Berkman makes presence felt for Cards, with his words and his bat
At 35, Lance Berkman, has had a bounce-back season in his first year in St. Louis
The NL Comeback Player of the Year is hitting .280 with eight RBIs in the playoffs
He has been all too willing to voice his opinions loud and clear in the public forum
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A pair of offseason phone calls set the tone for Lance Berkman in 2011.
The well-publicized one was his appearance on a Houston radio station in late January, in which the Texas native and longtime Astro said the cross-state Rangers would be "an average team" this season and had "pitched better than their talent level" in their 2010 run to an American League pennant.
"Well, I think I was wrong," Berkman said on the eve of the World Series between the Cardinals he signed with and the Rangers he didn't. "I was asked an opinion and I was trying to be honest of what I thought at the time. Turns out I didn't know what I was talking about.
"I guess I'm a poor evaluator of talent."
Not entirely, as a private phone conversation with Cardinals Bill DeWitt owner suggested otherwise. DeWitt called Berkman soon after he signed a one-year free-agent deal to welcome him to the team, and the player was forthright about his intentions for signing in St. Louis.
As DeWitt recalled on the night the Cardinals won the NL pennant, Berkman said in January, "I came here because I really believe this team's got a shot to go to the World Series. It has that kind of talent."
One out of two ain't bad. So while the never-been-shy Berkman has been especially vocal this postseason -- chiming in on everything from his foundational rules for respect in baseball to players' media responsibilities in the postseason -- he maintains credibility for his sincerity, accountability and affability. And because he is, once again, a star offensive player.
"His numbers speak for themselves," St. Louis hitting coach Mark McGwire said.
In other words, Berkman speaks loudly and carries a big stick.
The 35-year-old St. Louis right fielder chimed in with two singles, a walk and two runs in Saturday night's 16-7 Cardinals rout -- giving the NL pennant winners a 2-1 lead in the World Series -- and is now batting .280 with a .368 on-base percentage, eight RBIs and 10 runs this postseason. Rangers fans serenaded him with boos, which Berkman understood "as long as they are native Texans and not transplants."
His production all year has proved many other talent evaluations wrong too.
His 2010 season represented a precipitous drop-off. Previously a career .300 hitter with an average of 31 homers in his 10 full seasons, the switch-hitting Berkman batted .248 last year with just 14 homers. His right-handed swing was in such disarray that he was reduced to a platoon role after his trade to the Yankees last summer.
Before the season Sports Illustrated named him the NL Central's Star on the Decline -- in full disclosure, a nomination made by this writer -- which is a tag that seemed appropriate at the time but looks awfully foolish in hindsight. Berkman batted .301 with 31 home runs, returning to the form of his career's peak and reaching his sixth All-Star Game. He had a .412 on-base percentage and slugged .547; his .959 OPS ranked fourth in the NL and he was named the NL's Comeback Player of the Year.
Berkman extended the middle of the Cardinals' lineup and offered valuable protection for Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.
"We were bullish that he was going to have a bounce-back year," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "That's what our scouts were saying. To have the year he had, that would probably be a little unfair to say we expected that."
After his 2011 season with the Cardinals, for which he was rewarded with a $12-million contract extension for 2012, it became apparent that Berkman's decline in 2010 was more a result of less-than-100-percent health than an erosion of skills. Berkman had knee surgery two weeks before the '10 season began and never fully got back on track.
"The big thing with Lance is he's healthy," McGwire said. "The one key thing to hitting a baseball is you've got to have a base underneath you. You've got to have two strong legs. Last year he was coming back from knee surgery."
When presented with McGwire's theory that the change was mostly attributable to his improved health, Berkman said, "I'd like to think so. That may not be 100 percent of it, but it's a big part of it. I think whenever you're trying to compete and you're less than 100 percent physically in an already difficult environment, that makes it that much tougher.
"There's certainly a confidence factor and what comes first, the chicken or the egg? You start out bad, you don't really feel right, you don't have the same explosion, then you start to lose confidence, you start to doubt your ability. It's a snowball effect, and it's hard to separate how much of that was physical and how much was mental and how much of it was that we weren't very good in Houston last year and then I got traded to a new environment."
That lack of a healthy lower body bred bad habits. Berkman acknowledged that he didn't generate power from his legs as much as needed to, swinging too much with his arms.
Not everyone was so quick to believe that Berkman's bounce-back remedy was solely a matter of health. Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton told a Houston radio station in May that he didn't think Berkman had worked as hard in his last few offseasons with the Astros as he had before joining the Cardinals.
"Why did you think it wasn't necessary to get in shape your last couple of years as an Astro?" Hamilton said on KBME. "And now to a team you didn't even know, a manager you didn't play for, you felt it was your responsibility to get in great shape? And it's paying off. ... Lance, I love you. But wouldn't it have been great to have given that same dedication to the Astros and your owner here that you did in two short months to the Cardinals?"
Berkman refuted that criticism at the time and did so again recently, saying, "I weigh just the same this year as I did last year. It's just a matter of, when you hit .300, then you're sculpted, but when you don't, you're fat and out of shape."
What might have been most surprising about the Cardinals' addition of Berkman was the expectation of returning him to right field. He had played exclusively first base since 2007 and hadn't been a regular outfielder since 2004. And, of course, his knee appeared to limit his mobility a year ago.
Berkman said he ran a little more this offseason in preparation for his outfield role but generally followed the same training regimen. He admitted it took a month and a half to feel fully comfortable again, but he had entered the season with more career games in the outfield (871) than at first base (717), so there was familiarity.
No one, not even Berkman, would call him a great defensive outfielder -- "I'm not Willie Mays out there or anything," he quipped -- but he was merely below-average rather than a liability in the corner. The Fielding Bible Plus/Minus rated him -10, meaning he cost the team that many runs, a score that ranked 31st among all right fielders in baseball. Given how many runs he created with his bat, Berkman came out ahead in the equation.
The Cardinals know they got even more value from Berkman because of the way his easygoing attitude fits into the clubhouse, an area of concern last season. Mozeliak said the Berkman acquisition was made with one eye on team chemistry.
"Adding him to our team has made an incredible difference in the clubhouse, on the field -- just the way he plays the game and goes about his business the right way," reliever Mitchell Boggs said. "He's an incredible teammate. His experience and his leadership have been invaluable."
And there's another reason his teammates love him: Berkman is willing to voice his (sometimes unpopular) opinions loud and clear in the public forum, even if it means receiving some brush back from fans or other players.
Before the NLCS with the Brewers, a team with whom the Cardinals have a mutual dislike, Berkman even went so far as to detail a long manifesto of player conduct that included what he called the "foundation rules" of baseball -- "have respect for the game and respect for your opponent" -- and an emphasis that on-field accomplishments should be treated like you've done it before, rather than show-up your opponent.
That, of course, was directed toward the opposing Brewers, though with a classic Berkman caveat: "I'm not the czar of baseball." There's a Southern folksy-ness to his words -- and, more importantly, well-considered reasoning -- that mitigates an unpleasant reaction.
He stuck his neck out for his teammates on Friday. After many Cardinals -- including himself -- received criticism for leaving the clubhouse after the previous night's Game 2 loss, Berkman called into a national radio program to defend their actions. On a team without a dominant public voice, such actions go a long way.
And so Berkman is again thriving, only now in St. Louis, where his career seems far from last call.
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