NEW YORK -- Whenever a player is elected to the Hall of Fame, there is never a shortage of people who crawl out of the woodwork to boast, "I knew him when."
Well, in the case of Craig Biggio, the former Houston Astros second baseman who was voted into Cooperstown on Tuesday on his third try, I really can say it, even though I've spoken to him only once in my life. Because when I first heard his name 32 years ago, I was pretty sure it was a name I would be hearing again, even if I assumed it would be for exploits on the football field rather than the baseball diamond.
I was working as a part-timer with Newsday, taking high school scores over the phone, and even though I had been on the job less than a month, I was already accustomed to the typical postgame call, usually from a student who would rattle off a bunch of names and statistics to be used in our Sunday wrap-up. They were generally dull calls and rarely lasted more than a minute or two.
But this one was different. The caller was breathless and excited. "You'll never believe the story I have for you," he blurted out. I had to ask him to slow down and catch his breath.
But he wasn't lying. He had a whopper. In the midst of an unremarkable football season, Kings Park High School, in northern Suffolk County on Long Island, had posted a rather remarkable 46-0 victory over Longwood H.S.
But what was truly remarkable was that 40 of those 46 points were the work of one player. In four different capacities.
Here's my 48-word, un-bylined story that made it into Newsday on Sunday, Oct. 23, 1983 (I had to go to the public library and find it on microfilm):
"Senior Craig Biggio, playing his first game at halfback, accounted for 40 of the 46 points scored by Kings Park (2-3). Biggio rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns, threw an option pass for another TD and caught a nine-yard scoring pass, all in the first half."
Edited out of my story -- but in the box score -- was Biggio's 60-yard interception return for a TD and the fact that he also kicked four extra points. Edited out of the phone call by the team statistician was the fact that Biggio had another pick-six called back because of a penalty.
And although I didn't know it at the time, the reason all of Biggio's heroics came in the first half was because it was the customary practice of head coach Doc Holliday to pull Biggio at halftime. He was so good it was unfair to the other team to leave him in. (The one time he was left in the entire game was the season finale against Hauppauge, in which he scored the game-winning TD on the last play of the game.)
Biggio went on to win the Hansen Award that year as Suffolk County's best high school football player.
And that wasn't even his best sport.
Biggio, of course, went on to have a phenomenal career with the Astros, amassing 3,060 hits in 20 seasons in which, most amazingly, he made only one trip to the disabled list. The only time I spoke to him was in the mid-80s, when the Astros came to Shea Stadium (I was a boxing writer at the time and only occasionally covered baseball). I mentioned his game against Longwood, and my peripheral connection to it, as an icebreaker. He smiled but seemed embarrassed to talk about it, and from conversations I've had with people who know him, that is typical of Biggio. He'll talk about the game, the team, the weather. Anything but himself.
And yet, had he played his career in New York rather than Houston, he might be held by Yankees -- or Mets -- fans in the kind of reverence paid to Derek Jeter.
"You could make that comparison," said Kevin Johnston, who was a Kings Park assistant coach and an English teacher when Biggio was there, and had him in both capacities. "I know if he had [played in New York], it wouldn't have taken him three ballots, that's for sure."
I voted for Biggio in his first two years of eligibility and would have voted for him again this year had some serious family issues that arose in December not demanded my attention and caused me, regrettably, not to cast a ballot this year. I am relieved to know that this year, my vote wasn't necessary to get him in.
And while I won't claim to have known he was bound for Cooperstown on that Saturday nearly 32 years ago -- hell, at that point I would have guessed Canton -- Craig Biggio's coaches knew they had something special. They just didn't know how special.
"Enjoy this," Holliday said to Johnston on the sideline during that Longwood game. "You only get one of these in a career. If you're lucky."
Even though I was only on the other end of a phone that day, I know exactly what he meant.