Officially, Houston Astros slugger Lance Berkman’s nickname is “the Big Puma.” But maybe it should be “the Big Leaf Blower” instead.
Few baseball players alive can rake it quite like he can.
If a casual fan were looking at Berkman for the first time, his first thought probably wouldn’t be “professional athlete.” Berkman’s physique is slightly doughy, and nobody has ever accused him of using steroids.
Which makes his talents in the batter’s box all the more pure.
“I actually believe he’s the best hitter the Astros have ever had,” said former Astros great Jeff Bagwell, who undoubtedly would be in that conversation himself. “He’s just a tremendous, tremendous hitter. He takes base on balls, he can hit home runs, can hit for average. He truly is a fine baseball player and an even better person.”
The numbers back up Bagwell’s claim. As he approaches his 12th major league season, Berkman, who will turn 34 Wednesday, is entrenched as Houston’s all-time leader in batting average (.299) while ranking second in team history in home runs (313) and third in walks (980) and RBIs (1,041).
So it’s only fitting that Berkman will join his old teammates Bagwell and Craig Biggio as a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame tonight, when the museum holds its annual induction banquet.
Born in Waco as the second of Larry and Cynthia Berkman’s three children, Berkman was a happy, inquisitive child. Larry, who played three years of baseball as a walk-on outfielder at the University of Texas in the 1960s, noticed Lance’s baseball instincts early on, growing increasingly excited about his young son’s potential.
“My dad’s big deal is that I was a left-handed thrower, but when I’d pick up a bat, I’d hit right-handed,” Berkman said. “It was kind of a goofy combination at the time, and it limited the positions you could play if you were a left-handed thrower. But call it foresight or call it being a baseball psycho dad, but he decided I should be a switch hitter.”
The Berkman family moved to Austin when Lance was 6, and then later to New Braunfels when he was in high school. Though Lance was growing and developing as a baseball player, he didn’t really envision himself as a future big-league star.
“From the time I was in Little League, I tried to be as good a player as I could be,” he said. “But the main thing then was, I was just trying to make the high school varsity team. I think the baseball world is set up that way. All the way up the ladder, I did a pretty good job of not looking two or three rungs ahead. I just tried to focus on the next one up.”
Berkman estimates he read Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting “about 500 times” during his youth. By his senior year at New Braunfels Canyon High School, Berkman was acing the subject, hitting .539 with eight home runs. But pro baseball scouts dismissed him as unathletic, and only two Division I colleges offered scholarships — Memphis and Rice.
Berkman opted to sign with the Owls so he could stay in state and play quickly as a freshman. But he also sensed that Wayne Graham’s program was on the rise.
“Rice was headed in that direction with or without me,” Berkman said. “Jose Cruz Jr. was kind of the linchpin of it all, because he lent credibility when he signed, and the school built on that. . . . I’m as proud of the foundation we laid at Rice as almost anything I’ve done in baseball. Those three years were the most fun I’ve had in my entire life.”
It didn’t hurt that Berkman met his future wife Cara during his tenure at Rice. But he also flourished on the field. Prior to his junior year in 1997, Rice moved from the disbanded Southwest Conference to the Western Athletic Conference, and Berkman promptly whacked WAC pitchers. He won the league’s Triple Crown with a .431 batting average, 41 home runs and 134 RBIs.
With Berkman spraying hits all over the place, the Owls amassed a 47-16 record and soared to the College World Series for the first time in school history.
Unlike three years prior, pro scouts were convinced that Berkman had star potential. However, the slugger still had little idea on where he’d land.
“I remember the Major League Draft took place while we were in Omaha,” Berkman said. “My family was there, and we were just sitting around the hotel room waiting for the phone to ring. Finally about 1 p.m., the phone rings and it’s my uncle Ray, and he said, ‘Are you happy to be staying at home?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘You were drafted in the first round by the Astros.’ And I said, ‘Really?’”
