- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Craig Biggio is 41 years old, and yet he still plays a boys' game with unguarded abandon and, sometimes, something even approaching glee.
He has hustled and scrapped for the Houston Astros for 20 seasons now; and just under three weeks ago, he reached the cherished 3,000-hit mark. One day, quite likely, he will find his bust on display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
He has been both lucky and good. But it has come at a great cost.
That price is pain.
Such as this: "Geremi Gonzalez hit me in the face with an 0-2 fastball, up and in, and it felt like somebody hit me in the face with a hammer," Biggio says, wincing reflexively as he describes a Sept. 25, 1997, game against the Cubs. "I mean, right in the cheekbone. When I was laying on the ground, Dickie Thon came into my mind because of the fact he wasn't so lucky.
"That was probably the scaredest I've ever been in terms of being hit by a pitch."
On April 8, 1984, Thon was hit in the face by a Mike Torrez fastball. The impact broke the orbital bone around his left eye and ended his season. That kind of pain.
The premise of baseball is that the batter hits the ball. Biggio goes at it from the opposite direction.
Biggio, the Astros' second baseman, is about to pass Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings and set the all-time record for being hit by pitches. It's already happened an extraordinary 285 times over his 20-year career. With three more plunks -- he once suffered five of 'em in a single week in May of 2000 -- Biggio will pass Jennings, whose 287th and final HBP came in 1903. Biggio is about to break a record that has endured for 104 years.
He's never been on the disabled list specifically because of a HBP, but that doesn't mean those plunks are painless.
"It's been a painful way to make a living. I know that," he says. "I tell my kids: 'If I walk to first base, it hurts. And then if I jog to first, it wasn't that bad.'"
Biggio has most of these episodes catalogued neatly in his brain. He recalls them with undisguised pride.
Take, for example, April 13, 2005, against the Mets and Braden Looper in Shea Stadium.
"He ran a two-seamer in and it ended up hitting me," Biggio remembers. "I thought I broke my forearm or something. We had some X-rays after the game and it was fine.
"There's been quite a few where I was very nervous. But, knock on wood, I've never missed the next day."
If this doesn't scream for an endorsement contract, what does?
"I eat a lot of Advil," Biggio says. "So if Advil wants to give me one, that would be big."
A perfect storm
As a rookie in 1988, Biggio had 131 plate appearances and failed to be hit by a pitch even once. No clue whatsoever of what was to come.
The following season, he managed to get plunked six times in 509 appearances. It was the calm before the perfect storm of his assault on the record.
Between 1995 and 2005, he averaged (a literally staggering) 21.5 HBPs per season.
A number of unique elements have coalesced to put him on this threshold of baseball history.
"Maybe there is a part of my brain that I don't have that says, `Get out of the way,'" Biggio says, laughing. "Stupidity."
Biggio -- who has played longer for a single team, the Astros, than any other active player -- came into the majors as a catcher, so he was used to being knocked around and nicked by pitches. He never seemed to mind the pain.
"And," says Astros teammate Lance Berkman, "he stands right on top of the plate because he's a dead-pull hitter and wants to make that outside corner as close as he can to him. And he gets hit a lot because he's a right-handed hitter and the majority of pitchers are right-handed and the ball runs in to a right-hander."
In 1997, his most prolific season for being plunked, Biggio was hit by pitches 34 times. His manager, Phil Garner, was hit a total of 34 times in his 16 major league seasons as a player with Oakland, Pittsburgh, Houston, the Dodgers and the Giants. Garner has some pretty good insight into the milestone Biggio is about to pass.
"I can almost guarantee you this one will never, ever be broken," Garner says with a disturbing sense of certainty. "I will be willing to say that. This record will never be broken ... The game has changed. When I first came in the game, it was the pitchers that intimidated by throwing at hitters. [After] Craig came in, it started the other way, where hitters started intimidating pitchers.
Hit Craig Biggio!
