Craig Biggio's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame got me to thinking about Biggio's early years in the majors, and the switch he made from catcher to second base. Art Howe was the Astros manager at this time, and he was the one tasked with implementing general manager Bill Wood's vision for prolonging Biggio's career while still allowing the team to make the best use of Biggio's abilities.
The popular perception of Art Howe is a grotesque caricature from the movie Moneyball that was cobbled together by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bennett Miller, and Aaron Sorkin (and if you ask Howe, Billy Beane). He's the old-fashioned baseball guy who can't grasp the genius of his boss Billy Beane and refuses to acknowledge the usefulness of statistics. He's obsessed with getting a contract extension, he won't play Scott Hatteberg, and he's a credit hog who eagerly accepts the accolades for the great season put together by the 2002 Oakland A's.
This perception is, of course, wrong. Art Howe and Billy Beane had issues and a sometimes contentious working relationship. But Howe managed the A's for seven seasons, guiding the team to the playoffs his last three. He didn't obsess over his contract, and he did play Hatteberg. But every movie needs a villain, and the filmmakers of Moneyball decided that Howe's character was the one best suited to voice the baseball establishment's views of Beane and his crazy idea -- Michael Lewis' book does Howe no favors in that it fashions Howe as a clueless button-pusher following Beane's commands.
Howe was hired by the Astros after the 1988 season. It was his job to manage a veteran-laden team back the playoffs. He had the team in contention for most of the 1989 season, but at some point it just became evident that that group of players was never again going to contend. And with owner John McMullen contemplating a sale of the team and desiring the payroll be chopped, Howe soon found himself molding one of the youngest teams in baseball.
Howe was next tasked with transitioning Jeff Bagwell from third base to first base, with moving Biggio from catcher to second, and turning Curt Schilling from a starter into a closer. The 1991 team was built to lose, yet it still won 65 games. The 1992 team won 81 games. But he was fired by Drayton McLane after the 1993 team won only 85 games and failed to make the playoffs. It's strange how Howe seems to get no credit for his work with the Astros. The profiles on Biggio give all of the credit for his move from catcher to second to Matt Galante and Yogi Berra. It's as if all Howe did was plug Biggio into second base when given the go ahead. It's almost like the people involved with crafting Astros history are as perfectly happy to cast Howe as the bumbling button-pusher as the folks who crafted Moneyball were.
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But Howe did make out those Astros lineups. He guided a team of youngsters and cast-offs that was designed to lose, and made sure they played every night, improved as players, and learned how to handle the ups and downs of a long season. They went from 65 to 85 wins in a matter of three seasons with essentially the same roster (the only major additions came in 1993 when McLane ignored the advice of Bill Wood and signed pitchers Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell to huge contracts, and neither ever came close to living up to expectations).
The Astros won 81 games in 1992 despite having to spend a month on the road because the Astrodome was pimped out to the GOP for the Republican National Convention. Most teams would fall apart under such a situation, but the Astros improved as a team. The players bonded and focused on their play. And that's because Art Howe was just the right guy to lead that group.
In many ways Howe would've been an ideal candidate to guide the Astros through the rough years of designed losing that has plagued the franchise in recent years. He proved in Houston he could meld a young bunch of talented kids and turn it into a team capable of contending. He did the same thing in his seven years at Oakland. He's worked with innovative minds, and he's shown himself as being more than capable of putting his ego aside for the good of the organization.
Art Howe isn't Billy Beane's nemesis as the movies would have us believe, and he's not the bumbling fool of Michael Lewis' book. He's a long time player/manager who played a large role in shaping the career and success of numerous players and teams. He was the perfect fit for the early-90s Astros and just the right man to lead the onset of the Billy Beane-era. So as we celebrate the career of Craig Biggio, let's pause and take a few moments and reflect on Art Howe, the man tasked with guiding Biggio's move to second base while making a sure a team built to lose in the present learned how to win in the future.