It’s difficult to imagine anything more heavenly for a professional baseball player than being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But on Sunday, one inductee remembered something a bit more spiritual, some might say: his conversion to the Catholic faith at the hands of his college baseball chaplain.
Craig Biggio, a catcher, second baseman, and leftfielder for the Houston Astros who earned a spot on the National League All Star Team in seven of eight seasons and who ended his career with more than 3,000 hits, almost wasn’t a baseball player at all. He considered offered to play football for Syracuse and Boston College, but ultimately decided to try out baseball at the Catholic Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
It was there that Biggio met his future wife, Patricia Egan, as well as the late Monsignor Edwin V. Sullivan.
Sullivan, in addition to serving as chairman of the sociology department at the archdiocesan-run university, was the chaplain for the baseball team, something Biggio remembered fondly during Sunday’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown.
“Monsignor Sullivan was the baseball chaplain. He was my roommate on the road at times, but most importantly he was a friend,” Biggio said. “He helped me with my conversion to Catholicism when I was going through a tough time in my life. I miss you very much.”
The “tough time” was the divorce of Biggio’s parents. Biggio’s father, Gordon, told his son just as he was starting at Seton Hall that he and his mother were splitting up. The two would later become estranged.
“It was hard, because my dad dropped me off at school, at college and he said that when I get home, ‘I’m not going to be there,'” Biggio told the Houston Chronicle. “Divorce is harder older than when you’re younger. When you’re younger, it’s just the way of life, and you understand that. When you’re (older) it just disrupts the whole cycle, Thanksgiving, Christmas, whose house, the whole dynamics of things you grew up with and how you were used to it.”
But at Seton Hall, Biggio says he found an outlet through baseball, and even spiritual solace from his Marine-turned-baseball coach, Mike Sheppard.
“If you weren’t Catholic, (Shep) was like, ‘You don’t have to receive Communion, just you’re coming (to Mass),” Biggio told the Chronicle. “And you know, my mom and dad were going through a hard time and I felt good when I went to church. And then Monsignor Sullivan was … my roommate every now and then. And when I converted over to Catholicism, he was the one that converted me. He was an amazing person.”
Seton Hall retired Biggio’s number in 2012, commemorating especially his 1987 season in which the team went 45-10 and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament. In addition to Biggio, that team included three future MLB players: Kevin Morton, Mo Vaughn, and John Valentin.
Biggio and his family vacation in Spring Lake, NJ, which Biggio described in a 1996 Sports Illustrated article as “a Catholic town. Big families.”
After his 2007 retirement, Biggio found a way to fuse his passion for baseball, faith, and family, accepting a coaching gig at the Catholic St. Thomas High School in Houston. After a career of being on the road, the position at St. Thomas allowed him time with his two sons, both of whom played under Biggio. (One son, Conor, played ball for the University of Notre Dame, and the other, Cavan, played in the Cape Cod Baseball League All Star game Saturday; daughter Quinn played softball.)
He retired in 2013 after serving five years as head coach, during which he led the team to four state tournaments and two state championships.
During the ceremony yesterday — which also included the induction of pitchers John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson – Biggio said baseball had given him so much.
“In baseball, tomorrow is not guaranteed, and I tried to play every game as if it was going to be my last. I want to thank the game for everything,” he said. “The game has given me everything: my family, my friends, respect, but most of all, memories of a lifetime.”