David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
HOUSTON - Craig Biggio was a middle infielder, played for 20 seasons and retired at the age of 41. So when the Kings Park High legend and Astros' icon sought out Derek Jeter at the start of this last visit to Minute Maid Park, Biggio had a few words of wisdom to pass along about finally calling it a career.
"It's hard," Biggio said, "but I told him to make sure he enjoys it. You understand it more as times goes on. You'll be sitting in the dugout, and people will be cheering for you because of the way you played the game.
"And at the end of the day, that's all that matters. The respect of your teammates and the fact that the fans respect you. That's the ultimate compliment."
Unlike Jeter, who announced his retirement in February, Biggio revealed his intentions midway through the 2007 season, on July 24. Later that night, Biggio smacked a grand slam in the Astros' victory over the Dodgers.
Biggio said it was important that he mapped out a plan to budget sufficient time off, and as long as that was followed, he was able to play 141 games that season.
"Our team wasn't winning," Biggio said. "But he's going to be on a contending team -- I mean, that's what everybody's hoping for, right? As an older player, you get smarter. You know what you can and what you can't do. And he'll know that. His body will tell him."
Jeter and Joe Girardi insist they have not settled on a number of games for the shortstop, but Biggio believes they must have had the conversation. Working around afternoon games and off days turned out to be critical for Biggio, who still was uneasy taking a breather because it meant someone would be disappointed missing him. And Biggio had to deal with that pressure for only half a season.
"What he's going to find, which is very overwhelming, is the appreciation that the fans have for him," Biggio said. "He's been an unbelievable player for the Yankees, and an unbelievable ambassador for the game of baseball. So now you have that obligation of trying to play."
Biggio also emphasized the importance of going out on his own terms. Jeter always was pegged as a player who would stay until the uniform was ripped off his back. Instead, he surprised everyone with a Facebook post.
When Biggio looks back, he figures he could have played for another two years, and maybe got to 3,300 hits (Biggio finished with 3,060). But in his mind, with his son a freshman in high school, it was time to stop. Jeter stated that his desire to start a family factored into this decision, and Biggio can understand the urge to move on. Even if Jeter has a great year.
"It doesn't matter," Biggio said. "He's done everything you can do on a baseball field. The Yankee Way, the Jeter Way -- that's what's going to be said."
While Jeter is destined to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2020, Biggio fell short in his first two tries -- and by only two votes this past January. He said he was most disappointed for his family, the fans and the Astros, who don't have a player in Cooperstown. "I didn't play the game to get into the Hall of Fame," Biggio said. "But we're pretty darn close."
Cooperstown or not, Biggio is proud of his imprint on the game, and the one that Jeter will leave behind as well.
"So did George Brett, so did Robin Yount, so did Paul Molitor," Biggio said. "When I talk about the legacy of the game, the mark that he's made and the impact that he has -- kids watch Derek Jeter play the game. They want to be just like him. To play the game the right way."
But only for a little while longer.
"I just feel sorry for the poor guy that has to replace him," Biggio said. "Who is he and what he stands for, they're not out there. They're difficult to find."