Derek Bell makes a fist with his left hand. The astros rightfielder then wraps his right hand around the fist, forming an impenetrable hunk of flesh and bone shaped like a human heart. "This is our team," he says. "No stat sheets on this team. I came from Toronto and San Diego, where guys read 'em all the time. Not here." Bell separates his hands, unclenches his fingers, and points. "right there is why. and right there." He points first at Jeff Bagwell, second at Craig Biggio. First and second. The right side of the infield. The best right side of the infield in the major leagues. one of the best right sides of any infield in history. and the two main reasons why the astros still have a prayer of winning their third straight NL Central title.
Just about everything that could go wrong for the astros has gone wrong. Their best outfielder, Moises alou, fell off his treadmill before spring training and tore his ACL. rookie catcher Mitch Meluskey went on the disabled list on April 26, starting a parade that would send all but two players from the opening Day lineup to the DL by midsummer. Manager Larry Dierker collapsed in the dugout on June 13 with a grand mal seizure and was lost to the team for 27 games. The last straw? at the end of August, in his final stages of rehab, alou aggravated his knee in a bicycle crash, snuffing out any hope of a late-season comeback.
But hey, there's always a sunny side, right? The astros have to think so, because the two opening Day starters not to do time on the DL are the two they absolutely, positively cannot afford to lose. "We've had to patch all year," says coach Matt galante, who ran the club while Dierker was out. "We patched for Mo, we patched for just about everybody at one time or another. But the two guys we can't patch for are Baggy and Bidge."
Baggy and Bidge. Sounds like a one-season sitcom, but they're actually one of the longest running hits of the '90s-with ratings stronger than ever. They first met at Astro-Fest, a promotional event, following the '90 season. Biggio had a little over two seasons under his belt as a solid-hitting catcher with surprising speed (53 stolen bases). Bagwell had just come to Houston from the red Sox. "Bidge was trying to grow a mustache," Bagwell says. "It was so tired. he still can't grow one." They didn't become close until 1992, when they first found themselves together on the right side of the infield.
"It's a comfort zone," says Bagwell. "I know everything about him, he knows everything about me. When he's mad, he throws the ball as hard as he can at me, and I laugh. It's a great feeling to look to my right and think, 'That's my buddy.'" Buddies with virtually nothing in common. Bagwell is a classy dresser, who sports a blazer and tie on road trips; Biggio translates "dressy" as a No Fear T-shirt and jeans. ("he says he keeps his good clothes at home," Bagwell says. "His motto is,'If it's free, it's for me.'") Bagwell is a seven handicap in golf; Biggio, says Baggy, "sucks." Bagwell grew up in Killingworth, Conn., loving Carl Yastrzemski; Biggio grew up in Smithtown, Long Island, worshiping Thurman Munson. Bagwell drives a Mercedes; Biggio his harley or his big, black pickup. Bagwell was a high-scoring soccer player in high school; Biggio was a heavily recruited football player.
Two seasons ago, Bagwell finished third and Biggio fourth in the NL MVP balloting. The only other time a first baseman and a second baseman from the same team finished in the top five was 1937, when Tigers second baseman Charlie gehringer and first baseman hank greenberg finished 1-3. This year, Bagwell is a frontrunner for NL MVP, while Biggio is finishing a six-year offensive show that, among NL second basemen, has been seen from only Hall of Famer Joe Morgan since the days of Rogers Hornsby.
"They're like Paul Molitor and Robin Yount: same professionalism, same competitiveness," says teammate Bill Spiers, a former Brewer. "I tell people I played with Molitor and Yount. Now I can tell people I played with Bagwell and Biggio. They're going to the hall of Fame too." Bagwell and Biggio aren't the only reasons houston led Cincinnati by 1 1/2 games heading into Labor Day weekend. The big three in the rotation-Jose Lima, Shane reynolds and Mike hampton-are a combined 49-21 with a 3.38 ERA, and closer Billy Wagner (1.90 era, .130 opponents' BA) has shut the door 33 times in 35 chances. astros pitchers give nothing away-their 2.9 walks per nine innings is the NL's best. and centerfielder Carl everett (.331, 21, 93) is having a breakout year. But the impact of Bagwell and Biggio goes way beyond numbers.
Teams often take on the characteristics of their leaders, which explains why the astros are the most professional team in the league in every way, including dealing with the media. Last year, a young writer was having trouble getting alou to talk with him. The writer went to Bagwell and explained the situation. Bagwell went to alou and the writer had no more problems.
