Biggio nears gold standard

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Only big names remain. Craig Biggio passed Babe Ruth for 37th on the all-time hit list Sunday with his 2,874th. Next is Mel Ott, a Hall of Famer, and after that Frankie Frisch, a Hall of Famer, too, and following him a list of luminaries leading up to one of the few numbers in baseball with any gravitas.

Health permitting, Craig Biggio, a spindly kid from Long Island whose uniform has seen more dirt than Pigpen, will reach 3,000 hits early next season. He is, remember, 40 years old, and though he has not taken to pounding prune juice, his days no longer resemble June 29, 1988, the one on which Biggio singled off Orel Hershiser, in the midst of a Cy Young season, for his first big-league hit.

"Now," Biggio said, "you wake up and you go to the bathroom more – and you hurt more when you walk to the bathroom."

Such are the rigors of tiptoeing your way toward a club occupied by only 26 others, one that, more than anything else in baseball, takes an amalgam of stamina, graceful aging and skill. The 3,000-hit club always has been more about the lasting accomplishment than the men who reached it.

"Three thousand isn't just a number," Houston Astros pitcher Taylor Buchholz said. "It's a standard."

One that players generally limp toward instead of surging past. Biggio is somewhere between that. He still plays every day, and while his power numbers have waned this season, he hit a career-high 26 home runs last season. At the same time, an invisible fence seems to limit his range at second base to a few square inches – feet on a good day.

And so? Biggio is more than 10,000 at-bats deep into his 19-year career – only 23 others have hit five figures – has made seven All-Star Games, won four Gold Gloves at second base and, not that the following number matters in the scheme of things, but when discussing bumps and bruises it must be noted that he's been hit by pitches 278 times, a modern record.

Really, there is no need to qualify players with 3,000 hits. They are baseball's gathering of the Knights of the Round Table, with two Styrofoam plates, paper napkins and plastic silverware at the kiddie table for Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro.

"It's a huge number," Biggio said, "a massive number. Is anybody ever gonna get close enough to do it again? I don't know."

If Biggio matches his first-half numbers, he will end this season around 2,950, and with the Astros unlikely to let him walk after he has spent his whole career in Houston, convention points to a one-year contract around when he turns 41 in December and a May due date for the milestone.

After that begins the drought. Of the current active players, only two seem good bets for 3,000. Derek Jeter, who turned 32 last week, has 2,037 hits. In even better shape is 30-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who is at 1,984, and, it must be noted, only 308 home runs shy of breaking Hank Aaron's record.

A third New York Yankee, Johnny Damon, enters the discussion with the second tier. At 32, he has 1,880 hits, and he could follow the same path as Biggio, a long shot whose longevity made him a sure one. With 2,275 hits, Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez would be a great candidate if not for the rigors of his position and his 35th birthday this offseason, and Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki's 2,535 would hold up nicely if 1,278 of them hadn't come in Japan.

Atlanta Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria is 30 and has 1,684 hits, and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero is the same age with seven less hits. Tops among 20-somethings is Braves outfielder Andruw Jones, with 1,492 hits and a .268 batting average that negates him from further discussion. The St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols, on the other hand, is over 1,000 and still hasn't turned 27.

Speculating on players who are barely one-third of the way to 3,000 is as much idle guesswork as informed analysis. Because even those who look like locks can falter. Rogers Hornsby, at 2,705 hits when he was 33, had only 225 over the next eight seasons. Harvey Kuenn, with 1,912 at 31 years old, petered out at 2,092 and ended his career at 34.

Instead of retiring, Biggio reinvents himself.

First it was five years into his career, when he moved from catcher to second base. After 11 seasons there, he switched to center field for a year, then split time between center and left field before moving back to second in 2005. He's been a speedster (407 stolen bases) and a run scorer (his 146 in 1997 are the second most since 1949) and a power source (50 home runs the last two seasons).

"It's been a crazy career," Biggio said. "I wanted to save my knees, so I stopped catching. And then my back flared up when I was at second. And then I needed to learn to throw long, stop with the short-arm motion I grew up with, to play the outfield. And the whole time I've had to keep on hitting.

"I just hope it's meant to be with me. Three thousand. Wow. What a tremendous thing it would be."

Worthy of admiration and adulation. And a prune-juice toast.