BASEBALL: Bigbie brings big league experience to Ball State Hall of Fame
Throwing up and barely able to get out of bed with the flu, Larry Bigbie thought suiting up for Ball State University was out of the question.
But Ball State was on the road to play No. 12 Wichita State University in March 1999 and the scouts were out in full force to see the outfielder. Coach Rich Maloney knew Bigbie couldn't miss the opportunity to perform for some of the most influential members of the Colorado Rockies' front office.
"I couldn't hardly get out of bed," Bigbie said. "There were a ton of scouts there. Maloney said ‘You've got to play, even if you DH. It would look bad if you didn't show up.'"
Maloney put his star into the lineup as the designated hitter and told him to rest in the clubhouse between his at bats.
"He was puking his guts out in the training room prior to the game starting," Maloney said. "He shouldn't have played, but all these guys were here to see him. He didn't take batting practice or anything."
Bigbie wasn't slowed down by the sickness. He went 3-for-5 with a home run in the Cardinals' 6-5 loss.
"He was fantastic, but he was sicker than sick," Maloney said. "It just tells you what kind of talent he was."
The immense talent Maloney saw in Bigbie led to him being named the 1999 Mid-American Conference Player of the Year. After that season, he was selected as the 21st overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles. Bigbie is one of the most successful baseball players in school history and is one of five former athletes who will be inducted into the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday.
His major league career was derailed by injuries and marred by steroid use, but Bigbie is still proud of his college roots.
A Cardinal classic
Bigbie arrived in Muncie for the 1997 season. It was Maloney's second year as Ball State's coach, and Bigbie quickly helped turn the program around.
"When we took over the program, it had been 15-41 and 17-32 the two years before," Maloney said. "Larry comes on in 1997 and is named MAC Freshman of the Year and hits .349. He made a serious contribution to a team that was 40-19 and lost the MAC title in the last game."
Bigbie became the first Cardinal to be named a Freshman All-American and MAC Freshman of the Year.
With Bigbie's help, Ball State won a pair of MAC regular season titles, the first in school history..
"In the three years Larry played significant time, we won two MAC titles and lost one by one game," Maloney said. "He was a major contributor. Larry certainly was a special player."
Bigbie downplays his own significance, preferring to praise Maloney, who left Ball State in 2002 to take over at the University of Michigan.
"He was the one who brought in all the pieces," Bigbie said. "Maloney just had a way of getting the best out of every player. He molded me to the player I've been."
While at Ball State, Bigbie had a flair for the dramatic.
With Ball State losing to Eastern Michigan University, Maloney inserted Bigbie as a pinch hitter. He had a badly sprained ankle and couldn't run, but with the bases loaded, Maloney rolled the dice.
"I pinch hit and hit a home run," Bigbie said. "I felt like Kirk Gibson going around the bases."
Former teammate and roommate Matt Wood remembers Bigbie's defense as a difference maker, too.
In 1999 with the MAC title on the line, Ball State traveled to Central Michigan University needing to win three of four games to take the MAC crown. With the Cardinals winning 4-3 in the opening game of the series, Bigbie got to show off his defensive skills.
"There was a ball smoked to the gap in right center," Wood said. "Larry chased it down and picked it up bare hand off the track and he got it to the cutoff man near the pitcher's mound on the fly. The out ended the game. Without a perfect throw to the cutoff man, who knows what would have happened."
After a successful summer in the elite Cape Cod League and his All-American junior year, Bigbie had solidified his status as a high-round draft pick. But a pre-draft workout in Pittsburgh threw his stock into flux.
"I went down there and took some batting practice," Bigbie said. "Then they had a high school kid throw live BP and the kid drilled me in the ankle. It swelled up real big. I could hardly walk. [The rumors] went from I blew out my ACL to I blew my elbow out."
But Bigbie remained a first-round selection, becoming the third Ball State player to be taken in the first round.
"My agent called me and told me I was the Orioles' pick," he said. "I go from borrowing 20 bucks off my dad to make it down to college to a first round pick."
Big league dream
Moving up quickly in the Orioles' organization, Bigbie reached the majors in 2001. He played his first game June 23 against the Chicago White Sox, going 0-for-3. He recorded his first hit at Toronto on June 28 and finished the year with a .229 average and two home runs.
