Plenty of Purple Heart
Rich Barry

Plenty of Purple Heart

He takes it. The gritty stoic wearing the dirty uniform and the tar-crusted batting helmet takes Kevin Brown's 92-mile-an-hour fastball on the left forearm and, without so much as glancing back at the mound, takes his base. A week later, a wayward Pedro Astacio heater hits him flush in the black number "7" on his back. He doesn't glare, doesn't even bother to wince, as he heads off to first. On a hot afternoon in August, fans in the third-base boxes hear a thud like a butcher's hammer whacking a slab of London broil and see that he's taken it again, this time in the ribs, courtesy of Hideo Nomo. A year or so later, they see an artist of sorts, a batter who crowds the plate and never flinches as a fastball from the Rockies' Jason Jennings nicks his fat black elbow pad. Poker-faced, he drops his bat and trots up the line to exchange pleasantries with Todd Helton.

A lunatic? Some career bench-warmer trying to prove his worth to more talented teammates? A masochist?

No, the ultimate big leaguer. Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio is a ballplayer of the Old School, driven to reach base at any cost, always willing to take one for the team, tough as a can of nails. "Yeah, it hurts," he says. "Get hit on the elbow, it hurts. Get hit on the helmet, it can scare you. But it's part of the game."

Last week, Biggio was struck by a pitch for the 266th time in his seventeen-year major league career, one short of the modern record set by a ballplayer Coloradans know well -- former Rockies manager Don Baylor. As the jokesters down in Houston like to say, Biggio's had more balls bounced off him than Elton John. Got as many stitch marks as Boris Karloff. Perennially grazed and bruised, knocked down and knocked cold, he is on pace to reach a milestone only a glutton for punishment could love -- or a ballplayer with fire in his belly and plenty of infield dirt under his nails. Despite the all-out way he plays, he's been hit in the head only four times, and he's never gone to the disabled list as the result of a plunk. His career has never faced ruin, like those of bean-ball victims Tony Conigliaro and Dickie Thon. He's never come close to what befell the helmetless Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman, who in 1920 was killed when a fastball struck him in the temple. But there have been plenty of mornings when it was hard to get out of bed.

"Nobody in his right mind goes to the plate trying to get hit," Biggio says. "You'd have to be crazy. But you don't give anything away, either. So it happens."

It's happened so often to Biggio that he's attracted a ton of fan and media attention in the last few weeks, pumped up interest in the otherwise mediocre Astros (34-40, 12 1/2 games behind the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals), and even inspired a blog, "Plunk Biggio," that tracks each of his at-bats with the diligence of a monk on the trail of a saint. When Houston hosted the Rockies last week for a three-game series, devotees of the morning box scores had plenty to talk about, Biggio-wise. On June 21, Colorado starter Jamey Wright plunked him in the seventh inning (number 264); Lance Berkman promptly doubled Biggio home with what turned out to the winning run in a 6-5 game. The next day, the Rockies' Jason Jennings hit Biggio's famous elbow pad twice (plunks 265 and 266) en route to a 6-2 Colorado loss. As of Tuesday, Biggio remained plunk-free for six days, but over the weekend, his wife was struck by a pitch in a charity softball game.

The Rox have long been adept at Biggio-beaning. They've hit the 39-year-old veteran more often than any other pitching staff ­ thirty times -- even though he's been playing in the National League five years longer than the Rockies have. Malicious intent? Probably not: more likely, the notorious ineptitude of Colorado pitching is to blame. For his part, Biggio was unaware last week that the Rockies hold the single-team record on him. After all, he's also batted about .400 against Colorado over the years.

As a matter of fact, Biggio is one of the best players in baseball and a possible Hall of Famer once his self-sacrificial, hard-sliding playing days are finally over. Baseball nut Bill James, widely known as the game's revolutionary sultan of statistics, calls him the best second baseman ever, and even proponents of Joe Morgan, Nellie Fox or Red Schoendienst have to acknowledge Biggio's prowess. He is the only player to be selected as an All Star as both a catcher (the position he played for four years) and a second baseman, and he is one of just five players with 2,500 hits, 300 stolen bases, 200 home runs and 1,000 walks. The others? Willie Mays, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds.

A five-time Gold Glover and seven-time All Star, he is one of just two twentieth-century players to hit fifty doubles and steal fifty bases in one season. Biggio did it in 1998; the Boston Red Sox legend Tris Speaker did it way back in 1912. This year's Houston club ranks dead last in the majors in runs scored, but in the previous three years Biggio has scored a whopping 298 runs all by himself.

Not bad for a 5-11, 185-pound guy who will turn forty this December.

For the moment, all the talk is about the hit-by-pitch record, a mark no one wants to hold -- certainly not Craig Biggio. But he does have an explanation for his peculiar prowess in the realm of cowhide striking human flesh. While many National League pitchers might accuse him of leaning out over the plate and stealing their share of the strike zone, Biggio attributes his high plunk rate to the high leg kick with which he starts his swing, a triggering device that can leave him off balance and slow to react when an inside pitch comes sailing toward him. "That's just the way it is," he says. "Over the years I've been very lucky, really."

And although he doesn't say much about it, also very willing to pay a price to reach first base. That's never easy, Biggio says, but in his view, some plunks are better than others. "If it has to happen," the battered connoisseur informs us, "you hope it's a 60-mile-an-hour curveball that whacks you right in the butt."

By the end of the weekend it was difficult to know who'd gotten the worst of it -- Annika or Danica. In any event, the two most compelling women in sports wound up with a nightmare apiece.

At the U.S. Women's Open out at Cherry Hills Country Club, Annika Sorenstam, perhaps the finest female golfer ever to tee up a Titleist, saw her dream of scoring the much-heralded "Soren-Slam" -- winning all the majors in one calendar year -- hook almost immediately into the deep rough. Under assault by a trio of emotional teeny-boppers, fifteen-year-old Michelle Wie, seventeen-year-old Morgan Pressel and nineteen-year-old Brittany Lang, Sorenstam never really contended. She finished in a tie for 23rd place, nine strokes behind the eventual winner, an unknown South Korean geezerette of 23 who recently changed her name to "Birdie" Kim to differentiate herself from six other Kims now competing on the LPGA tour.

Meanwhile, Danica Patrick, the 23-year-old who has been appointed to save Indy car racing from itself, was having troubles of her own. On Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, a horrible little three-quarter-mile oval that tests drivers' nerves in demonic ways, Patrick found herself belted into a dangerously ill-handling race car that she had qualified as 21st-fastest in a field of 22. Danica spent the evening sawing at the wheel, fighting understeer, and finished tenth only by evading the carnage in her path.

Clearly they will have better days, Annika and Danica will. But by Monday morning the two of them might well have been considering a nice quiet game of lawn darts.


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