Berkman making impact on, off field with new club
Acquired in offseason to produce, veteran not afraid to speak his mind
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Second baseman Ian Kinsler has made one observation about new Rangers teammate Lance Berkman.
"Sometimes I think he'd rather sit around and talk to his teammates about baseball more than playing the game," Kinsler said.
Berkman smiled at Kinsler's insight.
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"That's probably a pretty good assessment," Berkman said. "I do enjoy the interaction with teammates. Competing is fun and winning is fun, but the investment you make with your teammates is a great part of the game."
Berkman's attitude towards his teammates, his considerable success as a player and his 14 years of Major League experience are why he has fit in so smoothly with his new team.
"He has been a great fit, particularly in the clubhouse," Kinsler said. "He offers a lot of experience to a lot of people and he's willing to listen. I don't know if you can call him a player/coach, but you can definitely use him as a sounding board and bounce things off him. He has an idea because he has been so successful. He has been on a lot of winning teams. Bringing that to this clubhouse at this point of time is big."
But all of that has taken place during Spring Training, when the pressure is off, everybody is having fun and the proven veterans are leisurely taking their time getting ready for the regular season.
Everything changes on Sunday night, when the Rangers face the Astros at Minute Maid Park. At that point, when Berkman faces the team he was with for 12 of 14 seasons, it becomes all about winning. The Rangers went through some significant changes during the offseason, but their goal remains the same. The club expects to compete for a division title and beyond, and it expects Berkman to be an integral part of that effort.
Berkman is here to produce, not that he feels a tremendous weight on his shoulders.
"These guys have had plenty of success before I got here and they'll have plenty of success after I've gone," Berkman said.
Berkman faces dual challenges in a Rangers uniform. First of all, he will bat third in a lineup that is accustomed to being one of the most potent in the American League. He is filling the spot once held by Josh Hamilton, a five-time AL All-Star who was a big reason why the club went to two World Series.
Secondly, Berkman is expected to help fill the leadership void created when Michael Young was traded to the Phillies. Young was long considered the Rangers' unofficial team captain and undisputed leader.
In both cases, that may seem to be unfair expectations and responsibility, but one thing must remembered. Berkman has had little trouble handling both during his career, including 2011, when he was a member of the Cardinals team that beat the Rangers in the World Series.
"We've become really, really good friends," Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said. "He's just a fun guy. He's funny and doesn't take things too seriously. Obviously, he played great in '11. He was a switch-hitter who batted third, fourth, fifth for us and drove in huge runs. He was able to play a good outfield. But as far as a person goes, he's a great guy, somebody that everybody likes to be around. He's really funny. He added a lot."
Hamilton is an undisputed great player and over his six-year career, he is hitting .304 with an average of 104 runs scored, 35 home runs and 122 RBIs for every 162 games. He has a .363 on-base percentage and a .549 slugging percentage.
Berkman's numbers are still comparable. He has a career batting average of .296 with a .409 on-base percentage and a .544 slugging percentage. For every 162 games, Berkman has averaged 100 runs scored, 32 home runs and 108 RBIs, while playing almost his entire career in the National League. He also averages 104 walks per 162 games, while Hamilton averages 58.
The big difference is Berkman is 37 and coming off right knee surgery. Hamilton is only 31. However, Hamilton's physical durability has always left the Rangers somewhat uneasy partly because of his past problems with drugs and alcohol. Hamilton has had his share of major injuries, because he plays the game with reckless abandon, and he also has a proclivity for coming up with the odd ailment.
With Berkman, the biggest question is how he'll respond after missing most of last season because of his right knee problems that required two operations. Berkman played in just 32 games for the Cardinals, but he has been healthy this spring and his main role will be as a designated hitter.
"I've been pleased with the way the knee has felt," Berkman said. "It's in better condition. ... Almost 100 percent. I haven't experienced any swelling or setbacks, it has only improved, which is very encouraging. Who knows what my production will be? I don't feel the same as I did at 26 or 27, but that doesn't mean I can't be productive hitting third."
As far as helping replace Young's leadership, the two are completely different in that regard.
Young, for the most part, was a stoic leader. His great value was leading by example with a tremendous work ethic, being prepared and playing hard every day, and never getting too high or too low at any moment. His teammates fed off that, but he was never one to really speak his mind unless prodded by manager Ron Washington.
Berkman has many of the same attributes as Young, but Berkman is never afraid to speak his mind, whether it is in a serious moment or just having fun.
"He keeps things loose, but he'll definitely speak his mind," first baseman Mitch Moreland said. "He's always joking around, which is good. This game will put pressure on you and sometimes you can feel the tension. You always need guys to keep it loose. It starts with Ron Washington, but to have a guy like Berkman, he's fun and he's been successful. That's good to have."
Berkman, who grew up in the Astros' organization around Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Ken Caminiti, doesn't need to be to be prodded to speak up or impart his considerable wisdom to teammates.
"It varies situation by situation," Berkman said. "Some guys need to be built up; some guys need to be calmed down. In general, you encourage guys. This is a tough game, a lot of ups and downs. You've got to find a way to win the mental battle. That's what separates the great players from the average ones. You have to deal with the failure and overcome the adversity."
All of that is fine, but Berkman is the first one to admit that the talk won't mean much unless he delivers on the field.
"You've got to go out and play and earn your stripes on the field," Berkman said. "You really don't feel settled until you've been in game situations, contributed as a player and gone through the wars with these guys."
That starts Sunday night in Houston.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.