Bigbie said he was lucky to reach the big leagues with the organization that drafted him.
"It's pretty special to have your first Major League at bat in front of a lot of faces that might have seen you play in AA in Bowie, [Md.]," he said. "There's a comfort zone there. You learn the organization and all the coaches coming up and in Spring Training."
Bigbie missed most of 2002 with injuries and returned to the majors in 2003. He hit .303 with 31 RBIs in 83 games that year, and he made the team coming out of Spring Training in 2004.
Bigbie started 2005 with the Orioles, but was traded midseason to the Rockies. In 2006 he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, where he played only 17 games, but won a World Series ring.
Steroids' black cloud
While Bigbie was struggling to remain in the big leagues as a young player, he turned to steroids. According to the Mitchell Report, released in 2007, Bigbie first used steroids in 2001. Bigbie became friends with teammate David Segui, who first injected him with Deca-Durabolin.
Bigbie continued to use steroids before the 2002 season and put on 30 pounds, according to the Mitchell Report. In 2003, he was introduced to steroid dealer Kirk Radomski in New York by Segui. Bigbie bought steroids from Radomski, and later was introduced to human-growth hormone in 2004, when MLB put mandatory testing into place. According to the Mitchell Report, Bigbie initially resisted using HGH because of its potential side effects.
In 2005, Bigbie contacted Radomski about getting more HGH, but Radomski was under investigation and the call led federal authorities to Bigbie.
Bigbie's steroid use became public in 2007 with the release of the Mitchell Report. The inclusion of his name caught many by surprise.
"It was a shock to everybody for me to be a part of it," Bigbie said. "As the years went on, it's not as much of a shock as it was initially when it came out."
The report was the first public information of which players used steroids, and those included became targets of fans and media members who felt lied to.
"When it first came out, I thought it was a bit unfair," Bigbie said. "They tried to label that group of guys as being a black cloud over baseball."
Maloney said he was disappointed to see his former player in the group, but notes that Bigbie wasn't using steroids while at Ball State.
"I was saddened by it," Maloney said. "We talked about it that very day. It seems in professional baseball, that was the common thing. It doesn't diminish his time at Ball State."
Wood said he understood Bigbie's decision because management pressured players to use steroids during the era.
"I had no negative feelings whatsoever," he said. "People close to baseball understand the pressure management puts on players to perform."
As players all around him took steroids, Bigbie felt it was something he had to do to stay in the majors.
"It's like the ‘70s were the era of Woodstock and everyone doing their own thing," he said. "It's unfortunate that's when I came up. I'm not saying those decisions were right. It's easy to draw an opinion when you weren't in those shoes."
Continuing his career
After spending the 2007 season in AAA, Bigbie signed a deal with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan. That led to a Yahoo! Sports article by Jeff Passan that said Bigbie was blacklisted after the Mitchell Report. Bigbie said nothing could be further from the truth.
"The interview I gave that guy and the story he wrote, it was like we weren't in the same room," Bigbie said. "I choose to go to Japan. I was offered jobs back in the states."
Bigbie split time in 2007 between the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and the Atlanta Braves organization, and he said he could have returned to either team.
"I didn't want to go back to AAA," Bigbie said. "I had a half-million dollar contract in Japan, or I could go back and make AAA salary. I had the contract signed before the Mitchell Report came out."
Bigbie played well in Yokohama and was close to signing another contract with the team, when he was hit by a pitch and broke a rib. Since Bigbie was 31, the BayStars wanted him to prove he was healthy by playing Winter Ball, but Bigbie was unable to play because of the injury.
He will return to baseball this year, playing for the Edmonton Capitals in the Golden Baseball League. The five-year old independent league is perhaps most famous for the former major leaguers it has playing in it. Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson played in its inaugural season.
Bigbie will be playing with fellow former big leaguers José Lima, Junior Spivey and Scott Spiezio when the season opens May 19.
"I was looking for a place to use as a stepping stone," Bigbie said. "It's a chance to keep playing and put up some numbers and see what can happen."
The chances of returning to the majors aren't good for Bigbie, but he just wants to keep playing baseball in the minors or overseas, somewhere, anywhere.
"It's up to staying healthy," he said. "My career can continue. Can I make it back to the bigs? It's a long shot."