Hey, major league pitchers have already hit him 285 times. Isn't about time the rest of us get in on the fun? Now you, too, can try to hit Craig Biggio with pitches of your own, thanks to the magic of Page 2's Kurt Snibbe and his new "Bean Biggio" game. Here's your windup; here's your pitch and . . . Ow! That smarts!
Try your luck.
"Now, you can't throw the ball inside. There's warnings issued and you get thrown out of the game."
Today's bigger salaries seems to mean players have shorter careers. That, combined with the trend away from inside pitches, suggests Biggio's record might be safe for another 104 years. Or more.
Taking one for the team
It's 2001 and the Cardinals' Andy Benes watches as his offering, almost inevitably, collides with Biggio, who makes little effort to avoid the pitch. As Biggio trots down to first base, the tape reveals Benes very clearly mouthing the words, "Get out of the way."
"Well," says Biggio when the subject comes up, "did I score a run then? Then that was good. It was worth it."
It turns out that Biggio has scored 100 runs -- "a season's worth," he says -- when he's reached base by being hit by a pitch. This is his major motivation. Look up "taking one for the team" in the dictionary and there is a picture of Biggio, his eyes narrowed, smoldering with a frightening intensity.
"When I was younger, it was one of those things where if you were to hit me, I could turn it into a triple [with two stolen bases] because I could run a lot better then than I can now," he says. "And that was the fun part about it as a leadoff man. It was a way to get on base."
And then Jeff Bagwell would drive him in. Good times.
"There's no question that as far as getting on base is concerned, it is a plus for your ball club," says Garner. "It doesn't matter how you do it. If you can stand getting plunked, it's valuable."
Black badge of courage
An exhibit titled "Today's Game" at The National Baseball Hall of Fame features lockers for each of Major League Baseball's 30 teams. Tucked into the Astros' locker, looking almost like an afterthought, is a small, black piece of equipment.
It's the protective pad Biggio was wearing on his left elbow when he was hit by Byung-Hyun Kim on June 29, 2005. That was No. 268, which thrust him one ahead of Don Baylor's modern record of 267.
Nobody knows the exact numbers, but it's commonly accepted that the majority of contact between the ball and Biggio's body have occurred in the area of the left elbow. Hence, the pad, a fixture during his at-bats since the early 1990s.
"I got hit right on the elbow, a little bit above, so it was hard to [swing]," Biggio says. "I said to myself, `There is no way I'm going to get hit again in that arm.' And then I went out the next night and Danny Darwin smoked me right in the same spot that I got hit the night before. I truthfully wanted to cry it hurt so bad.
"If you can wear something to keep you from getting hurt as bad and continue to play and help your team ... that's why I really started to wear it."
Houston teammate Berkman believes the pad serves another purpose.
"He just tries to contact the ball with his pad," Berkman says, smiling. "He sticks his arm out there, and that's how he does it."
An intentional intentional pass?
A half-dozen pitchers who have plunked Biggio over the years agree: He doesn't try awfully hard to get out of the way.
"I think he tries to get on base any way he can," says the Padres' Greg Maddux. "Sometimes, he'll just stick his arm out there if he has to. They throw it at my elbow, I try to get out of the way."
Pitchers claim Biggio has discovered a loophole in the system and learned to exploit it.
Mark Gardner pitched for four teams in 13 major-league seasons. He was the first pitcher to hit Biggio five times, including two in the same game on Aug. 2, 1996, when he pitched for the San Francisco Giants.
"You throw one that stays inside on you and he just rolls with it, leaves the elbow out a little bit," says Gardner, who retired in 2001 and now serves as the Giants' bullpen coach. "As a pitcher, you'd swear it was a strike. If he had let it break, it would have been a strike.
"It gives the umpire the illusion of him getting out of the way; but actually, he's probably getting into the [strike] zone more than he's getting out of the zone. You try to argue it, but it never goes your way. Obviously, he's got quite a few of those in his favor."
