Friday, June 29, 2007

Congrats To Big Hurt And Craig Biggio...

Thunder And Rain

By Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports
June 28, 2007

Both wrote their names into the record book with a Montblanc. Everyone had expected Craig Biggio and Frank Thomas to make their insignias with a dry Bic, simply trying to spit out whatever ink remained, and here, on the same day, they played calligraphers.

Milestone Thursday gave us everything. Biggio joined the 3,000-hit club in grander fashion than any of his 26 predecessors, pumping out five hits and crossing the plate on Carlos Lee's game-winning, extra-inning grand slam. Thomas joined the 500-home run club with a signature blast, his 270-pound body frozen just until he had to lunge, at which point his 39-year-old wrists generated enough bat speed to will the ball over the left-field fence – all before he got kicked out of the game for flapping his lips, a specialty of his.

For one day, they allowed us to remember what once was and reminded us what still, on just the right occasion, can be.

Biggio, the Houston Astro for life, the catcher-turned-second baseman-turned-outfielder-turned-second baseman, the scrapper, the hustler, the fresh face gone crow-eyed, the guy who only once before had a five-hit game, and that was on Opening Day 2001 following knee surgery. He looked Thursday like he had in his first season for the Astros 20 years ago, rounding first base on his third hit of the night, No. 3,000, and digging for the 659th double of his career. Age caught up with him momentarily and so did the throw – He was out. Later, though, he beat out an infield single with his 41-year-old legs with two outs in the 11th to keep the game alive.

And Thomas, the newly christened Toronto Blue Jay, the born designated hitter, the island of a man, the lumberer – bat and gait – left for the glue factory by the team he carried for so many years, the Chicago White Sox, only to revive his career last year in Oakland and, perhaps for the last time, live up to the game's most appropriate nickname, The Big Hurt. He looked Thursday like he had in his first season for the White Sox 18 years ago, taking borderline pitches, smacking bad ones, the paragon of patience and a worthy member of the 21-player crew with 500 home runs, unlike some recent enshrinees.

In the coming weeks, when New York Mets left-hander Tom Glavine earns his 300th win and joins baseball's third elite club, baseball's great contribution to water coolers and barstools everywhere – the unwinnable argument – will force us to compare the three. Which is the most elite? Which has been bastardized most by steroids? Which takes skill as opposed to longevity? Which merits automatic entry into the Hall of Fame?

Those taking up for 3,000 hits will point to longevity as a virtue. Even though the 3,000-hit club is the biggest, it is also the most select, their argument goes, filled with truly great hitters as opposed to one-dimensional sluggers. Look at the next in line: If Barry Bonds returns next year, he should crack 3,000. After that, Ken Griffey Jr. and Gary Sheffield have outside shots, only age and creaky limbs standing in the way – as it may, too, with Pudge Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones and Johnny Damon. The only shoo-ins, barring injury, are New York Yankees teammates Derek Jeter, with 2,255, and Alex Rodriguez, with 2,160. After that, the land is barren. The 20-somethings with the most hits: Adrian Beltre and Juan Pierre, at 1,333.

To hit 500 home runs, on the other hand, takes plenty more than showing up every day and slapping a single or two. The home run is baseball's greatest individual contribution – Lee's grand slam, everyone will agree, was the perfect capper on Biggio's night – and while a pitcher can earn a win giving up seven runs in a terrible performance, no batter, no matter how skilled, can put a pathetic swing on a ball and hit a home run. Anyway, the argument goes, pitchers complaining about how hard it is to win 300 games in the era of five-man rotations should suck it up and learn to pitch on three days' rest.

Oh, does that singe the eyebrows of those sticking up for the pitchers. First off, since Mike Schmidt became the 14th member of the 500-homer club in 1987, seven others have joined. A-Rod will make eight within a month or so, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez could be Nos. 9 and 10 this year and Sheffield hit his 473rd on Thursday. Then there's Carlos Delgado at 418, Andruw Jones at 354, Vladimir Guerrero two behind him and … well, you get the point. Five hundred is no longer a milestone. After Glavine becomes the 23rd to win 300, the only pitcher with a legitimate shot is Randy Johnson, who's 16 shy. The next best bet, aside from 38-year-old Mike Mussina (242), might be Barry Zito. He has 108 wins.

Around and around the squabble will go, like the old Rotor ride at the amusement park. And, accordingly, once the floor drops out, the participants will lose their cool and see the discussion dissolve into something else, like whether the six-fingered Antonio Alfonseca would hold a split-fingered fastball between his middle and ring fingers instead of the index and middle.

Inanities have their place amid the kind of chatter that makes baseball fans proud to be baseball fans, the kind of talk that allows everyone to appreciate Biggio and Thomas, past and present.

Biggio, his batting helmet so covered with pine tar it looked like it got dipped in an oil barrel, was one of the better players of his generation but never the best. For the rest of 2007, he'll spend time on the bench, and then he'll likely retire.

Thomas, playing for a Blue Jays team with a double-digit deficit to Boston in the American League East race and yet passionate enough to get booted in the ninth inning for arguing balls and strikes, was one of the best players of his generation but never healthy enough to cement that reputation. As much as Thomas wants to recapture that, he knows the end beckons once his two-year contract expires.

So for one day, they froze time. Craig Biggio and Frank Thomas, once more, at their finest.

No argument necessary.

Jeff Passan is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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