- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Lance Berkman has a reputation as one of baseball's premier hitting pessimists. This might seem odd for a player with a .959 OPS, which ranks him 19th on the game's career list ahead of such luminaries as Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. But catchers and umpires throughout the game know the drill by now. When Berkman takes a funky hack and misses a pitch by a whole lot, he'll respond with a self-admonishing "Come on, Lance'' and an expression so pained it might elicit a chuckle if the poor guy weren't suffering so much.
Three years ago, when Berkman was off to a scorching start, he was asked whether there's more pressure to maintain a hot streak or dig his way out of a slump. He observed that maintaining the hot streak is more challenging, because whenever he goes 1-for-4 he feels as though he's disappointing everybody else.
Teammates, opponents, managers, fans, media members and scouts regard Berkman as an uncommonly nice person and the classic case of an athlete who has his act together. He's quotable, approachable and brimming with perspective, and he's that rare star player who's able to dissect his game through a self-deprecating lens. But the game isn't always fun when the bat and ball can feel like a ball and chain.
"Most of my career, I've almost had to let that cloud hang over me, because it's part of what keeps you sharp mentally,'' Berkman said by phone earlier this week. "I know the fickle nature of hitting. You can be as hot as a pistol one day, and the next thing you know you can't figure out where to put your feet. It's such a difficult thing to do, you're always just trying to survive.
"I have a tendency to take things to extremes and take a doomsday approach when things aren't going well. I'll think, 'This is not good,' or, 'The next slump is just around the corner.' I'm always leery of hot streaks, because I know the game can turn on you in a heartbeat.''
At the moment, Berkman is living an existence free of black cats, broken mirrors, falling pianos or defenders strategically placed to put a crimp in his batting average. The season is a mere five weeks old, Berkman already has two National League Player of the Week awards in his pocket, and he's raining base hits while scripting one of baseball's most gratifying redemption stories.
Scouts are raving about Berkman's conditioning and ability to tee off on inside fastballs, and opposing pitchers are driving themselves batty trying to figure out ways to keep him in check. Washington starter Jason Marquis, who's surrendered 24 hits in 48 at-bats to Berkman through the years, knows the feeling. He was lucky enough to miss Berkman when the Cardinals and Nationals played a three-game series two weeks ago.
"He's got such a flat swing, and it seems like his bat stays in the zone forever,'' Marquis said. "Even when you make a quality pitch, he just battles and battles and he's able to make that adjustment and get the barrel to it. He can cover every part of the plate.''
Berkman carried a .390 average into a Thursday matinee game against Florida, and was jockeying for position with teammate Matt Holliday at the top of the NL batting race. If the carnage he's inflicting has taken lots of people by surprise, it's a reflection of where his career stood a mere six months ago.
After a forgettable first half with the Houston Astros led to a deadline trade to the New York Yankees, Berkman hit .255 with one homer in 106 at-bats as a DH and backup first baseman with New York. Then he filed for free agency. The A's courted him aggressively, the Cubs, Rockies and Pirates expressed varying degrees of interest, and Berkman even had a phone conversation with Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels about playing for the defending AL champions in Texas.
Down deep, Berkman harbored thoughts of returning to Houston, his baseball home since 1999. But when Berkman's agent, Mike Moye, called general manager Ed Wade early in the offseason, a brief conversation turned into a dead end. The Astros were committed to rookie Brett Wallace at first base, the team considered itself set at the outfield corners with Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, and there was no room in the dynamic for a return engagement for the Big Puma.
Several months later, the emotional repercussions linger. Berkman, for his part, felt summarily discarded. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in March 2010 and began the season on the disabled list, and as time passed it became clear to everyone from the scouts to his hitting coaches, Jeff Bagwell and Kevin Long, that he couldn't use his legs in his swing.
In hindsight, Berkman wonders if the Astros were paying attention. While he concedes that he put himself in a difficult position with a so-so 2009 season and a bad 2010, the entire chain of events left him slightly dazed and confused. Berkman is alternately "thrilled'' to be in St. Louis and not quite emotionally equipped to put Houston in the rearview mirror.
"The Astros were a great organization to me in a lot of ways,'' Berkman said. "They gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. They paid me a lot of money, and they showed tremendous faith in me at times. They were good to me. But [in the end] I feel like they didn't give me the benefit of doubt and they kind of cast me aside. They basically said, 'You're bad. We're bad. Let's cut ties and get on down the road.' And that was hurtful.
"What do the Minnesota Twins do when Joe Mauer has a knee problem? They take care of him. What do the Phillies do when Chase Utley has a knee problem? They don't let him on the field. That's what's kind of frustrating for me. I don't want to come across like, 'Woe is me,' but I definitely felt like I was dealing with some physical issues that didn't get pointed out. It was almost like, 'Hey, this guy is washed up. He's lost it.' I'm not trying to blame my whole year on [the injury], but it was definitely a factor.''
