HOUSTON -- Craig Biggio doffed his cap and waved to the crowd from first base. He was nearly in tears, realizing the standing ovation may have been one of his last as an Astro.
"The way the crowd reacted was kind of overwhelming," Biggio said this week after becoming the first Astro to reach 2,600 hits. "I have been playing here for 17 years, and the fans have always been great to me. To be able to do it in this city, the only city I've played in, was wonderful."
At 38, Biggio is having the kind of season few could have expected from a player in the twilight of his career. He's been a pleasant surprise for a team that's had few of them -- Houston was 19 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central and trailed Chicago by six games in the wild-card race heading into last night.
Biggio leads the team with 141 hits, 35 doubles, and 77 runs. He's second with a .287 average and tied for second with 19 homers. Among leadoff hitters, Biggio ranks first in the majors in homers, second in doubles, and fourth in hits.
He's also strengthened his credentials for the Hall of Fame this season, passing Tony Gwynn for 19th place on the doubles list and becoming only the fifth player in league history with 2,400 hits, 200 homers, 500 doubles, 300 steals, and 1,000 career walks.
The others on that list? Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Paul Molitor, and Rickey Henderson.
"It takes a lot of talent and a lot of hard work and knowing how to play the game to reach those milestones," said new Houston teammate Roger Clemens, who knows a thing or two about milestones.
It still might not be enough for the Astros to keep Biggio around for an 18th year. The Astros hold a $3 million contract option on Biggio for 2005, but could pay a $1 million buyout instead.
Biggio leads the Astros in games, hits, run, at-bats, and doubles. He has made a club-record 16 straight Opening Day starts. He's also shown selflessness over the years, moving from catcher to second base to center field and left field for the sake of the team. "Craig is all about the way the game should be played," said first baseman Jeff Bagwell, his teammate the past 14 years. "He's dedicated. He's passionate."
Regardless, Biggio is no longer a dominant threat and struggles mightily on defense. He was having a difficult time at second base two years ago when he agreed to move to center field to accommodate the acquisition of All-Star Jeff Kent. Biggio had problems at center, too, and moved left to allow room for another All-Star, Carlos Beltran.
The Astros want next season to be a rebuilding one, seeking a younger, faster, and cheaper team. It's tough to see where Biggio fits in.
Astros owner Drayton McLane and general manager Gerry Hunsicker are weighing their options but acknowledge Biggio's future is a sensitive matter. "In a perfect world, everyone is happy," Hunsicker said. "No one has a greater impact on this franchise than Craig Biggio."
Biggio, meanwhile, has talked openly about finishing his career with 3,000 hits. It's no secret he'd like to do it in an Astros uniform.
"There's only so many guys who've had the opportunity to play for one club. It's a special group," Biggio said. "Me and my family are entrenched here. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."