Biggio eager to tackle challenge of center field

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It was never Craig Biggio's ambition to become the most versatile middle-of-the-diamond player in baseball history. Some things in life you don't plan. They just evolve. Like reality shows. And Jennifer Lopez marriages.

No one sets out to be an All-Star catcher, then an All-Star second baseman and then, at age 37, a center fielder in a ballpark with its own hill and flag pole in center field. You never saw Yogi Berra or Johnny Bench try anything that wild. There's a reason for that.

It wasn't Craig Biggio's dream to become not just the first Houston Astro in history, but the first player in history, to be a regular at all three of those positions. In fact, in retrospect, he's still wondering how he ever survived the move from catcher to Mazeroski-ville 11 years ago.

"I would never say this when I was still playing second," Biggio says now. "But going from catcher to second base was like telling me I'm going to be the president of Wal Mart tomorrow. That's how out of place I felt. So this is just another challenge. I'm excited about it."

When it comes to the art of playing center field, he knows nobody is sitting around this spring saying, "Boy, he reminds me of Andruw Jones." But Biggio can't imagine any way this could be tougher than that other move he made 11 years ago.

"That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life," he says. "I can't express how difficult that was. I was a catcher my whole life. Then I had to learn a new position in the big leagues. And everything about it was so different.

"As a catcher, everything goes away from you. As a second baseman, everything is coming at you. So you're in the field, and you've got to concentrate every second: 'Who's up? Fast guy? Slow guy? If a ball is in the gap, where do I go?' Cutoffs. Relays. Turning the double play. I had to learn all that. It took me 2-3 years until I actually got comfortable, where I didn't have to think about it, where it was second nature."

But what Biggio wants now, and what he wanted then, was to remain an Astro. So his motto now, like his motto then, hasn't changed: You do what you've gotta do.

Eleven years ago, his manager at the time, Art Howe, was looking for ways to save his leadoff man's legs from the burden of squatting 200 times a night. And it also wasn't exactly a complete coincidence that the Astros had just traded a kid center fielder named Kenny Lofton to Cleveland for hotshot catching prospect Eddie Taubensee.

Now, it's the unforeseen arrival of a gentleman named Jeff Kent that has thrown Biggio's life into its current state of upheaval. When Kent essentially knocked on the Astros' door this winter and volunteered to start driving in his regularly scheduled 100 runs a year in Texas, the Astros found it easier to send Biggio a road map to the outfield than to tell Kent there was a "no vacancy" sign at second base.

The big question at the time was whether Biggio would play left field or center. But luckily for Biggio, the Astros -- being the upstanding democratic institution they are -- gave him a vote.

"He wanted to play center field," says manager Jimy Williams. "He'd played out there before. I know it's been a few years. But the majority of games he's played in the outfield in his career, he's played in center field."

Except "majority" is a relative term for a guy who has been in the outfield 64 games in his career -- 39 of them in center field. Except for a few lineup emergencies, he hasn't played more than a game here or an inning there in the outfield since 1990 -- when he was 24. And he hasn't started a real game in center field since July 26, 1990.

"I know that was a long time ago," Biggio says. "But at least it's not like it's a whole new experience."

How much those 111 fly balls he ran down 13 years ago will help him is a question no one can answer yet. But the Astros already know this is no ordinary athlete.

We are talking about the only player ever to make the All-Star team as both a catcher and a second baseman. So now, for his next trick, can he become the second player in the last eight decades to go from being a regular at second base one year to a regular in center field the next?

Well, says the only other man to try it, it's harder than it looks.

"It's not easy," says Tigers coach Juan Samuel -- whom the Phillies tried to turn into a center fielder, with disastrous results, in 1989. "My advice to him would be: Get your rest. There's a lot of ground to cover out there."

Samuel spent the first two months of that '89 season playing center for the Phillies, then played another 84 games out there for the Mets after being traded in midseason for Lenny Dykstra. The Mets then dealt him the next winter to the Dodgers, who moved him back to second base. And that was that.

But his experience trying to make this same move might offer some insight into the adventures Biggio will face this year. So here is what Samuel recalls, in his recurring center-field nightmares, as being the biggest pitfalls:

Knowing your limits: "I found myself trying to catch everything," Samuel says. "I was going 100 miles an hour out there. ... I think the only triple Alan Ashby ever got (at least in '89), I gave him. I dove for a line drive, and I wasn't even close to it. But I was just trying to catch everything."

Taking charge: "When I was playing second base, I was always good at going back on fly balls," Samuel says. "But in center field, it's about knowing who you're playing with, and knowing which balls other guys could get. One of the toughest things about going to the outfield is that, if you're a middle infielder, if you're not camped under a fly ball, they call you off. But as a center fielder, you're in charge.

