With the All-Star Game taking place tonight, baseball is on my mind. David Coleman took care of the All-Star notables in yesterday's column, so today I thought I would focus more on the Astros organization in general.
To start, let's define the meaning of this list before everyone gets confused and riots in the comments section.
This is not a "best" Astros list. I find it difficult to match pitchers up against hitters when comparing statistics. On top of that, there has been a universe full of productive Astros since their inception in 1962. Choosing five from a gigantic list would not be fun to attempt. Neither was this list, actually, but I think that the choices below were much easier to come across than a "best" list would be.
What exactly are we discussing here? Iconic Astros. Players that not only performed at the highest level but also represented the Astros' organization like none other. This does not rate productivity nearly as much as it rates... Astro-ness. Astro-ism. Astrology. Whatever. I think you get it.
In simpler terms, who comes to mind when you first think about the Astros' organization? Roger Clemens may have been a fantastic pitcher during his days in Houston, but he spent minimal time here compared to his many years in Boston and in New York. Same goes for Andy Pettitte and Nolan Ryan and so on. And for the record (this applies to many omissions), I'm not discounting Ryan's tremendous contributions to the franchise. Rather, there were those who did it for their entire careers as Astros.
Those who returned to the Astros after their playing days received a huge boost in my book. Coaches will look to find a job anywhere sometimes. The fact that many former players chose to coach in Houston is something to be quite proud of.
Sadly, there were a handful of franchise icons that did not make this list. They include Ryan, Cesar Cedeño, Mike Scott, Joe Niekro, Roy Oswalt, Jimmy Wynn and J.R. Richard. The latter two are the toughest exclusions. Wynn was perhaps a top-five player in club history and Richard may have possessed the most raw talent of any pitcher that the team ever sent to the mound. I also hate to add flame to the Richard fire, as the Astros inexplicably have yet to retire his number. Shameful.
And we're off...
No 5. Lance Berkman
Lance Berkman is the only active player on this list, and that's not to say that he hasn't earned his spot. Wynn and Richard supporters certainly have good arguments for the fifth slot, sure. To counter, Berkman has not only produced like few other Astros ever have, but he was also the team's best offensive player for some of the best seasons in franchise history, including the club's lone pennant and World Series appearance in 2005.
Berkman was drafted an Astro out of Rice University back in 1997. Area baseball fans had already fallen into favor with Lance during his college years and were ecstatic to see him become a member of the professional organization. Throughout his eleven seasons as a Houston Astro, Berkman has hit over 300 home runs and has a career batting average of .297. He has been around for many of the 'Stros most successful seasons and, in that time, he has been a fantastic teammate and a wonderful representative of the organization as a whole.
If there is one player that this generation of Astros fans knows and loves the most, it's Lance Berkman.
No 4. Jose Cruz
Some know Jose Cruz as a fledging young outfielder who came to the Astros from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1975 and put on a show at bat and in the field. Others know him as a classy, savvy veteran who had an uncanny knack for finding a way to put the ball in play and get on base. And many younger fans simply know him as the guy coaching first base before he was fired by the organization in 2009, one of the more idiotic moves of Tal Smith's career.
Cruz, who Joe Morgan once called "one of the best and most underrated players I have ever seen," was a fan-favorite and a tremendous all-around player. He did all of his work on the field, known more so for his flair in the outfield and on the base paths than in the newspapers. Cruz played for the 'Stros until 1985 and held many team records, including games played, hits, RBI's and total bases. His number was retired by the Astros in 1992.
Between his retirement and up until his recent firing, Cruz had (and likely still does) maintained a healthy relationship with the club. He remained the first base coach through a total of four coaches and was perhaps the most recognizable on-field coach in the majors. Whenever they can, Astros fans still love to chant, "Cruuuuuz!" He's as beloved an individual as any Astro has been and will ever be.
No 3. Jeff Bagwell
Jeff Bagwell might be the best power hitter that the Astros will ever have. His early years with the team were incredibly productive (especially his monstrous 1994 season) and his low crouching batting stance is as unique and remembered as any in the league. He and Craig Biggio were the two staples of the infamous "Killer B's" and gave the Astros a relatively popular following outside of Texas.