When Garner managed the Brewers (1992-99) and Tigers (2000-2002), Biggio's penchant for being in the way of the ball annoyed him.
"I used to yell at him all the time that we were going to hit him in the neck, because that was the only place where he didn't have padding," Garner says. "When he's on my side, it's a whole lot more fun to watch."
Says Berkman: "He's not going to confess it. It wouldn't be of his nature to just go ahead and confess."
Well, what about it, Mr. Biggio? Do you try to get hit?
"I can't say never," he says. "I've had 10,000 at-bats. I'm sure there are plenty that you've found. Maybe. Leaned out a little bit too long or stuck it [his elbow] out.
"I can't deny that."
Twenty seasons. More than 10,000 at-bats. A total of 285 hit-by-pitches through Monday night. That's a lot to remember. And yet, Biggio has a pretty good handle on his personal plunk history. ESPN quizzed him on some of the details of this vast body of work. He started slow, but finished five-for-five fast.
ESPN: Who has hit you the most?
BIGGIO (thinking earnestly): "I don't know."
ESPN: Pedro Astacio. Seven times.
CB: "Petey pitched in Colorado, ran the ball in, and he'd hit me with a lot of curveballs that start behind you and break over the plate."
ESPN: We'll give you the name of a famous pitcher. Did he hit you, or not? First one: Pedro Martinez?
CB: "Uhhh, yes."
ESPN: Correct. Greg Maddux?
ESPN: That's right. Randy Johnson?
ESPN: You're on fire. You're 3-for-3.
CB: "There you go. I only have 10 at-bats off him."
ESPN: Orel Hershiser?
CB: "I think he's got me."
ESPN: Correct again. Roger Clemens?
CB: "He hit me in the All-Star Game. I always tell him, 'You're such a chicken. I can't believe you drilled me.' But he didn't drill me; he nicked the hair on my arm. I struck out three times; and if he didn't hit me, I would have struck out four times -- on one of the biggest stages of all time."
May 6, 1998: Another one of the biggest stages of all time, at least in the record books. The Chicago Cubs' 20-year-old Kerry Wood, firing a wicked curveball as well as a fastball that hits triple digits on the radar gun, is virtually unhittable.
In the sixth inning, Wood has Biggio in a 1-2 hole, when -- wonder of wonders! -- he hits him with a breaking ball.
"There's probably a good chance if he didn't hit me, he would have thrown another one and I would have swung at it," Biggio says.
When it was over, Wood had 20 strikeouts for a share of the major-league single-game record. (Clemens has struck out 20 in a game twice.) The strikeout that didn't happen against Biggio would have been No. 21, and given the record to Wood alone.
"That was one of the most dominating games I've ever been a part of," Biggio says. "I remember when he hit me, [the Cubs'] Mark Grace was at first base; and I'm like, 'Man, I can't believe I got on.'"
All the effort, all the exhausting due diligence, paid off for Michael Bourn -- not to be confused with the Philadelphia Phillies' young outfielder of the same name -- when George Will made fun of him in Newsweek magazine.
"He said I need to get out more," Bourn says.
Will, like Bourn an unabashed baseball fan, might have something there. The 33-year-old Bourn is a data-base programmer who lives in New Hampshire and works in Massachusetts. Over the course of a phone conversation, he seems like a normal enough fellow. But there is voluminous evidence -- log onto plunkbiggio Web site and see for yourself -- that his life is seriously out of balance.
Bourn, who says he always has messed around with statistics, found himself on Major League Baseball's Web site one day a few years ago and noticed that Biggio was closing in on both the modern (Don Baylor, 267) and all-time (Hughie Jennings, 287) records for being hit by pitches. As it happened, it was April 22, 2005, the 16-year anniversary of the first time Biggio was hit. (The pitcher for Plunk No. 1 was the Reds' Tim Birtsas.)
Later that day, Biggio was hit by Al Reyes.