"What happened to me was, I'd call some balls too early and then I didn't get there. I thought, with my speed, I could get there. Then I'd think, 'Oh, crap.' "

Too much thinking: "I used to think a lot about my hitting out there," Samuel laughs. "I didn't want to, but I had too much time to think. Now, we tell guys, 'Don't take your hitting out there,' but guys still do it. And I found myself doing it a lot, instead of anticipating situations. In other words, I got surprised a lot."

In the long run: "After a while, I could feel my legs getting weak," Samuel recalls, "just from running back and forth (from the dugout). Then, one day in spring training, somebody hit a line drive to right-center field. It went by the right fielder, and I tried to kick it in gear, and I pulled my hamstring. I could see that coming.

"You've got to run at second base, too, but this is different. That's a lot of short, quick steps. This is more running. You have to back up everybody -- balls hit to the right fielder, balls hit to the left fielder. You've got to back up both of them. You're constantly doing something. That's why I say, 'Get your rest' -- all the running. A few times, I ran a ball down in the gap. Then I'd have to run all the way in, and I was the leadoff guy the next inning. I got back and said, 'Hold on. I need a break.' "

So does any or all of that stuff apply to Biggio and his new excellent adventure? Of course. But that doesn't mean he can't handle it.

Judgment: "It looks to me like he can read the ball instinctively," Williams says. "And he's not afraid to live on the edge a little bit. That's the way good athletes are. He doesn't fear failure, even though it's out there."

Taking charge: "Oh, he'll take charge," says GM Gerry Hunsicker. "This is probably the first time since Cesar Cedeno (who left Houston after 1981) that the Astros have had a center fielder who will take charge of the outfield. I think he'll be very aggressive out there, and he'll communicate with the guys on the wings."

Thinking time: "I'm ready for that now," Biggio says. "I'm 37 years old. I'm going into my 16th season. In baseball, there's always a lot of thinking. I'm coming from the infield. There was a lot of thinking there. At second base, I ran the infield. That was my job. I'm a little older now. So maybe it's good there's not as much thinking.

"There's still thinking involved. It's just not at the same level there was in the infield. But I make myself think about every situation: 'OK, there's a fast guy up. Is there a guy on first? Is there a guy on third? When should I try to throw a guy out at third?' There are a lot of different situations I'm trying to think about. I've got pretty much the whole aspect of the outfield to think about."

The running: "Yeah, it's a long run," Biggio chuckles. "I've noticed that already. It's definitely a lot longer going out there. But I knew in the offseason I'd be doing this. I've prepared my legs, and I've prepared my body. I was running 15-20 miles a week, knowing I'd be doing this."

Maybe the biggest difference, though, between Samuel and Biggio is this: Samuel admits he never wanted to move in the first place, and all he could think about all year was what it would take to get back to second base. Biggio is at a different stage in his career, with clearly different priorities.

To help ease the move to center at his age, he coaxed a one-year, $4-million extension out of owner Drayton McLane that leaves him signed through 2004. And his main selling point was that he wanted to retire an Astro.

"It's baseball, and I love the game," Biggio says. "The game is everything to me. I've had an opportunity to spend the last 16 years playing it here, and this last contract was not about the money. It was about staying here, finishing my career here. Not many people get to play their whole career in one organization. I want to do that.

"When you remember Kirby Puckett, you think of the Minnesota Twins. When you remember Robin Yount, you think of the Milwaukee Brewers. When you remember Don Mattingly, you think of the Yankees. It's an honor to have played my whole career for one team. It's a good thing for baseball when that happens. I wish it happened more."

Well, the script is now all laid out for it to happen here. But for it to happen successfully, Biggio has to make this move work -- and he has to hit.

He hasn't batted.300 since 1998. His on-base percentage -- which was .415 in 1997 -- slid to just .330 last year. He stole 50 bases in 1998, but since tearing his ACL and MCL in 2000, he has swiped only 23 total over the past two seasons.

Nevertheless, he has a chance to be the right man in the right place at the right time -- because, Hunsicker says, "We've been looking for a center fielder for 20 years."

Since the Cedeno era, they've run through Terry Puhl, Tony Scott, Omar Moreno, Jerry Mumphrey, Billy Hatcher, Gerald Young, Steve Finley, Derek Bell, Brian Hunter, Richard Hidalgo and Lance Berkman. Now it's Biggio's turn.

"In the infield, I was used to catching balls in the palm of my glove," Biggio says. "Now I'm in the outfield with this big glove, and I'm still catching them in my palm. But you know what? As long as it stays in there, I don't care."

And given their alternatives, as long as their new center fielder doesn't re-enact the Juan Samuel Story, the Houston Astros won't care, either.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.