By: Bob Elliott
They were an odd pair.
The gregarious, fun-loving reliever from Knob Noster, Mo., who grew up in Carson City, Nev. was 24 and in his fourth year with the Houston Astros.
The rookie catcher, 22, from Kings Park, N.Y. a first rounder from the Seton Hall University Pirates.
That year Charlie Kerfeld was recovering from surgeries on his right shoulder and right ankle.
Craig Biggio was promoted from triple-A Tucson to Houston in June of 1988.
“I had a two bed room apartment and told him he could bunk in with me,” said Kerfeld, “he became a star, I became an afterthought.”
Kerfeld of course is at his self-deprecating, entertaining best. Large Charles is one of the Philadelphia Phillies most trusted and valued evaluators. Biggio has invited him to be his guest in Cooperstown when the Astros lifer will be inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez.
Biggio had every reason to be a full of his own self needing only 141 games in the minors at class-A Asheville and Tucson.
“There wasn’t a lot of flash to him,” said Kerfeld. “He was a vanilla, blue collar player -- probably the best compliment you can pay a player nowadays.
“Guys come up, guys go down, he fit in right away. The kid liked to play.”
Biggio shared catching duties with Allan Ashby, 36, the former Blue Jays catcher and announcer. They caught the likes of future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, 41, former Cy Young award winner Mike Scott, 33, Bob Knepper, 34, closer Dave Smith, 33, Danny (Dr. Death) Darwin, 32, Juan Agosto, 30, Larry Andersen, 35, Joaquin Andujar, 35, Bob Forsch, 38, Ernie Camacho, 35, plus “youngsters” Jim Deshaies, 28 and Jeff Heathcock, 28.
Manager Hal Lanier, who now managed the Ottawa Champions, filled out his lineup card with position players like Buddy Bell, 36, Craig Reynolds, 35, Steve Henderson, 35, Denny Walling, 34, Harry Spilman, 33, Jim Pankovits, 32, Terry Puhl, 31, Bill Doran, 30, Rafael Ramirez, 30 and Alex Trevino, 30.
“We had” said Kerfeld, “some salty vets.”
Kerfeld had watched Ryan intimidate opposing hitters and he saw opposing pitchers try to do the same to this fresh-faced rookie, who wasn’t wearing arm or elbow armor he wore later in his career.
“Craig knew when guys were throwing at him, he had a real good baseball I.Q.,” Kerfeld said. “Pitchers threw up and in on him, back them guys would throw at your chest or head. He didn’t back down. He couldn’t be intimidated.”
Kerfeld said as a rookie Biggio “was very, very respectful. He’d only been in the minors for a while but he got IT right away. He was very mature.”
“He wasn’t a hot shot first rounder who thought he was ahead of everyone,” said Kerfeld. “Sometimes young kids come in and rub older guys the wrong way.”
Kerfeld says the Astros didn’t make the young ‘uns walk through the airport in strange-looking costumes.
“We didn’t dress them up in clown suits and embarrass them the last road trip or make them carry pink back bags to the bullpen like they do now ... now, they may have had to serve us food and beer on the planes.”
Biggio had one 200-hit season (210 in 1998) on his way to 3,060 hits in his 20-year career, but he had more hits than that. Five times he led the National League in hit by pitches and six seasons he was plunked more than 20 times with a high of 34 in 1997.
How many players made an all-star game at more than one position? When the game was played at the SkyDome in 1991, Biggio was a catcher behind San Diego Padres Benito Santiago. The next year in was in San Diego as a second baseman behind Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs.
“I moved him from behind the plate, thought it was better and could play more games at second,” said Biggio’s former manager Art Howe from Houston. “He wasn’t real thrilled. He wasn’t a big kid, I didn’t want him to wear down. I thought it would be beneficial to his career.”
Kerfeld said every day he’d roll into training camp at Kissimmee at 6:30 am he’d see coach Matt Galante hitting ground balls to Biggio. Said Kerfeld: “he must have hit Craig a million ground balls, Craig never begged off once.”
Howe had Biggio work with infielder Andujar Cedeno.
“I thought he was there with Ricky Henderson -- they both had the same kind of pop as lead-off hitters,” said Howe. “They could put you up 1-0 one batter into the game.”
Neither Howe nor Kerfeld saw a Cooperstown destination for Biggio when all were in Houston.
“I ain’t that smart to think he was a Hall of Famer,” said Kerfeld. “He was a good looking fresh face and very polished for as young age. He could really run when he came up.”
Biggio stole 414 bases including 50 in 1998, 47 in 1997 and 39 in 1994 when he led the NL.
“He was,” said Kerfeld, “and still is a good person.
Howe will be in Cooperstown.
And Kerfeld too unless the Phillies have him doing some last-minute deadline evaluation.