KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Seventy hits, when you've already got 2,930 of them, might not sound like much.
Craig Biggio, wakened Friday by a cup of coffee and the promise of at least one more day of baseball, worked an early-morning grin.
He's 41 and a little more than a month from his 20th season. He's just that close, 70 hits, from becoming the 27th man with 3,000 of them, and by the look on his face he's paid well for every one so far, as he will for the rest.
"It is a lot of hits," he said. "It's a lot of grinding. It's a lot of playing. It's a lot of flights."
As his manager, Phil Garner, seconded, "You just don't fall into 3,000 hits."
Nope. Biggio has hung in there on every pitch (too long on nearly 300 of them), in every at-bat, for long enough to know better.
He calls himself a grinder, perhaps as much for transforming himself on the fly from a catcher to a Gold Glove second baseman as for showing up every day.
He doesn't hold the same reputation as Cal Ripken Jr., but it should be noted that when Biggio arrives at 3,000, only Ripken and Rickey Henderson will have reached the same plateau with a lower career batting average.
There's an admirable quality to that. For two decades, Biggio has fought, scraped and, OK, grinded to get on base, so hard at times it seemed tears might stream across his face. He took 282 pitches to the body, and ran hard to first base, and sometimes hit for power and sometimes hit for self-protection and five times led the league in plate appearances. Yeah, in showing up.
And here's the thing. He's a half-season away from a Hall-of-Fame automatic (and probably is in anyway), while standing closer to the pitcher than anyone in recent memory. Twenty years ago, Biggio arrived in the big leagues, walked to the plate and noticed sliders looked different when they were thrown by grown men. So, seeking to take his hack before the breaking balls were in full down-and-away bite, he stepped 18 inches toward the mound.
"For me, it works," he said. "As long as your hands are there, you have a chance."
Biggio has abandoned his signature exaggerated leg kick, but that's his only concession to age. He still anchors his right foot at the back edge of the plate, still relies on his eyes to identify the pitch and still pushes his hands to do the rest. As a metaphor for his career, once he made the move to the front of the box, he never inched back. Not for the hardest fastball, not for the wildest rookie, not for the most sweeping right-handed slider.
When things go bad – as they did in the second half last season, when he batted .193 in August and .191 after that – Biggio channels Yogi Berra. He first heard the K.I.S.S. acronym – Keep It Simple, Stupid – from Berra, a Houston Astros coach when Biggio was in his youth.
Woody Williams is a veteran of 14 seasons who had seen plenty of Biggio before signing with the Astros in the offseason. He said he'd seen "very few" hitters along the way so far ahead in the box and that it can make a pitcher uncomfortable.
"You know you have to throw the ball a little lower," Williams said. "A breaking ball you think is a good one is thigh-high to him."
So, a pitcher has eight guys in a lineup crowding – and even crossing over – the back end of the batters' box. And then he has Biggio crowding the mound.
"You don't see anybody stand that far forward in the box today," Garner said. "He's quick enough to do it. Most guys don't have the confidence to stand up out there.
"[Pitchers] aren't accustomed to it, and I think it takes them out of their game. A guy has to pitch to him for three at-bats before he gets his breaking ball where he wants it. That works to Craig's advantage. … Most good pitchers have great depth perception anyway. But they get into the habit of throwing the ball where they normally throw it. That's what they work on doing. They work on where most people stand."
It's not much, really, a foot, a foot and a half at a time. But, over the course of a game, a season, 20 years, it adds up. It's gotten him to 2,930 hits. It almost certainly will carry him the rest of the way.
"We came a game short last year of getting to the playoffs, and [the St. Louis Cardinals] went and won the World Series," he said. "That's the biggest goal. That's the most important thing. The other thing, the 3,000 hits, we know it's there. … The bottom line is, I really want it for my family. They deserve it. The fans in Houston deserve it. They've been so good to me over 20 years, I couldn't think of anything better to give to them. Because the list is so small, to be able to – not in my name, but in Houston's name, and the fans – to be able to give that back to them on the way out would be something. That's a lot of motivation to me."
In the meantime, he'll show up, inch up, and stay at it.
"I just come in and put the uniform on," Biggio said. "When you come through those clubhouse doors, you're ready to play the game. Then when you leave, you leave. And you leave it here. … I'm a grinder. I don't think it's one of those things where you come to the ballpark and say, 'I want to watch this guy take batting practice or watch him play.' But, when it's all said and done, everything is there."