On Aug. 25, with Bell, Alou, Richard Hidalgo and reserve Glen Barker already on the DL, Everett pulled a hamstring. Naturally, Biggio volunteered to play outfield: "I've played there before," he assured Dierker. Sure he had-eight years ago. and so he did again, flawlessly, for parts of three games. "That's how it's done here," says Biggio. "We do whatever it takes to win. on the other hand, if I have to catch again, we'll be in real trouble."
The Astros recently played a day game in Houston, then traveled that evening to Chicago for a 12:05 doubleheader the next day, with another 12:05 start the day after that. Dierker asked his two stars to take a game off against the Cubs. Uh-uh. "We're all tired," Biggio told him. "But we've got a lot of young guys here. The veterans have to show them that you have to play."
One of those young guys, hidalgo, got a lecture early in the season from Galante, who urged him to stay the same hungry kid who loves to play and always plays with passion, even someday when he's making $5 million a year. "Hey, no problem," hidalgo said, "I watch Baggy."
The young players on the team watch Bagwell and Biggio lift weights after virtually every game. They watch them hit in the cage after a game if they have a bad night. They watch them run out every ground ball. They watch them play with injuries.
"It's no big deal to play hard and play the game right," says Bagwell. he has quietly admonished teammates who aren't busting it, telling them, "The harder you play, the better you do, and when you do better, the more we win. even when we stunk, no one wanted to play the Astros because we've always played hard." Biggio is, characteristically, more direct: "If someone dogs it here, he's not here for very long."
His hands are thick, coarse and gnarled. Surely they must belong to a catcher, a football player, a wrestler, a carpenter-all of which Biggio has been in the past and still is in spirit. Robbie Alomar, Cleveland's elegant second baseman, has long, soft, smooth hands, an artist's hands. There's nothing soft, smooth or artistic about Biggio's hands-or his game. he likes it that way and so does his team. he plays baseball like a madman-every game. Who cares if some of his opponents don't like him?
Mark Portugal, the former astro, now red Sox pitcher, calls Biggio "that little bastard." Ken Caminiti calls him "a psycho." one NL coach calls him "the most hated man in baseball."and these guys like him. Those who don't say he tries too hard to win, intentionally getting hit by pitches and barreling into bases like a member of a kickoff team. "You don't have to go out to maim," says Tony Gwynn. "Some people think he's a cheapshot artist," says Caminiti. "That's crap. anyone who says that has never played with him."
Biggio wrestled in high school but hated it, "because you can't run in wrestling." he was also a quarterback who scrambled so much he was turned into a running back. ("The best high school football player I've ever seen," says reds pitcher Pete Harnisch, who attended a nearby school.) Biggio was supposed to play football at Penn State before 75,000 fans in blue-and-white face paint, but didn't have the grades. Instead, he played baseball in front of a handful of friends and family at Seton Hall, where he washed his own uniform, hauled out of bed to put the tarp on the field at 3 a.m., played games in the snow and worked out in a parking lot.
A catcher/shortstop in college, Biggio was a first-round pick by the astros in 1987 and blazed through the minors (.375, .320, 50 steals in parts of two seasons) playing strictly as a catcher. In 1988, at the tender age of 22, he was in the big leagues catching Nolan ryan. Big Tex loved the kid because he wasn't afraid to call a breaking ball-which ryan often bounced-with a man at third in the late innings. Somehow, some way, Biggio knew he'd block it.
"Bidge isn't afraid of anything," says Portugal.
Oh, but he is. In a high school all-star game in 1982, Biggio played second for the first time in his life. That day, lightning struck the field. Biggio was thrown in the air and knocked out. When he came to a few seconds later, he was in the fetal position. The first person he saw was the shortstop. "his sock was on fire," Biggio says. "He had a hole in his chest." The shortstop died on the field. "It took me 10 years to get over it," he says. "For months, when there was lightning, I went to the basement. I still have a problem with it."
Except for eight games in 1991, that was the last time he played second until spring training in 1992, when the astros moved him there permanently. Bagwell says Biggio is "10 times the player now that he was then. he's killing a bunch of little kids today who think that second base is a place just for a good glove man. Bidge is that, but he hits homers, hits doubles, steals bases. He and Ryne Sandberg changed the way the position is played."
Entering Labor Day weekend, Biggio led the major leagues with 52 doubles and was batting .303 with 12 homers, 61 RBI, 101 runs and 22 steals. over the previous five years, he averaged .308, 17 homers, 75 RBI, 119 runs, 37 doubles and 39 steals. he's won four gold gloves, not with the flash of an Alomar but with rock-solid consistency. The only thing that might deny him a fifth is the amazing year in the field that the Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo is having. Second basemen typically can throw from every angle; Biggio throws from one-straight over the top, like a catcher. But the ball gets there in time.
