COOPERSTOWN. N.Y. - When Craig Biggio made his first official tour of the Hall of Fame as a Hall of Famer in late January, he was in awe of the place. He was amazed as he perused the plaques of all the greats and pleased to know that he will be in the company of a good friend.
Biggio's plaque will be in the same big room as the one for Lawrence Peter Berra, who helped Biggio get here.
Yogi will not be at the induction ceremony Sunday for Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz (the largest Hall class in 60 years). He is in an assisted living facility in New Jersey, where Biggio visited him recently. But his impact accompanies the former Astros star and Long Island native wherever he goes.
Berra was a coach with the Astros when Biggio broke in and repeatedly advised and encouraged him, so much so that they became buddies.
"You've got to remember that Yogi was a Hall of Famer and Craig was a young kid," said Matt Galante, the former Yankees farmhand and Mets coach who also was an Astros coach during Biggio's formative years in the late '80s. "So naturally he would listen to a guy like that. They had a good relationship, both from Jersey."
He was referring to Biggio's career at Seton Hall University in South Orange, which is where he first met Berra. It was an eventful meeting. The Astros had just drafted the young catcher and asked Berra to cast his experienced gaze on him. Berra set up the meeting with Seton Hall coach Mike Sheppard, a longtime friend of Yogi's who has a sense of humor.
"I said, 'OK, just come over. We're in the gym today,' " Sheppard said on the phone from his New Jersey home this week. "I had a Houston jacket and I put it on my manager. He was a very good manager."
The team manager also was 5-7 and 280 pounds. Just for fun, Sheppard made sure the manager was doing the catching when Yogi arrived.
"Yogi saw him and he kept saying, 'You've got to be kidding me. Oh, well, we'll make a ballplayer out of him,' " Sheppard said. "But Yogi caught on. You couldn't pull the wool over his eyes."
In fact, at his news conference after his Hall election was made official, Biggio said of Berra, "He was the smartest baseball man I've ever been around, no doubt. I would be on the bench and he would come behind me and babble something. I'd kind of look at him. Then the next few innings, it would all happen."
Biggio was fortunate to have had numerous wise baseball men in his ear. Galante was the force behind Biggio's life-changing move from catcher to second base.
"He wasn't happy in the beginning. He had just made the All-Star team as a catcher. But we saw that he had quick feet and good hands. We didn't want to lose his speed," Galante said. "We explained it to him that way. He wasn't excited about it early, but little by little, he kind of liked it."
Sheppard recalled watching Biggio play high school football for Kings Park. The game was a blowout and Biggio was reduced to returning punts (one for a touchdown). Sheppard never will forget seeing the kid dig into the ground with his cleats out of frustration because he wasn't in the game. "I saw him run and I saw how much he wanted to play and I said, 'That's a kid I want,' " Sheppard said.
Galante and Sheppard will be here Sunday for the induction. And Yogi and Biggio will be here together forever.