Astros Biggio is last of baseball's dying breed

HOUSTON - Craig Biggio grew up in New Jersey. He never was a die-hard Yankees fan or Mets fan, though he followed them somewhat.

''I knew the Yankees batting order like the back of my hand,'' he said.

''It was pretty much the same every year. There may have been a guy or two different, but not much.

''That's big for a fan. It's important to have somebody to cheer for.''

Now, Biggio is one of those guys the fans cheer for; Houston Astros fans, not Yankees fans, but baseball fans just the same.

Biggio is part of a dying breed in the game of baseball.

He is a homegrown All-Star who most likely will end his career right where it began. Biggio, a first-round draft choice of the Houston Astros from Seton Hall University in June 1987, was called up by the Astros at the end of June 1988. He has been in Houston ever since.

And, with a little help from former Colorado Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, there's no reason to think he's going anywhere else.

Having been through the free-agent process after the 1996 season, Biggio has no desire to experience it again. With a season remaining on his contract, he agreed this past winter to a three-year extension worth $28 million to remain with the Astros.

''It's a pretty neat feeling because it just doesn't happen in this day and age with the way salaries are escalating,'' Biggio said. ''It's hard to keep one guy for a long time. Teams decide they can't afford the player or the player decides to try something else.''

Four years ago, Biggio was one of those guys ready to try something different. The Astros franchise was at a crossroads, having put together a good nucleus but uncertain whether they would make the commitment to push to the next level.

Biggio wasn't sure he wanted to gamble on what the team's management might do.

''That was a roller-coaster period,'' he said of the free-agent negotiations in which Colorado, St. Louis and San Diego tried to lure him from the Astros.

''One day I was going to stay,'' Biggio said, recalling that time. ''The next day would be a bad day (in talks with the Astros) and a good day with the other teams. At the end, it was going to be either the Rockies or Houston, and we got something done (with Houston) at the last minute.''

So what happened?

''It didn't work out,'' Biggio said without explanation.

He learned when he first came to the big leagues not to get caught up in what could have been or what has been.

''I was around veterans like Buddy Bell, Billy Doran and Nolan Ryan, unbelievable role models,'' Biggio said. ''One thing they taught me was once you make a decision, you move on. You shut up and play. You did what you wanted and you never complain.''

Truth is, Biggio wanted to come to Colorado so much he was willing to take a lower annual salary, according to those familiar with the situation.

He did, however, want a tangible reason to walk away from the only organization had had ever known.

Both teams offered the seven-time All-Star a four-year, guaranteed contract with an option for a fifth year. The Astros' deal was worth $22 million; the Rockies offered $20 million.

Biggio told Gebhard he would take the Rockies' offer if they would guarantee the fifth year. Gebhard refused to consider it.

Now, Gebhard is no longer with the Rockies, and Biggio is still in Houston.

He has been an integral part of a team that has won three consecutive National League Central titles and just moved into a brand-new, baseball-only stadium that is arguably the nicest in the game.

Could Biggio have made a difference with the Rockies, who are trying to avoid their third consecutive losing season?

Nobody will ever know.

But he definitely has made a difference for the Astros, serving as their catalyst on the field and a force in their clubhouse.

The Astros can thank Gebhard for that.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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