Biggio calls himself "a working-class player," and has a matching, whateverit-takes personality. As a rookie, he once spotted veteran teammate Buddy Bell in the trainer's room between games of a doubleheader with a huge needle stuck in his knee so he could play the nightcap. The lesson? a big leaguer plays with pain. If Biggio has a bad night at the plate, he goes to the indoor batting cage "and beats up a hundred balls." Then, as always, he goes to the weight room and lifts with Bagwell.
"Little bastard? He weighs 190, but has himself listed at 180 in the Astros media guide, and wears a loose-fitting jersey to mask how big and strong he is. He now benches 300. He's 33 but looks 25. Every so often he tries to grow a beard. ("he wishes," says Harnisch.) his face and head-he wears a size 7 hat-don't match the rest of him. "Peanut head, no facial hair, unbelievably hyper," Bagwell says. "He's a little kid. he's 12."
Maybe, but at game time, the12-year-old pulls on uniform No. 7, forgets about all those hurts on his body, picks up a bat with eight layers of tape on the handle, loads it up with pine tar, jams nicotine-free tobacco under his lip and goes out and tries to tear the throat out of the enemy.
Bagwell's feet are his secret weapon. You wouldn't guess it, from the high-top, black, clodhopper spikes that look like they might have been lifted from Herman Munster's locker. But it's Baggy's nimble feet, says Dierker, that make him a blue-chip defensive first baseman. he's not as smooth and graceful as Mark Grace or J.T. Snow around the bag, but he's as good as they are at going to his right, scooping nasty hops and racing back on pop-ups. Those feet also explain his efficiency at running the bases. Bagwell runs straight at the bag, hits the inside corner hard and makes a sharp left, using the bag as a driving block. No "rounding the bases" for him; he runs them in a square. And runsthem quicker than some guys who are faster.
Baggy's feet made him a star striker in high school. "I don't like to talk about playing soccer. In the baseball crowd, it's not seen as a very masculine game," he says. "everyone on our team is in a fantasy football league. I'm in a fantasy soccer league."
More colleges recruited Bagwell for soccer, but he played only baseball at the University of Hartford. As a kid all he wanted to be was a major league ballplayer. He grew up in a Red Sox home, where all anyone talked about was how Yaz or Lynn or rice was doing. Drafted by Boston in 1989, he was traded away in 1990 in the worst deal in franchise history since the Sox sold Ruth to the Yankees: Bagwell to houston for reliever Larry Andersen. He went to the Astros as a third baseman ("I could catch it," he says, "but I couldn't throw it"). It was Yogi Berra, then a coach, who suggested putting him at first.
They had to find a position, because everybody knew he would hit, despite that weird stance. he spreads his feet as wide as any hitter in the game, with his knees bent at an acute angle. "he looks like he's sitting down," says Biggio. "Doesn't he know he's screwing up a whole generation of kids with that stance?" Says Bagwell, "I'd love to hit like Manny Ramirez or Juan Gonzalez. Hands up high, great leg kick. But I can't hit that way."
He can, however, hit his way. Coming into this year, Bagwell had averaged .306, 28 homers, 104 RBI, 97 runs, 92 walks and 35 doubles over his first eight seasons. This year he's batting .312 with 39 homers, 109 RBI, 120 runs, 123 walks and 30 doubles through 135 games. With a full month left in the season, he looks like a lock to top his best year, 1997, when he conked 43 homers, drove in 135 runs and scored 109.
Bagwell is plenty strong-he benches well over 300 pounds-but not huge. At 5'11", 210-the Astros media guide generously gives him two more inches and 15 fewer pounds-Bagwell looks like a Division III college fullback at a position dominated by NFL tight ends. "People tell me all the time,"Hey, much bigger on TV, ' and all I can think is, 'gee, thanks,'" the 31-year-old says. "I stand next to Frank Thomas, and it's a joke. And every time we play the Cardinals, there's always a picture in the paper of me standing next to Mark McGwire. Please! But I kind of like it that I'm not as big and strong as some other guys. I kind of feel like Yaz, a guy who got the most out of his ability."
Your typical power-hitting first baseman doesn't average 16 stolen bases stops. Time to go to the field. The right side of the infield walks out the a season. Last year, McGwire, Thomas, Jim Thome, Andres Galarraga and Mo Vaughn combined for 16 steals. This season, Bagwell already has 25. Not because of pure speed-at least a half dozen astros can beat him in a footrace. But Bagwell is one of the game's best at reading a pitcher's move. On second, for instance, he checks the pitcher's grip as he leads off. If he knows a curveball is coming, he might take off for third.
No Astro goes first to third better-or makes fewer mental mistakes. "Baggy got doubled off on a line drive this year," says Galante. "He came to the bench and asked me, 'Have you ever seen me do that?' I said, 'No.' he couldn't believe he'd done it. Neither could I."
