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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog 2011 top story #9: Berkman’s rebirth

I actually used to feel sorry for Lance Berkman. Playing for the Houston Astros, he hadn’t reached the post-season since 2005. As the Astros’ fall as an organization accelerated, he seemed destined to complete his long and very successful career without a championship ring.

Never considered svelte, the added pounds in recent years and his droopy-eyed look led some to tag him with the moniker, “Fat Elvis.” Berkman attempted to head that off by christening himself “Big Puma.” I find it a little sad when anyone has to coin their own nickname, but so it was in Houston.

Slowed by injury and heading toward free agency, Berkman was dealt to the New York Yankees at the July 2010 guideline. The five-time National League All-Star departed Texas after 12 ½ years as an Astro. The move to the American League did not revitalize Berkman, and he was not asked back to New York. Further, the Houston native almost begged his hometown team to re-sign him for 2011 and was turned down.

The St. Louis Cardinals, in need of a right fielder, made a surprise signing of Berkman to a one-year contract for $8 million last December. It seemed a big risk. In addition to his recent struggles, he was a 34-year-old with a history of knee injuries that kept him away from regular outfield duty since 2004.

Seeing Berkman up close and in person for the first time at Winter Warm-Up last January, I was very impressed with him in several dimensions. First, he had lost considerable weight and looked to be in very good shape. Second, he had an air about him that I had not seen since the days of Larry Walker – a veteran familiar with success elsewhere who is comfortable both with himself and the media.

In the midst of a rare sub-.500 spring by the Cardinals at 14-16, Berkman batted just .182 and drove in only three runs. The switch-hitter’s bat looked slow and I was among those questioning the wisdom of the signing. It was yet another reminder to neither get too high nor too low over spring training results.

When the bell rang for the regular season, Berkman was ready. In fact, he got out of the gate so quickly that he earned the NL Player of the Week award twice in the season’s first four weeks. Berkman maintained that momentum through the first half, being voted into the All-Star Game as a starting outfielder. It was his sixth All-Star Game and third start.

In August, as the Cardinals apparently slid out of contention, the club considered trading Berkman away, just as the Astros had done the year before. A waiver deal to the Texas Rangers was rumored, but the right-fielder made it clear he would not consider returning to St. Louis in 2012 as a free agent if that occurred.

Berkman not only stayed, he excelled. During the team’s final-month comeback, he ranked fourth in the NL in batting (.374). On September 22, the club re-signed him for the 2012 season at $12 million. It seemed a wise move at the time and assumed an even greater importance when Albert Pujols departed as a free agent. Berkman is poised to take over Pujols’ old post at first base in 2012, increasing his likelihood of remaining healthier than if he had to play another season in right field.

In 2011, Berkman enjoyed his first 30-home run campaign since 2007 after hitting just 14 long balls in 2010. 145 games played was his highest total since 2008. Berkman ranked among National League leaders in home runs (31, tied for ninth), RBI (94, tied for 11th), walks (92, fourth), slugging (.547, fifth) and on-base percentage (.412, third). His 4.2 WAR was just 0.2 behind team leader Pujols.

In the post-season, Berkman had one of the biggest hits of all. Down to his and his team’s final strike of the World Series in the 10th inning of Game 6, his single to centerfield scoring Jon Jay set the stage for David Freese’s walkoff home run an inning later. Overall, Berkman batted .423 in the Series, drove in five and scored a team-high nine times as he finally earned his first championship ring.

Berkman was named both the 2011 National League Comeback Player of the Year as well as the winner of the Darryl Kile Award. The latter was voted upon by his teammates for being “a good teammate, a great friend, a fine father and a humble man,” speaking volumes about the broad contribution of the first-year Cardinal to a most special season.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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25 Responses to “The Cardinal Nation Blog 2011 top story #9: Berkman’s rebirth”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    Berkman played at Rice U, in Houston, then for the Astros. He must have been comfortable serving Houston. He would have been focus of much media hoopla, so must have coped with a self-deprecating, humble sense of humor.
    After a fine 2011, Berkman did not demand a multi-year deal. Re-signing was not “out of his hands”. The Union does not expect him to establish salary records. Lance quietly re-signed for 2012.
    Last winter, Tony would have known Berkman was a good bet to rebound. And the Cards would have known it would be hard to keep Albert. The Cards were lucky the Astros foolishly gave up on their star first baseman, so Lance was strangely available.

  2. CariocaCardinal says:

    I am worried that the Berkman’s ability to stay healthy last year may have made the Cards overconfident and thus overpaying both him and Beltran in 2012. Let’s hope that Father Time is kind to us for a couple of more years.

  3. blingboy says:

    Great capsule of Lance’s season, Brian. You should have mentioned ‘Fit Elvis’, though.

    Lets hope his knees stand up to infield play this year.

  4. blingboy says:

    Beltran has worn #15 for a long time. So has Furcal. Something has to give.

    IIRC, the Cards have a low number available.

  5. Kansasbirdman says:

    Starting in April I began to see Berkman as a reassuring presence for some reason. I could have been his easy going yet determined demeanor, or probably his constant clutch hitting with that easy-going swing (compared to Holliday’s not unnefective but full-body heave the spot before). It was also nice having three batters in a row that you knew could do some damage.

  6. crdswmn says:

    Berkman is my next favorite player, after Waino.

    I like to listen to him talk. First baseball player in a long time who doesn’t talk like he is auditioning for a baseball movie.

    • Kansasbirdman says:

      I saw an interview where he was asked about autographs (part of a piece where several were asked about the way to approach it for fans-no AP interview though surprise) and he talked about fans asking for autographs at different times and places, during dinner etc and I don’t remember his exact comments but I remember thinking he was a class act and exactly what a baseball player should be, real “old school” with an appreciation for the history of the sport and for his role and place in it. I am real happy he got a WS victory – as a Cardinal!

      • crdswmn says:

        I remember that interview. He said he didn’t mind fans asking him for autographs at restaurants as long as they didn’t do it while he was eating,

        • Kansasbirdman says:

          IIRC, he didn’t even go that far, he just said it could get ackward (having a conversation?) If his mouth was full at the time. And I remembered thinking it would be rude to interrupt someone at dinner, and that was kind of an unwritten rule, and he could have stated something to that effect, but the “gentle” way he phrased it made it seem like even if it did happen, he was gonna take it as part of the price of being a pro player. It’s hard to describe, but there was something about his interview that recalled a more nostalgic (if it ever existed, I’m too young perhaps to have seen it)time

          • crdswmn says:

            I would never disturb a ball player (or any celebrity) in a public place at any time so I had the same thoughts as you.

            Thanks to RC, I did have a brief conversation with Lance Berkman. Actually it was more like being present at a brief conversation with Lance Berkman, since RC did most of the talking ( I think I uttered one complete sentence). No doubt it will constitute my only conversation with Lance Berkman, but hey, it was worth it. 😉

  7. Kansasbirdman says:

    Speaking of my relative youth, I have been reading through Gould’s 100 things every Cardinal Fan Should know (a present from Santa) and have discovered some connections.
    On April 15, 1899 Cy Young was the starting pitcher of the first game of the “modern” Cardinals. (I know some of the lineages are disputed). 80 years later, April 15, 1979 I was born. 🙂
    1921, Allie May Schmidt created Cardinal table decorations and guest Branch Rickey turned them into the now famous Birds on the Bat- the same year Stan Musial (the greatest Cardinal) was born.
    2011, my son was born and “his” two teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and The Pitt State Gorillas won their respective national championships. 🙂

  8. crdswmn says:

    It aopears Lance Berkman is also a generous and caring man as well.

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