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Biggio Gears Up To Begin Chase For 3,000

Craig Biggio's first love was football. He was a star running back in high school and only turned to baseball after slacking off in the classroom cost him a chance to earn a Division I football scholarship.

Back then, he never dreamed of becoming one of baseball's all-time greats. He just wanted to avoid injuries, last 10 years and earn a pension.

"You don't set personal goals," Biggio said. "You want to survive."

Two decades later, the 41-year-old Biggio is on the verge of joining one of baseball's elite clubs and securing his place in Cooperstown.

He'll start his 20th season with the Houston Astros just 70 hits shy of becoming the 27th player to reach 3,000.

"It's not even the numbers anymore," Biggio said Friday. "It's the clientele you're having your name associated with in certain categories. That is overwhelming."

Biggio is already in the company of Hall of Famers on several other career lists:

_He hit his 625th double June 4, passing Hank Aaron to move into ninth place.

_His next hit will move him past Rogers Hornsby and Jake Beckley into 30th.

_His 2,709 games played ranks 25th, 21 behind Mel Ott.

_His 10,359 at-bats ranks 16th, 68 behind Honus Wagner.

"I think when you're done, you'll look back and say, 'I did some things well,'" Biggio said. "'You were a good role model for the team, a good role model for kids and you played the game the way it was supposed to be played.'"

A seven-time All-Star, Biggio played catcher in his first four seasons after he was drafted by the Astros out of Seton Hall.

He made his first All-Star game in 1991, but the Astros moved him to second base in 1992, a position he had never played. But he made the All-Star team again, ranking in the NL's top 10 in runs, walks and stolen bases.

The Astros acquired Jeff Kent in 2002 and Biggio moved to the outfield. When Kent signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004, Biggio was back at second.

Through the position changes, Biggio's numbers were always good, sometimes great. He batted .318 in 1994, .325 in 1998, .292 in 2001, and .281 in 2004.

But Biggio's production at the plate has tapered off recently, especially late in seasons and away from Minute Maid Park. He batted .178 on the road in 2006 and .193 overall the last two months.

Manager Phil Garner still has Biggio penciled in as his leadoff man for 2007, and still believes Biggio has some big hits left in him. He'll make his 19th consecutive opening day start, extending his franchise record, but should get plenty of relief from his new backup, free agent Mark Loretta.

"You don't just fall into 3,000 hits," Garner said. "He's a talented hitter. You can make him look bad in his first couple of at-bats, but he could still burn you in that ninth inning, when it counts."

And Garner still sees the same enthusiasm Biggio had when Garner became the Astros' first-base coach in 1989.

"He does everything the same way, plays hard, plays to win, has a great deal of respect for the game," Garner said.

The respect, Biggio said, came from keeping his ears open and his mouth shut as he picked up advice from veterans in the Houston clubhouse.

"They were always like, 'You're not bigger than the game, don't ever think you're bigger than the game,'" Biggio said. "That sticks in my mind today. You just respect the game, be humble.

"When things are good, walk away and let the younger kids take the credit for it. When things are bad, stand in front of your locker and take the heat for your team."

Garner has cut down Biggio's road starts in the past three seasons, a pattern that will increase the chance that he'll get his 3,000th hit in Houston.

Biggio wouldn't want it any other way.

He considered leaving Houston only once, when he became a free agent in 1995 and had an offer from Colorado. Owner Drayton McLane said he called Biggio everday for three weeks to persuade him to stay with the Astros.

"He's done everything we've ever asked him to do and much more," McLane said. "He's identified totally with Houston. He's an important part of this team and the Houston Astros history."

Biggio never considered leaving again, rare in the era of inflating contracts and free agency. His contract expires after this season, and he plans to decide then if he wants to keep playing.

Whether this is his last season or not, don't expect him to waste any thoughts on those missed opportunities in football.

"I think things happen for a reason," he said. "I'm very grateful that it's worked out for me."