Biggio the ultimate pro, but how pure is he?

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HOUSTON — Craig Biggio deserved his election to baseball’s Hall of Fame because of rare achievements: 3,060 hits, 5th all-time in doubles, first in hit-by-pitches. He stole 414 bases, was caught only 124.  His shoes are already in the Hall of Fame, because he set a record for most plate appearances without grounding into a double play.

He played ball with a sort of hyper verve I had not seen since Willie Mays.  He ran out every popup as though it might be dropped.  Because hey, once in a thousand times it is.  The Biggio code:  Give your team every opportunity you can to win each game.

He didn’t need style points, but he earned them anyway:  his oversized black Astros helmet dusted with pine tar, he leaned out over the plate, elbows in armor that would please a medieval knight.  He invited the HBP, certainly challenging the rules that require the batter to try to avoid being hit.

I was one of Biggio’s earliest admirers, covering the baseball beat for the Houston Chronicle when he was a rookie in 1988 until I retired – before he did – in ’99.  He stood out as an unusually dedicated, versatile, durable athlete, quick with his hands, feet and brain.  He was an All-Star at two dissimilar positions, catcher and second base.

No ballplayer was more respected than Biggio.  He had the ear of Astros owner Drayton McLane, who valued his insights, made moves he recommended, including making sure he would retire as an Astro, even though it meant yet another position switch: to left field.

“Respect is something you have to earn every day,” Biggio said Friday, speaking in a Union Station lobby to fans who came to celebrate his election to the Hall. 

I considered Biggio the ultimate professional and the ultimate competitor, two qualities that are almost mutually exclusive.  The fiercest competitors tend to sacrifice professionalism in a drive for more success. Biggio did not do that.

Or maybe, near the end, he did, as he desperately sought to postpone the end.

Off the field, Biggio was always generous with autographs and cooperative with media, though sparing with his insights.  What I liked best about him: he never hid out after failure.  Nobody spent less time in the trainer’s room, off limits to media.

One year he was all but 0-for-September as the team was faltering in its playoff drive.  And yet, before and after every game he sat at his locker, appearing to welcome an interrogation he surely dreaded.

You can be sure the ballwriters thought about that as they filled out their ballots.  Character is one of the criteria for Cooperstown.  Biggio was voted in by 82.7 percent, when 75 percent was needed. 

The mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, complained it “was two years too late,” that he should have gone in on the first ballot. 

So why didn’t he?  One thing troubled baseball writers who covered Biggio.  We wondered if he was part of the Performance Enhancing crowd of the 1990s.

Steroid research had been an element of my job, though looking back, I should have given it more attention than I did.  One of my articles was cited in the Mitchell Report, for drawing a quote from manager Phil Garner about two of his younger pitchers talking to him about using steroids.

I wrote of Jeff Bagwell taking the steroid-like, though legal, androstenedione, the same substance that brought Mark McGwire controversy when he admitted using it as he battled for home run records with a couple of other tainted heroes, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.

There wasn’t much evidence of malfeasance by Biggio.  No failed tests, no dramatic bulking of muscle, no outbreak of acne across the back and shoulders, no unusual injuries (hardly any injuries of any kind).  No one on the team and no one on any other team pointed a finger at him.

There was, however, the fact that his two closest friends on the Astros were Bagwell and Ken Caminiti, a confessed steroid abuser.  And there was a power surge in Biggio in his late 30s.  At a time when most athletes are declining, he was gaining strength.

We saw that pattern with Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley and others: skinny guys who never hit more than 15 homers a year, blossoming into sluggers at an overripe age.

Biggio was moderately sized – under 5-11 – and for most of his career never hit more than 22 home runs in  a season.  Until 2004, when he lifted 24 at the age of 39.  The next year he hit a career-high 26 homers.  At 39, Babe Ruth hit 22.

Pardon me, but I find it hard to believe Biggio at any point in his career would out-power Ruth at the same point, without some amazing enhancement.  What are you saying, he was trained by Yoda in the offseason in a forest in Tibet? 

The late blooming of Biggio power created for me a Say-it-ain’t-so-Joe moment.  This was a man who in his early 20s publicly apologized for a DUI arrest in which no accident occurred.  He fretted about failing as a role model.

Frankly, I don’t think it matters that much if he extended his career two or three years by dabbling in forbidden fruit as he neared the end.  Context is important.  This was an era when substance abuse was rampant in baseball and elsewhere.  Andro at the time McGwire and Bagwell used it was not a banned substance.

During the overwhelming majority of his time in baseball, Biggio’s performance was beyond suspicion.  There was little doubt it was Cooperstown-worthy.  If he used drugs to raise his testosterone level, my guess is it did not happen until late in his career.

He knew that to hold a steady job in left field he would need to hit more than 15 homers.  I wonder if he wavered, if the competitiveness for once got out of balance with the professionalism, if he said, “Hey, Baggy can you spare a bottle of your andro?”

There’s another knock on Biggio that may have prevented first-ballot election:  He did not play well in the postseason:  40 games, 2 homers, .295 on-base.  Some scouts said it was because he could not hit a good curveball, and he had to face plenty of them in the postseason.  Other scouts said nobody can hit a truly good curveball.

Not all of Biggio’s teammates, coaches and managers liked him.  If he didn’t think you were doing your job the right way, he’d let you know.  And others know.  The story was told that in his days as a catcher he once became so angry with pitching coach Bob Cluck that he pinned him against a dugout wall.

Whatever and whenever his shortcomings, Biggio was one of the most dominating players of his time.  Yet he didn’t take himself too seriously.  As he headed onto the field for warmups, he’d smile and say, “I gotta go get myself dirty.”  It was all part of the show, and a fine show it was.

The voters must ask themselves to what extent any Hall of Fame nominee may have benefited from a banned substance popular in his day.  In this case, they overwhelmingly decided that Biggio for all his greatness and grit deserved the benefit of a doubt.  Were they too late by a year or two?  No, all things considered, they timed it about right.

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