Craig Biggio leads the sort of idealized life that one associates with black-and-white TV. He calls his father-in-law Dad. His wife, Patty, is attractive and vivacious, and she knows where everything is. (She studied nursing in college, but now she's a full-time mom.) Craig and Patty have two young boys, Conor, 3, and Cavan, 11 months, who bounce around happily in the morning and take long naps in the afternoon. Shelbee, the family mutt, is a good sleeper too, and she knows all the warm spots in the house. The house itself—in the charming, sea-battered town of Spring Lake, on the New Jersey shore—is a timeless, fixed-up beauty with an appropriate name, Home Plate, a view of the ocean and the comforting proximity of millionaires.
The Biggios are doing all right themselves: Over the winter, Craig, a sure-handed free-agent second baseman with light feet and a peppy bat, agreed to stay with the Houston Astros for at least another four years, for at least $20 million. He's 30, a man, but he looks boyish, like Kevin Bacon in Diner. In the off-season Biggio is home most nights for dinner; Patty's a good cook. For lunch, he heads into town. He pops over to Spring Lake Pizzeria, on Third Avenue, or to Joseph's Delicatessen, near the train station. At Joseph's the regulars still actually talk baseball, mostly New York Yankees baseball. "You gonna sit down or what?" Joseph asked one morning in January. Biggio was eyeing the salads and meats and cheeses. "Can't. Going out to the Island," Biggio answered. He grew up in Kings Park, N.Y., a middle-class commuter town on the north shore of Long Island, and he was about to go home again, to visit his youth. He ordered a tuna sandwich to go.
"He coulda been a Yankee," Joseph said, to nobody in particular.
"I don't know," said Biggio, who was a first-round amateur draft pick of the Astros in June 1987 and was in the majors to stay a year later. "I'm kinda happy in the National League." He grabbed his sandwich, waved goodbye, and he was off.
At Joseph's they know the Yankees figured prominently in Biggio's baseball development. While he was growing up, his idol was Thurman Munson, then the Yankees catcher. Biggio broke into the majors as a receiver, even went to the 1991 All-Star Game as a catcher. The next season he migrated to second and made himself, many baseball people think, the best defensive second baseman in the National League.
"Around here, it's always, 'When you gonna play for the Yankees?' " Biggio said, without a hint of complaint. He was now behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Suburban, big and white, with Texas plates. Biggio, a righty, handled the wheel with his glove hand as he released his sandwich from its wrapping with his throwing hand. "On the Island, you get, 'When you gonna sign with the Mets?' "
Coming off a 1995 season in which he batted .302, had career highs in home runs (22) and RBIs (77), and led the majors with 123 runs scored, Biggio was one of the winter's most sought-after free agents. Before re-signing with Houston he had a brief flirtation with the Yankees and a longer one with the Mets, plus serious talks with the Colorado Rockies, the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres. The Astros didn't offer him the most money, but Biggio signed with them anyway. Maybe some New Yorkers just don't want to play in New York?
Biggio shrugged. "New York's tough, no question," he said, steering north on the Garden State Parkway, heading for New York City. "The thing with me is that I want to finish what we started in Houston. I played on some rebuilding teams, tough years. In 1994 we were good—we were right there—but then came the strike. Last year a lot of our players got injured. I want to show we can win in Houston.
"That's from my father. He'd always say, 'Finish what you start.' In ninth grade I didn't want to play baseball. I was more into football. The baseball team was bad, and the season had started, and I wanted to quit. My father said, 'You finish what you start.' "
As he drove, Biggio fiddled with a radar detector overhead. Next to it, attached to the sun visor, was a dried strip of palm frond, knotted in the shape of a cross, a Palm Sunday gift from Biggio's father-in-law. Biggio is a devout Catholic, but he wasn't born to it. There are Catholics on the Biggio side, but both his parents were raised as Protestants and so was Craig. In college, at Seton Hall, a Catholic school in South Orange, N.J., Biggio—upset by his parents' emerging marital problems and feeling spiritually unfulfilled—converted to Catholicism. It was also at Seton Hall that Biggio met Patricia Egan, of the New Brunswick, N.J., Egans. The Egans, Biggio says, are very Catholic. He likes the sense of family that Catholicism promotes. "Spring Lake's a Catholic town," Biggio said. "Big families."