Lance Berkman is the quintessential Major League Baseball veteran: The 36-year-old was drafted in the first round in 1997 by the Houston Astros and has never looked back.
Well, until now.
Berkman, the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year (as voted by both MLB and the MLB Players Association), acknowledged that the honor came at a time when some thought his career was winding down.
"Well, they're right," Berkman said, frankly. "I am winding down. But I still have at least one good season left in me. And actually, physically, I still feel pretty good.
"I feel this year has been a little bit of a freak year, because I had that calf injury on a real cold night in Cincinnati [in April], and then just had this knee issue that popped up on me. I still think that I can play at a high level; we'll see what happens. But last year was great for me. It was good to come back from another knee injury and play well, so hopefully the same thing will happen for this one."
According to Berkman, it is so far, so good on that count.
"My knee feels good; now it's just a matter of getting the rest of me back in shape," said Berkman, who joined the Cardinals on the road trip starting Friday in Cincinnati and is expected to be activated in the coming days. "It wouldn't have been as big of a deal had I not had the calf injury before the knee injury; so essentially I haven't played at all this year.
"I'm kind of deconditioned in terms of what you need to play nine innings every day. So the last week of this rehab is just going to be getting back into throwing, running and hitting -- doing all the things you need to do. But the knee itself is solid, and I don't anticipate having any problems with it."
That's welcome news for Cardinals fans, who have undoubtedly been missing the offensive prowess Berkman showed last year. A .547 slugging percentage, anyone? That percentage, and the man who owned it, was a big part of the Cards' 2011 World Series championship.
Last Friday night, when the Cardinals honored that achievement with a giveaway of replicas of their championship ring, Berkman reflected on the real ring he'd earned, the first of his career.
"That was an incredible run last year," he said. "I probably didn't give enough credit to how great it feels to being a World Series champion. I don't think you can really describe it until you actually experience going through the rounds of the playoff and the competition that you have to beat to get there."
Berkman paused and shook his head, as if he still couldn't believe it.
"And then to finally win it, especially the way we did -- in seven games and the dramatic Game 6 -- the whole thing was incredible, and it's something I never will forget."
Lance Berkman won't forget that day, but nor will he dwell on it. The 14-year MLB veteran makes no bones about the fact that his career as a player is coming to a close. He's happy to tell you, though, that he hopes his baseball career as a whole is far from over. "The Big Puma" aspires to coach at the college level, preferably in his home state of Texas.
"What I enjoy about the game now is not playing, but helping the younger players," Berkman explained. "Just look[ing] at their swings or help[ing] them defensively if I can. That sort of thing is what I get the most sense of enjoyment out of now -- passing the knowledge that I've gained from playing 10-plus years in the big leagues."
Indeed, No. 12 rises to the occasion when it comes to serving as a role model -- for his teammates and young fans alike.
"If you're going to be a public figure, kids are going to look up to you whether you want them to or not. A lot of guys don't realize that there are a lot of people out that watch what we do and how we live our lives, and [the fans] are going to take cues from that," Berkman reasoned.
"And so for me, it's a responsibility that I take seriously, because I'm a public figure, at least in some circles -- not everyone follows baseball. But for the people who do, you're a public figure and you have a responsibility to live a certain way and to uphold values that I think are essential for living life the right way. And that's been a part of who I am for a long time, and it's something I take a lot of pride in."
As well he should.
One thing's for sure: whenever Berkman does decide to call it quits, he'll leave behind an illustrious legacy.
|"You're a public figure and you have a responsibility to live a certain way and to uphold values that I think are essential for living life the right way. And that's been a part of who I am for a long time, and it's something I take a lot of pride in."|
|-- Lance Berkman|
"Switch-hitting is an advantage in one way, because you never have to face a guy from his arm side," Berkman explained. "In other words, you don't have to face a tough right-handed pitcher [while] batting right-handed. And you don't have to face a tough left-hander [while] batting left-handed. Without getting too technical, it's difficult to do that because of the way the ball moves coming out of their hands. There's angles that come into play that are easier to handle from the opposite side of the plate than they are from the same side of the plate. For example: early in my career, I never had to face Randy Johnson [while] hitting left-handed. I could always face him right-handed, which was tough enough. But he's death on left-handers, and there are a lot of guys like that.
"One thing that would be a drawback is that you have two swings that you're trying to master, and they are two totally different swings. It's hard enough to keep one swing tuned up, much less two," he pointed out.
So how did Berkman pick up the switch-hitting ability? "I didn't."
That he owes to good ol' dad.
Larry Berkman started his son switch-hitting, figuring that if Lance could throw left-handed, he could hit left-handed.
"It's crazy to think that Dad had that kind of foresight," Berkman said. "He's a baseball nut, and now I look back and think, 'That is so weird. Why would you have me switch-hitting when I was 5 years old? You must be a baseball psycho!' But [then] again, his favorite player growing up was Mickey Mantle, so he wanted me to be a switch-hitting center fielder, just like his boyhood idol.
"So I've been doing it since I could walk. From the very first time I started swinging a bat, he would have me alternating from one side to the other, and I've just stuck with it."
And why not?
That's the question Berkman continually asked himself while working his way up the baseball ladder.
"I don't remember thinking as a Little Leaguer, 'Man, I'm going to be able to play in the big leagues.' But as a Little Leaguer, you would be thinking that, 'I'm going to be playing varsity in high school.' And when you do that, you think, 'I want to play in college.'
"It was probably my sophomore year [in college] that I realized, 'Hey, I think I got a chance to play pro ball.' Then in my first season of [Class] A ball, I was thinking, 'I got a chance to get to Double-A, and then Triple-A.' And then eventually when you have success at those levels, then you start to think, 'I can make it to the big leagues.'"
Berkman was right -- he did make it to the Majors -- but his journey was far from over.
"It's one thing to make it to the big leagues, it's another thing to stay in the big leagues," he said. "My first time up to the big leagues, I was kind of on a yo-yo. I'd stay in the big leagues for a couple of weeks, then I would be back down in Triple-A, then I would come back up for a couple of more weeks until I got a good opportunity to play every day. And I finally stuck in 2000.
"After the 2000 season, when I had some success at the big league level and when I established myself as being able to play at the high[est] level, I thought, 'All right, this is something I can do.'"
Yes, indeed, playing Major League Baseball is something Berkman can do. And well, at that.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.