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Biggio earns another year with Astros
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Craig Biggio, franchise pillar and super-dad, wasn't ready to take his boundless energy and grimy helmet to another town, even in the middle of the summer when things weren't going well and it appeared the Astros might be ready to make a change just for the sake of it.
In August, Houston was buried in the National League Central, and the consensus was that management planned to get younger, faster and more cost efficient in the offseason. Biggio is reasonably priced and still runs pretty well.
But there's no denying, to borrow an old Dan Duquette phrase, that he's in the "twilight" of his career at age 38.
After 18 years with the same organization, he was a man on a string, hoping that owner Drayton McLane would pick up his $3 million option for 2005, yet knowing his future in Houston was tenuous, at best.
"My kids ask me, 'Dad, are we gonna come back next year?' " Biggio said during a trip to Philadelphia in August. "And I keep saying, 'I don't know yet, boys.' It makes you wonder a little—would you go somewhere else? If I have to, I will."
It took barely six weeks for a radical change to occur. The Astros went 36-10 to finish the season, earned a wild-card berth, then beat the Braves in the Division Series for the first postseason series victory in franchise history. They failed to win a pennant, but Biggio and teammate Jeff Bagwell both amended their reputations as players who couldn't get the job done in October.
Just a few days after the World Series, the Astros did the right thing. They exercised Biggio's option, assuring he'll be back with the franchise for at least one more year. Come February, he'll be stretching and sweating under the Florida sun with Bagwell, the way he has each spring since 1991.
Biggio reacted with relief as much as exhilaration. In February 2003, when he signed a $3 million extension, he apologized to his agent, Barry Axelrod, for asking him to drive such a soft bargain.
"I want to finish my career in Houston and play three more years," Biggio told Axelrod. "Do whatever it takes."
They both did. In 2004, Biggio set a career high with 24 home runs. He finished tied for sixth in the majors with 47 doubles, and scored 100 runs for the eighth time.
Most importantly, he just kept showing up. Biggio's 633 at-bats this season were the 11th-highest total in the big leagues.
The Astros considered three factors in deciding to bring back Biggio.
"You start with the fact that he's been so special to this franchise for so long," former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said a day after the extension was announced. "He's probably as synonymous with the Houston Astros as any player we've had over the last decade.
"The second aspect is that even at 38, he came back and proved he can still be a productive player for a championship-caliber team."
The third factor—and no small consideration—is that Biggio put his ego aside to fit into the team's cost structure. How many veteran players with Hall of Fame portfolios are willing to play for $3 million a year?
"There comes a time when a player's priorities have to shift from how much money he's making and worrying about keeping up with the Joneses," Hunsicker said. "Some guys are asked to accept a lesser amount, and a lot of them can't."
Strangely enough, the Astros now have a lot of non-Biggio-related questions to resolve. Hunsicker surprised everyone in early November by stepping down as GM and handing over the job to his assistant, Tim Purpura. It's generally assumed that Hunsicker grew tired of working for McLane, who, while well-intentioned, can wear you out.
The Astros declined Jeff Kent's $9 million option, but want to bring him back at a more reasonable price. They'd love to re-sign Carlos Beltran, but it's tough to see that happening once the free-agency filing period ends and the Scott Boras Olympics begin. And they still have to figure out what will happen with Roger Clemens. They did decide to retain Phil Garner, who did a first-rate salvage job after taking over for Jimy Williams in July.
Some decisions will undoubtedly affect Biggio's future. If Kent doesn't re-sign, Biggio could return to second base, but that would close the door on prospect Chris Burke for next year. If Kent returns, Biggio will most likely stay in left field.
All parties—Biggio included—concede that he had some hiccups in left field in 2004. Then again, he never said a word when the Astros acquired Beltran in July and asked him to change positions at midseason.
"It's no secret that he had some problems in the outfield," Hunsicker said, "but it wasn't for lack of effort. He's not the one who asked to go out there. He's not the one you blame."
Great players have their pride and want to go out on their own terms. Consider Ozzie Smith, who made his unhappiness known when the Cardinals asked him to share time at shortstop with Royce Clayton in his final season. The same class-and-skill blend that stamps a player a "civic treasure" can make parting a nightmare when he resists a less prominent role on the field. Saying goodbye was an ordeal for Cal Ripken in Baltimore, and it wasn't easy for Barry Larkin in Cincinnati.
One of Biggio's biggest strengths is his continued willingness to learn and adapt. He junked his pronounced leg kick in 2003, and thrived with a quicker, more compact approach at the plate.
"When you hit your late 30s, you're not the same player you were when you were 25 or 26 years old," Biggio said. "I was stealing 40 or 50 bases back then, and my body physically can't take that now. But you make adjustments."
Biggio's Cooperstown credentials are strong among voters who are paying attention. He passed Tony Gwynn on the career doubles list this year, and is one of only five players with 2,400 hits, 200 home runs, 500 doubles, 300 stolen bases and 1,000 walks. The others: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Paul Molitor and Rickey Henderson.
He's currently at 2,639 hits, and reflects on some advice he received from Molitor this year when the Astros played the Mariners, for whom Molitor served as hitting coach.
"He told me the one thing he learned about chasing 3,000 is that it should be a fun thing," Biggio said. "It shouldn't be a burdensome thing. He told me, 'You should enjoy it. Have fun with it. Make the best of it.' "
The chase will be a lot more fun in an Astros uniform. Conor and Cavan Biggio can rest easy: Their dad is back for another season.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.