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.