Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on KHOU.com on January 10, 2015.
Craig Biggio still remembers the game—and the pain.
It was Sept. 25, 1997, when the Houston Astros were facing the Chicago Cubs in the Astrodome. Biggio was in a 0-2 count against pitcher Germi Gonzalez, who fired an up-and-in 98 mph fastball into Biggio’s left cheekbone.
For a player who spent 20 years in Major League Baseball, there are some moments, no matter how many years after the fact, that are never forgotten—like the pain of a hit by pitch, or when 1,500 fans gather to celebrate your induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Biggio, who spent a few moments on the ground after he was hit that game, later returned, and for one main reason he cited Friday afternoon: the fans.
“It’s about you guys,” Biggio said to an ecstatic crowd who gathered for his Hall of Fame celebration Friday at Minute Maid Park. “I love you guys.”
Biggio spent every game of his 20-year career in Houston and quickly became a fan favorite from his early days as a catcher catching 100 mph fastballs from Nolan Ryan, to the Astros’ magical runs in the 1990s and early 2000s, to the end of his career when he willingly changed positions for the betterment of the team.
Hall of Fame! Craig Biggio first Astro elected to Hall of Fame
So when he was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame Jan. 6, 1,500 fans fought the cold Friday and packed Minute Maid Park to celebrate one of their favorite Astros.
“You want somebody that’s a professional, that tried to win every single day, that worked hard, that ran out the balls, that was a good family man, somebody that was instrumental in the community and loyal to an organization,” Astros President Reid Ryan said Friday. “And that’s what we had in Craig Biggio. He’s the model of every player we’re trying to have that comes through this system.”
Biggio’s the kind of player that left an impression on Jay Justilian, who’s been an Astros fan for more than 40 years.
Justilian remembers the days when Biggio first entered the league in the late 1980s. Those days he would watch Biggio catch Nolan Ryan from behind home plate, whose 100 mph fastballs would send a loud, echoing pop throughout the Astrodome.
It’s a memory that Jason Shepherd remembers vividly, too, and one he says solidifies Biggio as one of baseball’s best.
“Being Nolan’s personal catcher and being a rookie and having someone of Nolan’s stature saying, ‘Hey, I want him to be my personal catcher,’ speaks volumes to the way he approached the game,” Shepherd said.
Justilian remembers a time he met Biggio at a golf tournament for Biggio’s charity, The Sunshine Kids, a night after Biggio took a foul ball off his leg while standing at third base. The next morning, Justilian walked up to Biggio and said, You got hit really hard last night, he recalled.
“He hikes up his shorts and shows me this strawberry on his leg and goes, ‘You think?'” Justilian said with a laugh. “He’s just a great guy. Real approachable and one of the nicest guys in the world.”
To a guy like Biggio—a Yankee turned Texan—he was just doing what he loved most.
And he did it exceptionally well.
In his career, Biggio had 3,060 hits—one of 28 players in the 3,000-hit club—had a .281 batting average, scored 1,844 runs and drove in 1,753 others.
He was named a seven-time All-Star, won five Silver Slugger Awards and four Gold Glove Awards, and he finished in the top 16 of the MVP voting five times.
Biggio helped lead the Astros to the 2005 World Series and six playoff appearances in his 20 seasons.
The highlight of his career—that most Astros fans cite, at least—came June 29, 2007, his final season before retirement, when he joined the 3,000-hit club after he singled off Aaron Cook of the Rockies in the bottom of the seventh that sent Minute Maid Park into a frenzy.
“The loudest I’ve ever heard this stadium,” said Andrew Wyble, who’s been an Astros fan for as long as he can remember.
“The best memory I have in baseball,” said 22-year fan Karl Almquist.
It was a moment so significant, Justilian said there was no way he was going to miss the big hit.
“I bought a 22-game package, my buddy bought a 22-game package, so we all set our days. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Justilian said, who added he’ll likely follow Biggio to Cooperstown for his big ceremony July 26.
For Biggio, it’s not one memory, but a collection of memories that come with 20 years as a Major League Baseball player—the 30,000-plus fans rocking the stadium during the 2005 World Series, who were so loud that the Chicago White Sox petitioned—successfully—to open the roof to help lower the noise; in 1998 playing alongside Randy Johnson; the incredible runs in the early 2000s with the Killer Bs of Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman.
And the memory of taking a 98 mph fastball to the face.
But what’s a little pain for the glory that comes with being enshrined with the all-time greats in Cooperstown.