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Hall of Famer Craig Biggio leaves indelible mark on LI

Former Houston Astros player Craig Biggio, right, walks

Former Houston Astros player Craig Biggio, right, walks to the dugout during the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds. (March 20, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

Chuck Alben's 10-year-old legs pumped toward the finish line as he tried to ignore the searing pain in his eye. He'd been stung by a bee while running a race in memory of his brother, and though part of him wanted to stop, he couldn't help but see 21-year-old Craig Biggio running alongside him.

This wasn't anything new. Biggio basically had been alongside Alben since the day Alben's big brother Christopher died of leukemia. Biggio used to deliver their newspaper, Alben said, and the two families were friendly, but when Biggio found out Chris was sick, he began stopping by more often.

Chris, 8, died a day after Chuck's sixth birthday. Biggio never did stop coming over.

"I finished the race because I was running with Craig,'' said Alben, now 38 and a pitching coach and general manager of the B45 Nation traveling baseball teams out of East Setauket. "God forbid I couldn't finish the race. I wasn't going to quit.''

Later that afternoon in 1987, Biggio, born in Smithtown and educated at Kings Park High School, boarded a plane to North Carolina to join the Houston Astros' Class A Asheville Tourists, starting his professional baseball career.

A little more than a year later, he embarked on his 20-year saga with the Astros, amassing 3,060 hits on his way to becoming one of the most respected professional athletes of any era.

In 2007, he earned the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and community service thanks to the work he did helping kids with cancer -- a calling that started with Chris Alben.

On Tuesday, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility, joining Bridgehampton's Carl Yastrzemski as the only Long Islanders to earn the honor.

Though Biggio has spent nearly three decades in Texas, friends and former coaches from Kings Park and beyond said he still is very much a son of Long Island -- an athlete who never forgot where he came from and always gave back, even though he almost never put his name to it.

"He's more of a Hall of Famer for his character than he is for his statistics," said John Bogenshutz, his junior varsity baseball coach and assistant football coach at Kings Park. "I know what he's done and I know personally that he doesn't want anyone to know what he's done.''

 

Teacher remembers

When Kevin Johnston visits Cooperstown this summer to watch Biggio get inducted, it will be his last unofficial act as a Kings Park High School teacher.

A 35-year veteran of the English department, he's the type of teacher who remembers where all his former students sat and has pictures of them around his classroom. His juniors, he said smiling, voted for him not to retire.

Room 109, far left row, fifth chair from the front, Johnston said. That's where Biggio sat in the first class Johnston ever taught at Kings Park. "He energized the classroom," he said.

He energized the gridiron, too.

Johnston, now 57, was the JV coach and Biggio was on his first Kings Park team.

Biggio also was one of the first ninth-graders ever moved up to the JV in school history, Johnston said. Back then, ninth-grader Biggio attended William T. Rogers Middle School. John- ston said he had to ride his bike and hop a fence to get to practice at the high school on time. "The varsity football coach [Robert] Doc Holliday said to me . . . enjoy Biggio, because you usually only ever get one athlete like this in your lifetime," Johnston said. "I was a young coach thinking I would get someone else. I've had very, very fine athletes. I've never had another Craig Biggio."

Biggio was adaptable. At the start of his senior year in 1983, he moved from quarterback to tailback and won the Hansen Award, given to the best football player in Suffolk County. He was known for his speed and his work ethic. He was one of the most popular athletes at Kings Park, but that never got in the way of who he was.

"He was an intense competitor and a very good teammate," said Joe Pirreca of Mount Sinai, who played football and baseball with Biggio. "His speed set him apart. He had a great arm, too, but you knew that once he got on the basepaths, it was over."

Kings Park was a blue-collar town at the time, Pirreca said, and parents weren't as much a part of their kids' athletics as they are now, "but we'd go down to the park to play hockey or touch football or something, and he'd be there with his dad in the batter's box or running the field.

"He was definitely one of those kids that you kind of knew he had something extra," Pirreca said.

But for all that, Johnston said, the thing that seemed to really set Biggio apart was his attitude. He never forgot the people back home -- Johnston went to Biggio's 30th birthday party ("one of the highlights of my lifetime . . . Yogi Berra walks through the door") and his wedding -- and there were times that boxes of equipment would show up at the high school. There wasn't always a name attached to it, but a good bet was that Biggio was responsible.

"He was behind the scenes," current Kings Park athletic director Bill Denniston said. "He stayed in touch and he donated some equipment to athletic programs and a scoreboard for the baseball field. There were jerseys for baseball and football teams and he definitely did other stuff that wasn't for people to know.''

There is, after all, a reason the Kings Park baseball field is named after him.

 

Memorabilia to savor

Chuck Alben has a white binder that he started when he was a kid. The cover is filled with his 11-year-old scrawl, and the inside is filled with Craig Biggio's cramped handwriting.

There are letters and postcards written to Alben from throughout Biggio's minor- and major-league careers. Most of them exhort the same thing: Give 110 percent, never give up, listen to your elders, be willing to learn.

The binder has newspaper clippings featuring Biggio, a throwback of a picture in which he's tagging out a shockingly svelte Barry Bonds, and a postcard from his time in the Cape Cod League.

Alben also has a picture of him and Biggio. It was taken in 1983, about a year after Chris died. Both he and Biggio are in suits, and Alben is holding the Hansen Award.

See, when Biggio went up to get his award, he dedicated it to the memory of Alben's brother. He also said he wanted to do everything he could to help kids with cancer.

Decades later, Biggio and his wife, Patty, have helped raise more than a million dollars through The Sunshine Kids, a non-profit dedicated to kids with cancer, a representative from the charity said.

"My brother's passing was a tragedy, but he was here for a reason," Alben said. "Ultimately, what he did for Craig and what Craig ended up doing for all the kids with cancer in Houston, to me, that's the ultimate legacy. There's not a doubt in my mind that my brother had a huge influence on his life, and that's pretty cool."

Alben's life was also deeply touched by Biggio's influence. As a kid, he got to accompany Biggio to Seton Hall for two days, where Biggio played, and share a dorm with the likes of Mo Vaughn, John Valentin and Ralph Soto. He was the Astros' batboy when they played at Shea Stadium.

Eventually, Alben, a left-handed pitcher, got a full ride to St. John's and ended up pitching for Team USA in the 1995 Pan-American Games. Biggio texted him on Tuesday when he got selected to the Hall of Fame, Alben said. "I don't know what I would've done without him,'' Alben said. "He had that spirit about him. He was somebody you could tell genuinely cared . . . He knew how difficult was going to be on me."

When he coaches, Alben tells all his kids about what it means to play like Biggio. "There's not one kid who isn't sick of hearing about it," he said, "and there's a piece of Craig Biggio in every kid I've ever coached."

As he turned the pages of his scrapbook, he noted how rare it is these days to hear that a player took less money to stay with a team -- as Biggio did with the Astros.

Alben settled on a letter from when Biggio was in the minors. It's a full written page, protected in its plastic sleeve. Alben read it aloud.

"I'm not going to lie, I'm 3-for-25," it said. "I'm struggling, but I'm not going to quit. Quitting is an easy way out. I take extra batting practice every day. I wanted to tell you this because not everything is going to go your way all the time. You're going to go through some highs and lows in life. It's never going to be as easy as it appears, but never quit, because that's a coward's way out and nobody likes a coward.''

Two letters later, Biggio is in the major leagues. He recalled the day Chuck would not give up, bee sting and all.

"You didn't quit," it read. "Your brother is so proud of you."

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