Berkman’s uncle had been following the draft on the Internet, and actually beat the Astros to the punch in relaying the fact that Houston had taken him with the 16th pick of the first round.
“After all the congratulations faded, my first thought was, ‘Man, they’ve got Jeff Bagwell at first base. That’s going to be tough,’” Berkman said.
Berkman rose through the minor leagues rapidly, winning MVP of the Triple-A World Series for New Orleans in 1998. He earned his call-up to the Astros as an outfielder in July of ’99, but found that the difference between the minors and the big leagues was, well, major.
Making the majors
“Lance was a little raw when he first got called up,” Bagwell said.
“It was overwhelming,” Berkman said. “I’d never even been through big-league spring training, and I had no idea what to expect. It was kind of nerve-wracking. The stadiums were huge, the players were great and the speed of the game was much quicker.”
Berkman hit just .237 in 34 games with the Astros in ’99, but even through his struggles, he found hope.
“There was something deep down inside of me that told me I could hit at the major league level,” he said. “I thought, ‘Yes, it’s overwhelming, but man, if I can just get on a roll and put something together, I’ll be fine.’ I wasn’t completely devoid of confidence.”
“Lance understands the nature of the game,” said Astros radio announcer Jim Deshaies. “He doesn’t get too worked up when things are going bad, and hangs in there mentally.”
In 2000, Berkman got another chance to crack the Astros’ starting outfield. He had his share of ups and downs that season, but finally reached a turning point in a stressful at-bat against one of the best relievers in baseball.
The Astros were playing the Braves, and Berkman’s confidence was still shaky at times. Late in the game, he entered the batter’s box against hard-throwing Mike Rimlinger.
“At the time, I wasn’t very good right-handed. I’m still not really good right-handed,” Berkman said, with a self-deprecating laugh. “I remember thinking, ‘My goodness, this is not good.’ I just prayed to God. I didn’t pray for a home run or anything, but I said, ‘Lord, I’m giving it over to you. If you want me to be a major league baseball player, let it be.’ ”
Berkman subsequently blasted a home run off Rimlinger, and finished the year with 21 homers in 353 at-bats.
After that, he found his groove. Berkman hit .331 with 34 home runs and 126 RBIs in 2001, making his first all-star game, and has proven to be one of baseball’s most consistently dangerous hitters ever since.
“He’s just what they call a professional hitter,” Astros owner Drayton McLane said. “I tell people that God intended for him to be a hitter. He doesn’t look like a great, gifted athlete, but he gets it done. He plays great defense, very seldom makes an error. But his greatest asset is that he just knows how to hit.”
Berkman proved that fully in 2005, when he missed six weeks at the start of the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee playing flag football with some friends from church. Yet he returned to provide the Astros with a bevy of clutch hits as the team reached the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
“Adversity is part of baseball, just as it’s part of life,” Berkman said. “Fortunately, the injury didn’t ruin our season.”
The next season, Berkman began taking over for Bagwell at first base, as the veteran slugger was forced to eventually retire due to his own injuries. At first base, Berkman thrived, and he currently sports a .994 career fielding percentage at the position.
“I think he’s a lot happier,” Bagwell said. “More than anything, I think he’s happy he doesn’t have to run all the way to the outfield.”
Yet Berkman’s true joy is found in his faith. He became a Christian at age 11, then experienced a renewal of his commitment while at Rice.
“He has as strong a Christian faith as any professional athlete I’ve ever been around,” McLane said. “He never deviates from it.”
Berkman, a devoted father of three girls, said that his Christian faith and testimony are more important to him than any game-winning hit or upper-deck home run ever could be.
He may be a purebred hitter, but that’s not all he is.
“I could be in the Hall of Fame, could be one of the greatest baseball players around, but ultimately that doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “The main thing I want people to know about me is my faith in Jesus Christ. That’s way more important than any accolades I could ever receive as a baseball player.”