When Berkman was an 11-year-old outfielder in Little League, his team, the Astros, lost the championship game to the Cubs in extra innings as the ump, a nervous adolescent, blew call after call. As the game ended, a number of enraged Astros parents stormed the field. Lance began kicking dirt on the umpire's shoes when—gulp! "My dad grabbed me by the neck and pushed me against the fence," recalls Lance. "He screamed, 'I don't ever want to see you kicking dirt on an umpire or yelling at an umpire again!' "
When Lance was 16, his family moved from Austin to New Braunfels, a San Antonio suburb. He batted .330 with four homers in 27 games as a junior at Canyon High, attracting the attention of, oh, zero college and pro scouts. "Lance was sort of chubby, and he didn't look like a great athlete," says Ralph Behrend, Berkman's high school coach. "But when practice was over, Lance and a friend would stick around the field and hit on their own. You couldn't get him away from baseball."
Although he went undrafted—"Professional baseball wasn't even on my radar," says Berkman. "I was just a kid who loved to play"—his spectacular senior year (.539, eight home runs, 30 RBIs in 28 games) enticed Rice coach Wayne Graham to offer him a partial scholarship. "Lance didn't blow me away at first," says Graham. "But there was something special about the way he swung a bat."
As a freshman Berkman was part of one of college baseball's alltime great triumvirates: Toronto Blue Jays centerfielder Jose Cruz Jr., Kansas City Royals leftfielder Mark Quinn and Berkman batted back to back to back. Cruz, a junior at the time, was Berkman's road roommate. Quinn, a senior, was his mentor. Nevertheless, things didn't start out smoothly for Berkman, who struck out in his first two at bats, had a couple of hits, then went 0 for 17. "He was a little insecure, and he kept walking past me in the dugout, looking at me like I was about to pull him," says Graham. "Finally I went up to him and said, 'Lance, if you're hitting .100, you're still in my lineup because you can flat-out hit.' " Berkman had 17 hits in his next 21 at bats.
In his three seasons as an outfielder and first baseman at Rice, Berkman batted .385 with 67 homers and 272 RBIs. The Owls reached the NCAA regionals for the first time in school history, in 1995, and made their first trip to the College World Series, in '97. He left school after hitting .431 with 41 homers and 134 RBIs as a junior and was chosen 16th by the the Astros in the first round of the '97 draft. Berkman stays in touch with many Rice teammates, who were a tight-knit bunch. He measures his college career not in stats but in moments that still make him smile—and sometimes wince. Which reminds Lance of a story....
"When I was a sophomore, Coach Graham called me into his office," says Berkman. "He had a list of all the first basemen in the Southwest Conference, and he went down the list and explained why I was the worst. One guy was hitting about .200 with three home runs, and Coach said even he was better." Berkman chuckles. "It made me feel bad, but it was the wake-up call I needed. I wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted to show him I could play."
He has. O.K., nobody thought Berkman would hit .351 this early. Heck, he may never hit .351 again. Last season, though, in only 353 at bats in 114 games, Berkman hit .297 with 21 homers and 67 RBIs. It was a good barometer. "He's got what you'd call crazy pop," says Houston infielder Bill Spiers. "Nothing looks normal with Lance. It can appear as if he's barely swinging the bat, and the ball goes 400 feet. He can bat lefthanded and hit the ball straight down the third base line, and he can bat righthanded and hit a ball off the rightfield wall. The bat control he has is unheard of."
What Berkman lacks in defensive ability (he's an average outfielder), speed (he's no Lou Brock, though he runs the bases well) and body type (at 6'1", 210 pounds, he's less Mr. Universe, more Mr. Kruk), he makes up for with strong wrists (which he gets from his father) and—most important—a keen mind that has turned him into an elite guess hitter. "Maybe five times this year, Lance has had what you'd call a bad at bat," says Astros manager Larry Dierker. "Quite simply, he understands the art of hitting."
Berkman rarely studies tape, and he's not into scouting reports. "The problem is, you read something about a pitcher from two weeks ago, and by the time you see him he's adjusted," says Berkman. "I go game to game, at bat to at bat. That's my way."
With Berkman on fire and Houston in the thick of the playoff race, his way could earn him an MVP award in his first full season. What a story that would be.