Sunshine Kids party a yearly highlight for Biggio

Astros legend hosts annual event for Houston-area kids battling cancer

Sunshine Kids party a yearly highlight for Biggio

HOUSTON -- The rigorous cancer treatments and dim hospital lighting were replaced by smiles, laughter and hope on a bright Wednesday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. And perhaps no one was smiling more than Hall of Fame second baseman Craig Biggio, whose annual Sunshine Kids party provided kids with cancer a chance to play baseball with a legend and leave their troubles behind.

About 100 kids, all of whom are battling some form of cancer, and their families got to take some swings against the former big leaguer on the field and run the bases before being treated to lunch. Biggio's wife, Patty, and oldest son, Conor, served alongside him as hosts.

Biggio is the national spokesman for the non-profit Sunshine Kids, an organization that assists kids with cancer and their families. He wore the organization's pin on his cap during Spring Training games and regular-season batting practice throughout his career, and he has been treating the kids to a party for 26 years.

"It's one of the days I look forward to," Biggio said. "We've been doing this for 20-plus years now, and it's a lot of fun. You look at the smiles on the kids' faces and the families that are out here -- that's what it's all about."

The event was a first for 14-year-old Maggie Howard, who was diagnosed with osteocarcoma in November and was just recently released from the hospital after having a bone in her right leg replaced. The bright-eyed teenager said seeing so many kids like her gives her hope in a world in which it seems like everything is against you.

"This is just such an incredible experience for all of us to be able to have," Howard said. "Not many of the kids ever get out of the hospital, but just being able to be out and getting to meet all these incredible people, it's just such an experience that he is able to sponsor the Sunshine Kids and we get to have this. It's incredible."

A day in the ballpark sun made Howard forget about the chemotherapy treatments she's been through.

"It was rigorous," Howard said. "I've lost my hair; I've lost everything, but just being out here and being normal again is such a nice experience. You can forget about it."

Sunshine Kids director of children's services Jennifer Wisler said there are more than 600 Sunshine Kids in the Houston area, and Biggio's party is one of the organization's yearly highlights. She said the organization gets calls about the party well before invites go out.

"It's amazing, for a child battling cancer, to be able to have your hero be someone that you can actually meet and spend time with, and who reaches out directly to you by hosting events specifically for you," Wisler said. "That's certainly true of Craig Biggio and the Houston Astros. He's a hero to so many of [the] Sunshine Kids, and just having him be at the helm of our foundation as our national spokesperson and be so involved and so hands-on, both him and his family, I think the kids notice that. It's incredible. It's an incredible role model for them and just a hero."

Biggio, 50, took time to reflect Wednesday on last week's death of long-time Houston sportscaster Bob Allen, who played an instrumental role in the Sunshine Kids through the years. Allen, who died of cancer at 70, was called "the greatest Sunshine Kid" by Biggio.

"He's one of the reasons why I became involved in the Sunshine Kids," Biggio said. "He's an icon and legend behind the microphone, bringing sports to the city of Houston, but he was a legend and icon to the Sunshine Kids. We really do miss him very much."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.