Falling asleep Thursday night wasn’t easy. It wasn’t just the excitement of watching Craig Biggio put the finishing touches on his Hall of Fame credentials by becoming the 27th member of the 3,000-hit circle. It was also a hint of sadness that the sun is now almost at the horizon, setting on the greatest era in Houston baseball history.
Laying awake thinking of the most blissful time in my baseball memory takes me back to a season in the mid-’90s. Any one between 1994 and 1997 will do. There could be no better use of a summer vacation, before graduating into the real world and entering the work force, than sitting in the half-filled stands of the Astrodome.
For some reason, the image that pops to mind is always a day game, the seats emptier than normal. This adds a certain intimacy, the handful of fans who made it out to the game enjoying a secret pleasure that tens of thousands of other Houstonians are missing in person and millions of baseball fans nationwide can’t even see on TV, as if they would’ve watched anyway. And who cares whether they would?
Sitting a dozen rows behind third base in Section 242, the scene of Bagwell is always him giving no quarter charging a bunt with a total lack of concern for his own safety. Bagwell scoops up the ball just down the first-base line from home plate. He’s not in good position for a throw to second base, but somehow he somersaults head first and pops up firing, nailing the lead runner anyway.
It may have only happened once, but in my memory it occurs repeatedly. At the time, the reaction to seeing Bagwell’s glovework is to reflect on the fact that he used to play third base and still has a cannon attached to his shoulder. It’s a bitter twist of fate that that shoulder is what deprived him of finishing his career achieving his own milestone of 500 home runs. No doubt this bothers his fans more than it bothers Bagwell himself.
For Biggio, the mid-’90s memory is always of a late-inning rally with the Astros down by a run or two and the crowd chanting “Big-gi-o.” He invariably works the count then laces a double into the gap, clearing the bases and putting his club ahead for good.
Despite a difficult season in which he has struggled for weeks to bat .240, Thursday night was pure old-fashioned Biggio. He legged out two infield hits, including an 11th-inning, two-out, bases-empty single that made it possible for his next two teammates also to reach base and Carlos Lee to deposit a grand slam into the Crawford Boxes for an 8-5 victory.
Some baseball writers have criticized the Astros for playing the aging Biggio almost every day to help him reach 3,000 hits as well as sitting him out in Milwaukee so that he could eclipse the milestone at home. Don’t believe a word those people say.
If you were breathing the electric atmosphere at Minute Maid Park Thursday night then you have a far better understanding of what baseball means to the hometown fans than what it means to a few priggish curmudgeons rapping away at their keyboards thousands of miles away. Simply put, Thursday night was the most boisterous regular-season game in the eight years the stadium has been open. The fans in attendance got what they paid for. Anybody who doesn’t like it wasn’t forced to spend a dime to be there.
And who cares whether the national media put Biggio’s feat first, second or last in their coverage? This was a moment for Houston and its fans. Neither Biggio nor Bagwell has been about anything other than dedicating the excellence of their careers to the city of Houston and the Astros organziation. That they are only marginally or belatedly revered in the rest of the country is not our loss, but the loss of fans elsewhere who’ve missed something exceedingly rare and special for two decades.
Entering the game three hits shy of the mark, Biggio beat the odds with not just three, not just four but five hits. He also made Thursday the first time players have achieved their 3,000th hit and 500th home run on the same day. Frank Thomas had reached his milestone earlier in the day.
Bagwell and Thomas have always been linked, being born on the same day, winning MVP awards in 1994 and generally terrorizing the pitchers in their respective leagues. Moreover, at the end of 2005, when he played his last season, Bagwell stood at 449, with Thomas at 448, career home runs.
When Biggio made Bagwell, in street clothes, join him on the field to celebrate the moment, many fans must’ve ruminated that it could’ve been Bagwell, rather than Thomas, to reach 500 home runs Thursday. That ellusive fairy tale would’ve been the only way to make Thursday sweeter for Astros fans, but it was not to be.
The Astros will retire Bagwell’s No. 5 on Sunday, August 26. Biggio’s No. 7 will probably be placed on the wall above the left-field upper deck a year or two later. Biggio may stick around a little longer, perhaps playing part-time, assuming he hasn’t tired of dugouts, late-night plane rides and the rigors of putting his body on the line six months each summer.
He may cross the thresholds of 300 home runs, 700 doubles and 1,900 runs scored, although the chances aren’t great that he’ll play enough to get there. These are only numbers, and not particularly significant ones, anyway. At this point, they won’t enhance the greatness that we’ve had the thrill of enjoying for 20 seasons.
Which means that the day is fast approaching when neither Bagwell nor Biggio will be in an Astros uniform. That thought is bittersweet, although it surely beats the dismal recollections of watching Earl Campbell in a Saints jersey, Jose Cruz in a Yankees uniform, Nolan Ryan taking the mound for the Rangers or Hakeem Olajuwon tipping off for the Raptors to finish their careers. In any event, Bagwell and Biggio will almost certainly be reunited in Cooperstown.
And then only memories, like those days in the mid-’90s in the Astrodome, will remain. If a whispering voice ever tells me to clear a cornfield to build a baseball diamond, that’s what I plan on watching, eternally. It will be a hallowed place where Bagwell’s throws will always streak just in time to the target, and Biggio’s doubles will always find the gap.