"Bags" was such a consistent producer from the plate that when he hit a normally respectable 27 home runs in his second to last season in Houston, many complained that he had lost his touch and was no longer worth his spot in the lineup. Still, as always, Houstonians supported Bagwell up until his retirement in 2005. His number has since been retired by the team. Just recently, Bagwell was hired by the 'Stros to become their new hitting coach. Don't know about you, but I'm excited to see No. 5 suit up again in the dugout. He was my second favorite player growing up and would have been atop my list had a certain player atop this list never taken the Astroturf.
No 2. Larry Dierker
You don't get any more Astro-ey than Larry Dierker. He's absolutely qualified to be the leader among these other four upstanding individuals. But I never got to see Dierker play and I grew up watching Biggio nearly every night. As objective as I've tried to be throughout this process, Dierker unfairly places in second, because I say so. As a bit of a consolation, I've included a picture of Dierker on the side panel of the SB Nation Houston front page. OK, moving on.
Dierker was a fantastic pitcher for the Astros and began playing for the club as early as age 18, the last player to ever play at such an early age. He posted a career ERA of 3.31 and saw his record plagued by poor run support. He posted a mind-boggling 20 complete games in 1969 in his only 20-win season for the 'Stros. Dierker's .531 winning percentage as a pitcher far underrepresented his talent and overall performance on the mound.
After his playing days ended, Dierker stuck around in the radio booth until he was hired to coach the team in 1997. Under his direction, the Astros won the Central Division four times. A 102-60 record in 1998 earned Dierker his first and only National League Manager of the Year award. Unfortunately, Dierker's poor playoff showing led to his firing in 2001, as he failed to take the Astros out of the first round four times and finished his coaching career with a postseason record of 2-12.
Dierker continues to be a part of the club off the field. He is currently a community outreach executive for the team and has been a steadfast supporter of the organization for over 50 years. Non-fans may point to Bagwell or Biggio as the true representatives of the Astros, but Houstonians know who has made the greatest all-around impact on the team for the longest period of time: Larry Dierker.
No 1. Craig Biggio
Homer picks don't get any better than Craig Biggio. I'm not even going to consult the stat sheet on this one. I'll just tell you what I got used to seeing consistently from one of the best players to take the field.
Biggio could hit, get hit, get on base, play any position and stay classy and confident while doing so. He's the ultimate utility player, though when you think "utility" you think about the whole "jack of all trades but master of none" argument. That doesn't apply to Biggio, because he mastered everything.
On the field, he was a perennial All-Star and a nightmare for opposing pitchers. He was a doubles machine and is one of the more underrated power hitters of his time. To top off his numerous achievements, he became a member of the 3,000 hit club in 2007. He retired as an Astro later that season, after spending a franchise record 20 seasons in Houston, which might be his most impressive and respected achievement of all. Also, he was tough as lions. Yes. Lions.
Off the field, Biggio was the nicest, most down-to-earth athlete I've ever met. He supported the community as generously as he could. Take a look at his Wikipedia page. Three whole paragraphs that make up an entire section dedicated to Biggio's community work. Here's a snippet:
Biggio has received awards from various organizations, including the Hutch Award (2005) and being named one of Sporting News' Good Guys (2004). The Hutch Award is given to a player that shows competitiveness and never gives up. Part of the reason Biggio was given the award was for his multiple position changes, but also because of his work in the community and inspiring other teammates to participate as well. He also received the Roberto Clemente Award in 2007. The Roberto Clemente Award "recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team."
Biggio was a regular ol' parent at West University Little League games and even stayed after a a Pee-Wee match to toss the ball around with me once. He was never confrontational with onlookers and autograph seekers and enjoyed talking baseball with people whenever they inquired about the previous night's game. Biggio is a role model for me in every sense of the word and puts the current era of athlete arrogance to absolute shame. I've never respected a professional athlete more than I respect Craig Biggio.
Biggio still remains an integral part of Houston baseball, as he recently coached the St. Thomas Eagles to a state baseball championship. Somehow, Biggio has managed to accidentally take on a heroic form for aspiring baseball players out there and especially in the Houston area, because we know he never did anything simply for the publicity. He's a first ballot Hall of Famer in my book and deserves any awards, accolades or general praise that he receives.
Tip of the hat to you, Craig Biggio. We still miss having you around.