Weeks after Toronto made him a fifth-round pick, Cavan Biggio—son of Hall of Famer Craig—is getting his first taste of pro ball and Canada in Vancouver, the Blue Jays' short-season Class A affiliate.
Photo by John Lott
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
When the Vancouver Canadians play at home, sellouts are the norm. Last Thursday night, more than 6,400 fans were making a rollicking racket when Cavan Biggio came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, the bases loaded and the Canadians down by two runs.
Biggio's baseball bloodline is conspicuous. His dad is the world's most famous Biggio. A standout second baseman, Craig Biggio spent his entire 20-year career with the Houston Astros and made it into the Hall of Fame a year ago. On that weekend, Cavan left his amateur team in the Cape Cod League to join his family in Cooperstown.
"It was incredible," Cavan recalled. "It's hard to put it into words, but it was finally good to see my dad get recognized for what he did on the field and what he did off the field, for the type of person that he is. I think you would know, after him getting inducted, how truly special a player that he was."
As he spoke, 5 1/2 hours before that ninth-inning at-bat last Thursday, Cavan Biggio was 26 games into his own pro career, a new experience in a new country at age 21. He was batting .293. He was his team's leadoff hitter, a role his father often filled. And he, too, was playing second base, a position his dad helped him learn in high school.
Craig Biggio had two sons who played baseball and he wanted to help them, so he took over as head coach of their high school team right after he quit playing in 2007.
Cavan and his older brother, Conor, shadowed their father in big-league environs as kids and soaked up the culture. But Craig Biggio was on the road a lot. Cavan and Conor learned to play the game from others.
In his last season, Craig Biggio batted .251, which was 30 points below his career average. He also played in 141 games and hit 10 home runs.
"He obviously had at least three more years in him," Cavan said, perhaps naively. "But he thought it was time because my brother and I were in high school, getting ready to go to college, and he thought it was a good time to help us out and to be around us more. I think it just shows the amount of selflessness he has as a person."
Cavan had always played shortstop and third base, but college coaches suggested he'd have a brighter future at second. His dad spurred the transition, teaching him the nuances, especially the tricky footwork needed to turn the double play.
"Even if I wasn't his son, he still would have helped me out, just because of the person he is and the coach that he was," Cavan said. "He truly cared about every single one of his players."
A kid awash in the big–league culture finally had his big-league dad as his coach. Then he followed his brother to Notre Dame for three years, which led to the Blue Jays drafting him in the fifth round and dispatching him to Vancouver.
On Thursday night, he already had two hits when he came up in the ninth. He took a strike, then fouled one off, and the count was 0-2.
Vancouver is a short-season Class A team that plays a 76-game schedule starting in late June. Since the Blue Jays launched their affiliation in 2011, they have made a point of giving their top prospects a taste of Canada via Vancouver. Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna and Dalton Pompey played there.
The baseball is barely professional in a big, cosmopolitan city, an ideal but unusual combination for the low minors. The short season coincides with Vancouver's best weather. Players pay a pittance to live with host families.
Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium—everybody calls it The Nat—is 65 years old, but it was nicely gussied up after new owners Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney took over a flagging franchise in 2007 and quickly added partner and president Andy Dunn. Since then, attendance has risen every year. This season, the average turnout has been 6,005. A sellout is 6,413, which was the official count for Thursday's contest and the three games that followed against a team from Eugene, Oregon.
"They love their baseball here," said outfielder J.B. Woodman. "Everybody comes out. It's loud. They're all into the game. It's really fun. I think we sell out almost every game, which is crazy."
And compared to the U.S., Woodman said, "the people here seem to be a little bit nicer."
The Blue Jays made Woodman, 22, their second-round pick this year. Like Biggio, he was drafted out of college. Five of the Jays' top six picks this year were collegians; all five are in Vancouver. The Jays' top high-school prospects, who are generally less polished, tend to start their careers in the Gulf Coast League, the basement of the system, or one rung up the ladder at Bluefield, Virginia.
Biggio and Woodman, both in Canada for the first time, say their transition to the pro ranks has been relatively painless. Playing in Vancouver is the best part. The 13-hour bus ride to Boise, Idaho, on June 12—a rare off-day—was the worst.
"Advil PM's definitely helped me out," Woodman said. "They helped me sleep a little bit."
The biggest adjustment: coming to work early every afternoon to get ready for a game every night. It's especially challenging after getting off a bus in a strange town at 4 AM for a game that evening.
Biggio is from Texas. His first visit to Vancouver did bring one small surprise.
"Just kind of adjusting to the accent a little bit," he said. "But Canada's been cool. Beautiful weather, great place to play."
Later, with the bases loaded in the ninth, Biggio took two pitches that were off the plate, fouled off the next and took another for a ball. The count was full.
No guarantees of long-term success apply for any of the Vancouver Canadians, including the well-bred Cavan Biggio and the hot-hitting J.B. Woodman, who is batting .442 in his past 11 games after a slow start. Early-round draft picks often fizzle, and success in Vancouver does not necessarily foreshadow success further up the food chain.
But for Biggio and Woodman, early days are a time for optimism.
Biggio's ninth-inning plate appearance drew cheers from the crowd on every pitch, including the last one. It was ball four and it brought in a run. The next batter struck out and the Canadians lost 8-7.
Walks don't make many memories, but Kenny Graham, a roving hitting instructor for the Blue Jays, was impressed. After watching Biggio get two hits and a walk in five plate appearances, he said he saw evidence of a quality that few players possess.
"I see an ultimate competitor," Graham said the next day. "This was the first time I got to see him play, but regardless of the count, regardless of the game situation, you can see that he's dialed in. There's no panic in there. It's rare to find a player that has that unique way of finding peace at the plate, finding a way to compete on every pitch."
One game is that indicative?
"That's what I saw," Graham replied with a smile. "You read staff reports and talk to the staff here about Cavan, and you kind of get a hint of that, but once you see it—he came up in the ninth inning, pressure situation, came back from 0-2, worked the at-bat for a walk. That's the guy you want up there in those situations."
In that regard, at least, the apple did not fall far from the tree, Graham said.
"His dad had that same type of demeanour in the box. He's a different player than his dad, but some of that stuff probably rubbed off on him."
Graham's specialty is hitting, but he also liked Woodman's instincts in centre field. On one play, Woodman pretended to lose sight of a fly ball with a runner on third. The runner took off. Woodman made the catch easily and nearly doubled off the embarrassed runner, who had to scurry back to the bag. The deke almost worked.
Biggio's walk and Woodman's ruse made it into the nightly report that is required reading for the Jays' player-development staff. On this night, the nascent prospects got good grades. The hard part is doing it again and again, all the way up the ladder. Few can.
But meanwhile, it is summer in Vancouver, the folks are a little friendlier than back in the States and The Nat is packed. And for the likes of Cavan Biggio and J.B. Woodman, hope springs eternal.