September 29, 2007: Biggio dons the tools of ignorance one final time
Baseball fans, more than fans of any other sport, are lovers of nostalgia, and the end of a star player’s long career evokes fond memories, even more so when that player has spent his entire career with one team. Craig Biggio made it to the major leagues as a catcher with the Houston Astros in 1988 but made a shift to second base in 1992, where – with the exception of the 2003 and 2004 seasons in the outfield – he spent the majority of his career. As Biggio’s 20 years with the Astros neared an end, he prepared to don the tools of ignorance and squat behind the plate one last time in the next to last game of his career.
Biggio had been a good enough catcher to be selected to the National League All-Star team at the position in 1991, but by this point he had not caught a game since October 5 of that season. Since both the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros had been eliminated from playoff contention, the plan was for Biggio to catch Astros starter Brandon Backe for one or two innings against the Braves on Saturday, September 29. Biggio began to prepare himself by catching Backe’s bullpen session on the Wednesday before the game: “I don’t want to go back there and embarrass myself,” Biggio said, realizing that catching is not exactly like riding a bike.1
Each of the Astros’ three games against the Braves in their final series of 2007 was sold out as the hometown fans wanted one last chance to see Biggio play and wish him farewell. On this night, 43,624 fans heard Biggio introduced as the starting catcher while usual catcher Brad Ausmus was in the starting lineup at second base, a position that Ausmus had not played since his sophomore year in high school.2 Biggio stepped onto the field wearing a catcher’s mask that commemorated his career: On one side was the Astros’ rainbow logo he had worn as a rookie; on the other side was the team’s current alternate logo with Houston in brick-red superimposed over the state of Texas, while the back read “1988-2007, 3,000 club.” Biggio later described how he had felt as he had walked onto the field in catcher’s gear for the first time in over 15 years: “I was nervous, yeah. You warm your pitcher up, and you walk in from the bullpen, that walk’s a long walk. Then you go back out and start warming up, and your legs aren’t really used to that.”3
Backe, who was making only his fifth start of the season after coming back from Tommy John surgery, admitted later that he shook off Biggio’s signs on a couple of occasions but thought that the two had made a good battery. Yunel Escobar led off the game for the Braves with a double but was stranded at second as Backe retired the next three batters. In the bottom of the first, Biggio lined a one-out double down the left-field line – number 667 of his career, which was fifth on the all-time list – and scored on Lance Berkman’s home run that gave the Astros a quick 2-0 lead.
According to Astros manager Cecil Cooper, after the first inning Biggio had said, “Let’s do it again,” and so he came out to catch one more frame.4 Jeff Francoeur led off the Braves’ second with a single and advanced to third base when the next batter, Brandon Jones, also singled. Francoeur scored on Brayan Peña’s groundout to cut the Astros’ lead in half, but Backe ended Biggio’s catching career by escaping the inning without further damage.
Two innings at catcher were enough to remind Biggio that he had aged considerably since he had last crouched behind home plate. Cooper revealed, “He went out for the second [inning], and after that, I think he was kind of gassed. I’m sure it was tough on his legs.”5 That being the case, Ausmus resumed his duties as catcher and Biggio returned to second base, where he played until he was taken out of the game after the eighth inning.
While the focus was on Biggio, the two teams did have a game to play, and Backe engaged in a duel with his mound opponent, Jeff Bennett, who was appearing in the majors for the first time since 2004 and had also undergone Tommy John surgery. Backe helped his own cause by belting a two-out solo home run off Bennett in the bottom of the fifth inning that increased the Astros’ lead to 3-1.
Dennis Sarfate replaced Backe in the top of the seventh inning and allowed the Braves to narrow the margin to one run again. Francoeur led off with a double, advanced to third on a Peña single, and scored on Willie Harris’s sacrifice fly. The Braves would score no further runs, though, and Backe’s homer provided the winning margin in the 3-2 game. A disappointed Bennett remarked, “It’s hard to believe you lose the game because a pitcher hits a bomb off you. … At the time, I think he had only one other home run. He just picked a good time to get his second.”6
When Backe was asked what he thought of Biggio as his batterymate, he said, “I’m very, very surprised with how well he did. … He’s capable of doing it 15 years later and doing it well.”7 Backe may not have realized that the latter part of his statement was not completely accurate. Although Braves batters had reached base in each of the first two innings, Biggio did not have to make any throws to the bases due an agreement reached before the game: “Cooper spoke to Braves manager Bobby Cox … about not running on Biggio, who says he probably doesn’t have the arm strength to throw out a runner at second base.”8
Some baseball purists might complain and cry foul about such an accord, but since the game was meaningless to the playoff picture, the teams were able to give the fans what they wanted. In this case, the fans wanted to see Biggio back at his original position one last time. As Biggio himself explained, “It was fun. I had fun with the umpires and their hitters a little bit. We didn’t show anybody up or disrespect the game. It was fun being involved in the process of calling a game.”9
Backe summed up his feelings about the night when he said, “It was awesome. There are no other words to describe the feeling I had pitching to my childhood idol. It was a very special night for me. I wish it didn’t end, to be honest with you.”10 There is no doubt that the 43,624 faithful at Minute Maid Park that night, along with all other Astros fans, shared Backe’s last sentiment.
1 Alyson Footer, “Notes: Biggio to catch on Saturday,” http://houston.astros.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070926&content_id=2231734&vkey=news_hou&fext=.jsp&c_id=hou, accessed July 19, 2014.
2 Brian McTaggart, “Astros, Biggio wear it well,” Houston Chronicle, September 30, 2007.
3 Alyson Footer, “Astros even series with Braves,” http://houston.astros.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070929&content_id=2239454&vkey=recap&fext=.jsp&c_id=hou, accessed July 19, 2014.
6 Mark Bowman, “Braves bats baffled by Backe,” http://atlanta.braves.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070929&content_id=2239440&vkey=recap&fext=.jsp&c_id=atl, accessed July 19, 2014.
7 Footer, “Astros even series with Braves.”
8 McTaggart, “Astros, Biggio wear it well.”
9 Footer, “Astros even series with Braves.”