Says Bagwell, "I don't get to first very fast. I'm so twisted at the plate because of my swing. But there's no greater feeling for me than singling, stealing second and scoring on a single. That's how you win."
Case in point? Flashback to Mets vs. Astros in Houston, Aug. 30. The Astros were coming off a 17-1 walloping by New York the night before that had cut their lead over Cincinnati to a half game. Bottom of the seventh, no score, Bagwell drew a walk. Caminiti then drilled a hard single through the hole to Rickey Henderson in left, who bobbled the ball momentarily. ordinarily, on a ball hit so sharply, the runner pulls up at second. But Bagwell, cutting hard at the bag, slowed just enough to decoy henderson, then powered on to third. Four pitches later, he scored on a squeeze bunt. The Astros scored again in the inning and went on to win 6-2 on a Caminiti grand slam, but it was Bagwell's smart, gutsy baserunning that let them take charge of the game.
Bagwell and Biggio share a leadership role among the Astros, and probably a similar destiny in baseball. If Bagwell has another eight seasons close to the With a full month left in the season, one he's having-maybe just another six-he's going to the hall of Fame. and if Biggio has another four or five, he's going too, maybe in the same class. Just don't try talking to Baggy and Bidge now about numbers, much less Hall of Fame numbers. No stat sheets on this team, remember? They're interested only in winning, and keeping the clubhouse loose and focused.
On a sweltering afternoon in Atlanta recently, the team is grabbing some AC in the clubhouse just before game time. Bagwell is ragging hard-and loud-you're on Biggio's golf game: "I saw this guy lose 18 balls in six holes. But I got to hand it to him he embarrasses himself in front of his teammates, then he goes out and embarrasses himself again." Next he turns on Biggio for getting rid of a perfectly good bat "just because he went 0-for-1 with it."
On and on it goes until, as if on a signal, two players stand up. The laughter stops. Time to go to the field. The right side o f the infield walks out the clubhouse door. Bagwell first, Biggio second. The rest of the Astros follow.
Bash Brothers II
Oakland first baseman Jason Giambi (below) and Dh/ rightfielder Matt Stairs (right) have two things the rest of the a's don't-multiyear contracts and de facto front office consulting gigs. Not only that, says catcher Mike Macfarlane, but the team's two acknowledged leaders also have "the job of loosening up serious team meetings by behaving like idiots."
Giambi and Stairs may lack the cachet and cash of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, but they embody a lower-profile, lumberjack version of the astros' duo. Giambi (6'3", 235) is cut from a slightly smaller tree than his predecessor at first base, that guy who's now with St. Louis. Stairs (5'9", 217) is a power-hitting beerbarrel Canadian who's a national hero in Mexico, where he toiled six seasons to earn a shot at a full-time major league job. Between them, they've hit 56 homers and driven in 188 runs going into the first weekend of September. If the a's make it onto the American League wild-card bus, Giambi and Stairs will get first pick of the seats.
GM Billy Beane believed both were essential to his vision of building a winner in a small market, so during last year's 88-loss campaign, he signed them through 2001. Beane, 37, has cobbled together an eclectic roster from a variety of sources. Stairs, John Jaha and Olmedo Saenz came as minor league Raines were bargain-basement free agents with upscale pedigrees.
With righty-hitting Jaha (31 homers in a rare injury-free season) wedged between lefty sluggers giambi and Stairs, oakland's lineup has the brawny look of a slo-pitch softball team. In fact, they're shrewdly built on plate patience and power. The a's have the lowest team BA (.256) in the AL. But because they lead the league in walks and are second in homers, they're third in runs scored-and, consequently, still on line for that bus to october.
"We need to get to the weaker links in the other guys' staffs," says Beane. "That means building up the pitch counts of their starters and forcing them to go to their middleinnings guys, where we have a better chance."
In July, Beane consulted Giambi and Stairs about dealing the discontented Kenny Rogers. Beane told them he was dumping his highest-paid player not to save Rogers' salary but to spend it on more moves, all of which he would run by them. The duo gave their blessing as Kevin Appier, Jason Isringhausen, Greg McMichael, omar Olivares and Randy Velarde arrived, with just one other big contributor-closer Billy Taylor-leaving. The A's record in the month after the trade deadline: 22-10.
"I wanted to be part of this organization's progress from Kmart to Nordstrom's," Giambi says. "We've got a long way to go, but we have ourselves a nice little nucleus."
"The boys are having fun," says Stairs, his Canadian roots resonating in his voice. "The pressure's on Boston and Toronto because we weren't supposed to be here. We're just riding the wave."