It was a harmonic convergence, a Eureka moment. For Bourn, the future immediately became clear.
"Blogging seemed popular at the time," Bourn explains. "And looking over Biggio's record, I thought it would be hilarious."
It very often is. Bourn's site gets an average of about 200 hits a day; but when Biggio gets hit by a pitch, the number can spike over 500 ... although Bourn confesses that most of his Web hits come from mis-directed Google searches by people who inadvertently spell picture as "pitcher."
Bourn's blog is not a money-making venture.
"I'm trying to sell cheesy T-shirts," he says, "but I've made only $50."
Bourn spends about a half-an-hour in the morning and maybe another half-hour at lunch updating the site in advance of every Astros' game. Various data-base projects -- Bourn has discovered that Biggio has been hit by starters on 200 occasions and relievers the remaining 85 times, for example -- can take two or three hours on a weeknight or weekend, no doubt because of complications such as this: Eight pitchers hit him as BOTH a starter and reliever.
A Red Sox fan growing up, Bourn has shifted much of his baseball loyalty to Biggio.
And Biggio notices.
"I think it's awesome," Biggio says. "Fans are fans. They have a passion for the game. To the utmost degree. For someone to take time out of their day and their job to do something like this, it's kind of cool in a way. I appreciate something like that."
Even if George Will doesn't.
Biggio says he has never, ever, charged the mound after getting hit.
"That's because," says Astros teammate Berkman, "he's afraid he'd get beat up."
"I never charged the mound because of the way the game used to be played," Biggio says. "In the old days, you just took care of yourself. And the other team knew it. Ninety-six, 97-percent of the time, [being hit by a pitch] is by accident."
Says Garner: "When he came up, we still took care of our own business among ourselves. It was not considered appropriate to charge the mound. You let your pitcher take care of something. You slide hard into second base and break up a double play. That's the way you answered that one.
"Craig has played the game that way and he continues to respect the game that way."
Biggio says an umpire has called him back for failing to make an effort to avoid a pitch only once, in 2005, when he pinch-hit against the Dodgers.
"I did not lean into it," he insists, prefacing his explanation. "Doug Eddings was the umpire and I was facing Jeff Weaver, who throws from third base somewhere. He threw me a slider, which started behind me, and it just went right at me. And it hit me and I started to go to first, and he called me back.
"I ended up making an out, and then I ended up getting thrown out of the game. That was the only time."
Biggio's other summer milestone, the more traditionally memorable 3,000th hit, was nice, sure. He did it at home in Minute Maid Park, as part of a five-hit night. When it happened, he was mobbed on the field by his teammates and his family. They stopped the game, fireworks went off, an illuminated hit counter with red numbers ticked up to 3,000, a huge banner with his picture unfurled from the rafters, the whole shebang.
But 26 other players already had been there, done that 3,000-hit thing.
The HBP record, though ... in that statistical category, Biggio is about to go where no man has gone before. But the days he has left to pass Jennings might be dwindling down to a precious few. There is some thought that this might be his last season, and the Astros have already said his playing time will be reduced in the coming months as they look at younger players.
Is he getting nervous? Is he succumbing to emotion as the big day approaches? Is he hearing the footsteps of catcher Jason Kendall, who was traded from Oakland to the Cubs (the Astros' division rivals) on Monday? Kendall already has 212 HBPs in only 12 seasons.
"I love 'Kend.' He won't move, either," Biggio says. "If it's meant to be, that's great. I'm not going to go up there and stick my arm or my leg or my neck out to try to get hit by pitches [to set the record]. I guess I feel if it's going to happen, it's going to happen."
And how will the rest of the Astros react when Biggio finally gets the record?
"To be honest with you," says Berkman, "I doubt very much people will care about it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Sure, his 3,000th hit was nice. But Craig Biggio is about to pass another, even more impressive, career milestone, and Greg Garber wonders why the hullabaloo isn't as loud.