. For a generation of Houston baseball fans, it’s all they’ve ever known.