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Lance Berkman is a born raconteur. Or as Moises Alou says of his fellow Houston Astros outfielder, "That boy talks some crazy s—-." When Berkman tells a story, his hands wave furiously. His Texas twang rises a notch. His eyeballs bulge, and his fingers twitch. Berkman loves his wife and daughter, and he's thoroughly devoted to the art of hitting a baseball, but few things get him more juiced than spinning a yarn—especially the one about the white plastic bag. A white plastic bag in his locker in the Enron Field clubhouse is enough to prompt Berkman to look for the nearest unfamiliar face, grin and say, "Have I got a story for you...."
Five years ago, when Berkman was a sophomore at Rice, the Owls were playing at TCU. "The wind was blowing real hard that day from right to left," he says. "I was in leftfield, and the batter hit a sky-high fly to left." Berkman broke toward centerfield, but the wind started blowing the ball to his right. As he changed gears and headed that way, the wind kept pushing the ball farther toward the line. At the last possible moment a speeding Berkman slid, feet first, into the leftfield corner, but the ball fell into a pile of debris on the warning track. There were candy bar wrappers, Big Mac containers and—bingo!—a couple of white plastic bags. "When I slid, my left leg collided with the foul pole and went numb, and my right foot got stuck in the fence," he says. "Still, I reached over and picked up the ball. But in my rush to pick it up, I grabbed a plastic bag too."
Berkman looked up, saw the batter rounding second, shook off the plastic bag and, on one knee, tried to throw the ball to the infield. As soon as he released the ball, however, a gust of wind lifted the plastic bag. "I threw the ball, I'm not making this up, and it flew right into the plastic bag," Berkman says. "The ball, in the bag, dies after 30 feet. The hitter's going for an inside-the-park homer; my foot is stuck in the fence; I think my other leg's broken; and my coach is running down the third base line yelling, ' Berkman! You're the worst outfielder I've ever seen! You're a joke!' "
Berkman pauses to catch his breath, then smiles. "Anyone who was there," he says, "will tell you it was the most amazing thing they ever saw."
Even more amazing than the time Berkman slicked back his hair, created sideburns from his wife Cara's mascara, put on white pajamas and paraded around as Elvis at a friend's birthday party. Even more amazing than the time he smacked six home runs in a doubleheader at Rice. Even more amazing than the time he shot eight deer in a day of hunting, then donated most of the meat to a homeless shelter. "Golly, I wasn't gonna eat it all," he says.
The only story Berkman doesn't tell is the craziest, most amazing one of all. It's about a pudgy, unrecruited nobody from a Texas high school who, at age 25, has become one of the National League's leading MVP candidates. In his first full major league season the Astros' leftfielder is an indisputable, out-of-nowhere phenom, ranking at week's end in the top 10 of almost every significant hitting category in the league, including second in batting average (.351), third in hits (136) and on-base percentage (.439), fourth in RBIs (92) and runs (83), and eighth in homers (28). "Get Lance going and he'll talk and talk and talk," says Cara, who gave birth to Hannah Leigh, the couple's first child, last month. "'But if you expect him to do a lot of bragging, you'll be let down. Lance likes to make people laugh, not build himself up. He sees himself as just another baseball player."
His is not the story of an athletic prodigy choosing among six sports. In his spare time Berkman is not a chef, a mountain climber, a dance instructor or a stamp collector. "The most important things in my life," he says, "are God and family, then baseball." In the 1960s Lance's father, Larry, was a three-year walk-on outfielder at Texas. It wasn't that Larry wanted his only son, the second of his three children, to play baseball; he insisted on it. As soon as Lance was old enough to wear a mitt, the two would take BP and play catch in the backyard of their Austin home. Which reminds Lance of a story....
"When I was six, my dad took me to sign up for youth league," he says. "I remember it was raining real hard, and when we got inside, my Dad was told the only sport I could play was tee-ball. Well, my dad says to the guy, 'Tee-ball ain't real baseball. He's not playing.' We leave and we're walking in the rain, and I'm crying. Really, really upset. But that was that—no tee-ball."
The next year Larry signed Lance up for youth league and was adamant that he learn to switch-hit. A natural righthanded hitter and lefthanded thrower, Lance had to alternate at bats from each side of the plate, regardless of who was pitching or what the game situation was. That edict remained in place until Lance entered high school. "When things were tight and my team needed a run, my teammates used to beg me to hit righthanded," he says. "But my dad wouldn't allow it. He made sure I learned to switch-hit." Has it paid off? Through Sunday's games Berkman was batting .315 righthanded, .359 lefthanded.
Berkman insists that Larry, who is a lawyer, wasn't in the Marv Marinovich mold of over-the-top pushy parents. Although Larry coached Lance throughout his youth, they had only one major confrontation. Which reminds Lance of a story....