Here in St. Louis—birthplace of the ballpark hot dog and brewer of the nation's beer—are two other timeless American verities: Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the longest-tenured teammates in major league baseball. They sit in the visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium, on the Mississippi River, another treasure that just keeps rollin' and don't say nothin'. "Growing up, even though I didn't like the Yankees, I knew their lineup inside and out," says Biggio, "because it never changed." Neither, for 13 seasons now, have two names in the Astros' lineup, where Bagwell and Biggio have so self-lessly excelled that, even in Houston, Bags is frequently mistaken for Beege, and Beege for Bags.
"People will say, 'Hey, Bags, how's it goin'?' " says Biggio, the 37-year-old centerfielder. "I tell 'em, 'No, I'm the good-looking one.' "
"I'm always like, 'Naw, man, I'm the taller one,' " says Bagwell, the 35-year-old first baseman who at 6 feet has an inch on his teammate. " 'I'm the one who can grow facial hair.' "
Only two active teammates in all of major league sports have played together longer than these Astros, and that pair—Brian Leetch and Mike Richter of the New York Rangers—have appeared in half as many games as Bagwell & Biggio, who are not-so-fast becoming a latter-day Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, teammates on the Tigers for 19 seasons. Now, nothing comes between the Houston pair but an ampersand. "It's been like a marriage more than anything else," says Bagwell when asked for the secrets of successful teammatery. "You go through the same emotions."
Indeed, last June, while protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs, Bagwell—with the bases loaded and one out—found himself chasing a high fly ball into foul territory beyond first base. He was nine months removed from surgery on his throwing shoulder. "It was killing him," says Biggio, who was playing second base that night. "He couldn't throw the ball as far as my 10-year-old."
Which is how it happened that Bagwell, after fielding the foul, saw an extraordinary sight: his second baseman standing three yards away, calling for the baseball, which Bagwell duly flipped to Biggio, who in turn held the runner at third. "He knew exactly what my ability was," Bagwell says now, a year later, "and he made the effort to get over there." It was an intimate act, voyeuristic to watch, and so unexpectedly moving that both players received punishing fines from their teammates. "It did cost us a lot of money in kangaroo court," says Biggio. "It's not often you see a 3-4-5 relay to third."
Bagwell & Biggio met in 1991, at the AstroFest fan festival in the Astrodome. Biggio already had spent three seasons with Houston; New Englander Bagwell had arrived from the Boston system in a notorious trade for journeyman righthander Larry Andersen. "I remember [ Biggio] was trying to grow a mustache and wasn't very good at it," says Bagwell.
"He came in as a third baseman," Biggio says of Bagwell. "That was [ Ken Caminiti's] position." And so in spring training of '91 an oracular Astros instructor suggested Bagwell try first base instead. "It was Yogi Berra's idea," says Biggio. "They gave him two weeks to learn the position."
Twelve years later Bagwell is still there, while Biggio has gone from catcher to second to centerfield, working his way through the center of the diamond like a splinter surfacing to the skin. In baseball, only six individual players have been with one team as long as Bagwell & Biggio have been together on the Astros: John Franco ( Mets), Barry Larkin ( Reds), Edgar Martinez ( Mariners), John Smoltz ( Braves), Frank Thomas (White Sox) and Bernie Williams ( Yankees).
Few phenomena in sports are more dispiriting than the civic institution—Unitas, Montana, Jordan—who ends his career out of town. Next fall, in Arizona of all places, Emmitt Smith will wear Cardinals crimson, as if his entire uniform is blushing. But even stars who want to stay with one team for eternity are seldom invited to do so. "I mean, Mark Grace going to the Diamondbacks?" asks Biggio. "I'll always think of Gracie as a Cub."