Excerpt: Most underrated second baseman of all time

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History" by Jayson Stark. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author. This excerpt has been printed with the permission of
Triumph Books
. For information on how to purchase the book, click here.

Way back in our introduction, this book laid out, in that invaluable way it will soon be noted for (or not), a foolproof 10-step plan for How to Become More Underrated. If you zipped right by it because you wanted to check out the big names in the other chapters first, feel free to U-turn and read it now. No problem. I'll wait.

Hey, welcome back. Wasn't that worth the detour? Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Craig Biggio didn't follow all 10 of those steps -- possibly because he was 19 seasons into his career before this book hit the shelves. But as much as any active player, he lived by the principles that embodied that foolproof plan.

You want central time zone worship? This man played every darned second of his career in Houston, which still hasn't figured out a way to get itself relocated to either coast.
You want a player who was overshadowed by other stars? Heck, he played with Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Moises Alou, Luis Gonzalez, Richard Hidalgo, and Steve Finley -- all of whom commanded at least as much national hoopla as Biggio did. And it wasn't the lineup that ever seemed to be the face of the Astros, anyway. It was all those pitchers: Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson, Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge, Mike Hampton, Mike Scott, Darryl Kile. And we haven't even gotten to Jose Lima yet. So it was easy to forget Craig Biggio was around some of those years.

You want those always-helpful height issues? Biggio mastered them nicely, too. He could have grown an extra inch and made it to 6' even. But he understood, even during puberty, that that one little inch might eliminate him from consideration by important literary volumes like this one.

You want a guy who begs for a pay cut? Hold on now. Who ever expected anybody to follow that advice? But Biggio came as close as any big-time player you'll run across. Four times in his career, he took less money one season than he'd made the year before. And in January 2003, he even signed a two-year extension which deflated him from a $9.75 million salary in 2003 to $3 million in each of the next two years. Sheez, not only has this guy done all that to stay with the only team he's ever played for. But in his two decades, you know how many times he even went so far as to file for free agency? How about once (in 1995)? Not even bothering to flirt with the Yankees may not have done much to pump up his checking-account balance. But it definitely did wonders for his underratedness rankings.

You want a man who avoided October? Okay, Biggio didn't quite do that. His teams did make the playoffs six times. But this fellow appeared in 2,564 regular-season box scores before he played in his first World Series game in 2005. That was more than any player in the whole World Series era (1903-present). So how poetic was that?

Finally, you want intangibles? We'll give you some serious stinkin' intangibles. What other seven-time All-Star (Non-Pete Rose Division) was willing to change positions four times (from catcher to second base to center field to left field and then back to second base) during his career, mostly because his team's lineup worked better if he made those moves? Okay, so Carlos Beltran and Willy Taveras had something to do with those final two relocations. But we don't recall, say, Derek Jeter being willing to budge more than six inches after Alex Rodriguez showed up.

So what we have here is a player who has spent his career skating along two trails that don't always run parallel. One is leading him to the Hall of Fame. The other dragged him into this very chapter in this very book. So he can head for the window and cash that daily-double ticket any time he's ready.

Oh, it's not as if Biggio has played his whole career incognito. The Astros showed up in October enough to assure that your average Baseball Tonight viewer knew his name, and could even spell it. But how many of those folks realized they were watching one of the all-time greats at his primary position (i.e., the position that didn't involve shin guards or mad sprints around the outfield)? Remarkably few.

But that's what Craig Biggio is, you know -- an all-time great. By the time he's finished, the only men in history who accumulated more hits than him while spending most of their careers playing second base will be Eddie Collins (3,315) and Nap Lajoie (3,242). And in case those names don't bring back any vivid memories, it might be because they were both doing some of their best baseball work during World War I.

Of that same group of men who logged most of their time at second base, only Jeff Kent -- a middle-of-the-order force, not a top-of-the-lineup engine-starter -- is going to wind up with more home runs. And no player in National League history has hit more home runs leading off games than Biggio (who did that for the 50th time in 2006).
Biggio might also wind up in the top five on the all-time doubles list. And when he retires, every player ahead of him in runs scored and extra-base hits will be a guy with a plaque in scenic Cooperstown, New York.

It's amazing how all that has been going on, right in front of our own eyeballs, over the last two decades, and so few of us caught on to what we were witnessing. But that can happen to those semi-anonymous stars in the "wrong" town, in the "wrong" time zone. All of a sudden, you look up on the scoreboard or peruse the daily notes blitz, and the powerful names that men like Craig Biggio start passing on those historic lists begin to wallop you across the brain until you say, "Whoa."

I had a fascinating talk with Biggio himself about this one day in 2006. He'd just whooshed by Cal Ripken in doubles -- and Hank Aaron was next. Hank Aaron. So Biggio did something modern players almost never do: he actually looked up Aaron's numbers, to see if that might make this feat compute any easier. And as he was staring at Hank Aaron's career, he thought of himself, about to pass the legendary Hammerin' Hank in anything -- doubles, autograph shows, total sweatsocks laundered, whatever. And Craig Biggio had to admit: "It gives you goosebumps."

I've seen this man play enough to recognize that, at his peak, he may not have been as dominating as Joe Morgan, or as dazzling a worker in the second-base leather shop as Roberto Alomar. But Craig Biggio was still scoring 100 runs at age 38, and still hitting 20 homers at age 40. And he hustled his butt off to first base every time he put a ball in play. That's not something you can say about every guy who hangs around this many years.

It may be true that he wasn't passing Aaron in the kind of extra-base hit Aaron became most noted for. But for a guy like Biggio, doubles fit right into his underratedness formula. If you're known for hitting home runs, you're always in danger of making somebody's overrated list (even this one). If you want to be underrated, you do stuff like hit 50 doubles in back-to-back seasons. (Biggio is one of only four men to do that since the 1930s.) And roll up 50 doubles and 50 stolen bases in the same season. (Biggio's 50-50 season in 1998 made him the first player to do that since Tris Speaker, who did it in 1912.)

Or you make it through an entire season without hitting into a double play. (Biggio is still the only player since the dawn of 162-game schedules to pull that off.) Or, while you're avoiding those double plays, you don't avoid many fastballs boring in on your elbows. (Somehow, Biggio has managed to get hit by more pitches than any player in history -- and still gone on the disabled list just once in his whole career.)

I've seen this man play enough to recognize that, at his peak, he may not have been as dominating as Joe Morgan, or as dazzling a worker in the second-base leather shop as Roberto Alomar. But Craig Biggio was still scoring 100 runs at age 38, and still hitting 20 homers at age 40. And he hustled his butt off to first base every time he put a ball in play. That's not something you can say about every guy who hangs around this many years.

Dependability and durability are qualities we sometimes take for granted -- when, in fact, they're the most valuable ingredients to look for in any
athlete. But when a player's best qualities are the ones the public notices least, it's good to know there are still some people paying attention -- particularly if they happen to be people writing books on the most underrated players of all time.

Unfortunately, as this book was heading for a printing press nowhere near you, Biggio was about to do something with the potential to blow his safe haven in the Underrated Hall of Fame to smithereens -- i.e., get his 3,000th hit. And apparently, there was nothing any of us involved in this project could do to stop him. But that doesn't change the first 19 years of his career -- when only Barbara Bush, Lyle Lovett, several million other Texans, and a few off-kilter hit-by-pitch junkies seemed to notice what Craig Biggio was up to.

He was laying the groundwork for his journey to Cooperstown and to these last few pages. And even that was more underrated than most folks gave him credit for.