Wade, not surprisingly, recalls events in a different light. Last year at this time, the Astros were committed to getting younger under new manager Brad Mills. They had determined they would not be picking up Berkman's $15 million option, and Wade said Berkman had made it clear he wasn't interested in accepting a "hometown discount'' to remain with the club.
Wade said Berkman's agents, Moye and Scott Sanderson, were the first to broach the possibility of Berkman waiving his no-trade clause and joining a contender. And in late July, the Astros picked up $4 million of the $7.5 million still owed Berkman and traded him to the Yankees for pitcher Mark Melancon and infielder Jimmy Paredes. In Wade's estimation, the Astros were trying to do Berkman a favor rather than push him out the door.
"I've paid all the homage in the world to what Lance did here,'' Wade said. "I don't think anyone in the organization ever questioned what he was going through from a health standpoint or anything of that nature. But you had a player who wanted to go someplace and try to win a ring, and we accommodated him.
"There were no ill feelings towards Lance from anybody here. But against the backdrop of everything we had going on with the organization, it just didn't make sense to bring him back. There's no animus surrounding this thing.''
The Milo incident
Residual tensions bubbled to the surface recently when the Cardinals visited Houston and Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton made some pointed remarks about Berkman on the radio. Hamilton questioned Berkman's commitment in coming back from knee surgery, and wondered why he's been more diligent with his workout regimen in St. Louis than he was in Houston.
"Why did you think it wasn't necessary to get in shape your last couple of years as an Astro? 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?'' Hamilton said. "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 experienced a mixed bag of emotions during his return to Minute Maid Park last weekend. He received a standing ovation from the fans in Houston, banged out eight hits in 14 at-bats, and had a frank, air-clearing conversation with Hamilton.
"I like Milo,'' Berkman said. "My only beef with Milo is that what he said wasn't accurate. He accused me of not doing my rehab and not giving the organization everything I had, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Unfortunately, once that gets out there, it's hard to refute it. The whole thing leaves me with kind of a bad feeling in my stomach. I don't feel good about my part in it or their part in it. I just don't feel good about it, period.''
In an atmosphere chock-full of perceived slights and emotional scars, little things have a tendency to seem like big things. Berkman even took note that Wade and Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. did not seek him out to say hello during his trip to Houston.
Countered Wade, "After somebody like Drayton McLane treats Lance Berkman the way he treated him for a long, long time, maybe the reverse should be true.''
Down the road, the rifts have time to heal. Wade said that when Berkman retires as a player, his No. 17 jersey will hang from the rafters in Houston and he'll have a "golden key'' to a position with the organization. If there were no batting cage chats last weekend, it was nothing premeditated on his part.
"The universal feeling about Lance within the Astros organization is that he was a favored son when he was here, and he will continue to be when he's finished playing,'' Wade said. "There was no ax-grinding on my part not to say hello when they were in Houston. I guess I'll have to make up for that at some point.''
Ultimately, all the hand-wringing over the Houston days obscures a more upbeat storyline: Berkman, the batting cage pessimist, has found nothing but sun and silver linings in St. Louis. He's no world beater defensively in right field, but mediocre defense is good enough when he has an OPS of 1.211. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has a great feel for how to use him, and it's a major rush hitting in the same lineup with Holliday and Albert Pujols.
The Cardinals also love Berkman's intangibles. In a clubhouse filled with more grinders than cut-ups, Berkman helps lighten the mood with his wit and sense of humor, and carries more than his fair share of the media relations burden.
Even when you make a quality pitch, he just battles and battles and he's able to make that adjustment and get the barrel to it. He can cover every part of the plate.
”-- Nationals pitcher Jason
Marquis on Berkman
Truth be told, even Berkman wondered how much productive baseball he had left in him last summer. In conjunction with his new second wind, he plans to wait until the offseason before determining his plans for 2012. But the early signs point to him sticking around a while.
"I'm trying to enjoy it as much as I can this year and not read too much into it or put too many expectations on myself,'' Berkman said. "I made a commitment to say, 'Hey, I'm going out there and play hard, try to have good at-bats and not worry about the results.'
"When you're a young player, you just want to stay in the big leagues. As an older player, the game becomes a little more simple. You realize, 'Hey, I don't have a lot of time left. I've put up my numbers and made my money.' It's all about trying to win and enjoying the guys you play with. There's less to prove now. I've been through a really rough season, and I found it's not the end of the world.''
The Big Puma looking on the bright side? Who could have envisioned that? The early May forecast in St. Louis calls for partly sunny skies and another three-hit day. It's business as usual in Lance Berkman's world.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
After experiencing a most difficult 2010 campaign, Lance Berkman is scripting one of baseball's most gratifying redemption stories.