Early in spring training third base coach Gene Lamont was standing in the on-deck circle of a practice field, hitting grounders to Jeff Kent, Houston's new second baseman and a seven-time All-Star. The first ball hit the heel of Kent's glove and rolled away. The second skipped between his legs and into the outfield. The third, fourth and fifth were handled cleanly, but the next two eluded him, and then he botched another.
Standing along the first base line, a reporter turned to Craig Biggio, who had also been watching Kent, and said, "Your replacement looks terrible."
Biggio didn't take the bait. "Aw, Jeff will be fine," he said. "Anyhow, I've got my own thing to worry about."
Biggio's own thing is his relocation to centerfield, the second time in 11 years that the Astros asked him to change positions. At the start of the 1992 season, manager Art Howe moved Biggio from catcher to second base to limit the physical toll on his 5'11", 185-pound frame. The results? Four Gold Gloves at second base, knees and ankles that rarely creak and fingers as straight as pencils. "I took a lot of pride in being in the middle of the action as a catcher, so it was tough," Biggio says. "But looking back, it gave my career new life."
This time, however, the change is less about Biggio's well-being and more about Kent's. After putting together some of the biggest offensive years by a second baseman in history, Kent left the Giants to sign a two-year, $18.2 million free-agent contract in December, with the understanding that he would play second base in Houston. Did it matter to the Astros that Biggio is a significantly better defensive player? That Kent started his major league career as a third baseman, a position Houston still would like to upgrade? That Biggio might be insulted? No, no and no.
"When you're in my position, you have to ask yourself, What's more important—one player's feelings or the improvement of the organization?" says G.M. Gerry Hunsicker. "Craig is a big part of our family, but look what Jeff Kent brings to our lineup."
A former National League MVP who has knocked in 100 or more runs in six straight seasons, Kent adds more oomph to a club that last year ranked fifth in the league in homers (167) and RBIs (719). Manager Jimy Williams plans to bat him fifth, forming an awesome back-to-back-to-back power trio of Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Kent. Although he no longer has Barry Bonds to protect him in the order, the righthanded-hitting Kent should benefit from Minute Maid Park's cozy dimensions in left (315 feet down the line and 362 in the alley).
And Biggio? When he learned of Kent's signing, Biggio, the team's alltime leader in games played, was taken aback. Within days, though, he began to warm to the idea of manning a position once played by such immortals as DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays and Snider. Thinking about the long runs a centerfielder makes to track down balls in the gaps, Biggio began taking four- and five-mile runs near his Houston home to build up stamina. Even if Biggio is no better than an average centerfielder, Houston's outfield defense should be significantly improved by his presence. Last season the overmatched Berkman played center like a blindfolded bull, and leftfielder Daryle Ward, who was traded to the Dodgers in January, had no range and a poor arm. Now Berkman will return to his natural position in left, and strong-armed Richard Hidalgo will man right. "Center is the toughest spot to play in the outfield, but Craig is blessed with incredible athleticism," says reserve outfielder Brian Hunter. "He'll learn positioning and how to read the ball."
Regardless, Biggio expects to have more fun this year than he had in 2002. His personal nightmare began last May when Monsignor James Jamail, Biggio's close friend and family priest, died of cancer at 63. Last June, Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, another longtime pal and a former teammate, died of a heart attack in a Chicago hotel room. The grieving Biggio struggled on the field (he hit a career-low .253), and the question of whether, at 36, he was finished as a regular became a topic of speculation on sports talk-radio shows.
"People tend to think professional athletes are protected by steel plating," says Biggio. "We're not. Last year I had to deal with a lot of loss, and that got to me. But I've been able to move forward. I'm ready for the new challenge."