So Berkman’s back in town. Hadn’t you heard?

Everyone seems to be putting in his or her two cents about Lance Berkman’s return to Minute Maid Park tonight, a return that features a much leaner, more svelte Puma than we saw when he played his last game here last July. So I thought I’d ring in with a couple of observations as we anxiously await Berkman’s first at-bat as a visiting player.

Without a doubt, Berkman has gotten himself into some kind of fantastic shape. When I saw him at Spring Training, he looked exactly how I had heard he looked — toned up, slimmed down and looking great. He looked like he did in 2005 when he was rehabbing from surgery after tearing up his knee during that flag football game. This should come as no surprise, considering the reports we read out of St. Louis that he hired a personal trainer and was working tirelessly to get ready for a season that, in many ways, is make-or-break for the Puma. He’s one of two things: old, and done as a productive player, or aging, but still effective, with a couple of good years left in him.

I’ll be honest. Watching a decline two-and-a-half years in the making — his numbers started drooping toward the end of 2008 and continued a downward spiral through 2009 and 2010 — I figured he was pretty much finished. He’s 35, he played his entire career free of PEDs and peppy pills, and well, this is what naturally happens when a clean player hits his mid-30s.

But three weeks into the season as a Cardinals outfielder, Berkman is not tearing up his knee, as I predicted, but rather tearing up the league, with his bat. He’s not getting a hit every time he steps to the plate, but it sure seems like it, judging from the numbers he’s produced so far.

Some of you are mad. Some are exasperated. I’ve heard more than once, “Well, geez, why didn’t he hire a personal trainer and get into that kind of shape when he was playing for the Astros?” Your sentiments are not, by any means, completely unjustified. But I also think we need to look at a bigger picture that examine why he’s doing what he’s doing now and why he wasn’t, say, last year.

I’ve always been a defender of the Puma when it comes to his physical conditioning. He was, contrary to popular belief, in good shape when he played here. He spent more time in the weight room than he let on and he wasn’t some jolly fat guy sitting around eating Twinkies in his spare time. Was he a gym rat? Heck, no. But he was a good athlete, in fine shape, and he did what he needed to do to properly prepare for each season.

There were a few things working against him in the last couple of years. First, his knee issues were worse than he ever let on, and it would have been easy for him to explain that side of it while the writers pontificated about him not being good any more because he was seemingly old, and done. Instead, he took the high road and kept quiet.

But there were other overriding factors as well. He was a fine professional and a good teammate, but the losing wore on him. He simply became burnt out on being an Astro, and while I’m sure he did everything not to let that affect him when he strode to the plate game after game after deflating game, he was bothered by it. No doubt. He and Roy Oswalt both — after a while, it was pretty clear neither one of them were thrilled to be here. They would admit as much.

Fast forward to the offseason. Berkman needed to find a new team, and the Cardinals came calling. They wanted him, but they wanted him as an outfielder — a position Berkman hadn’t played regularly since he was 28 years old. Seven years and several knee surgeries later, Berkman surely knew he was going to have to do something extra if this was going to work. Being in playing shape to be an outfielder is a lot different than being in playing shape to be a first baseman.

He also realized this was a chance to find out if he still could hit consistently at the Major League level, something even he wasn’t sure about anymore.

So, he hired the trainer. Dropped several pounds. Prepared himself to be an outfielder and prove that he’s still a Major League hitter.  (One of the running jokes in baseball is all of the stories that come out in Spring Training about this 39-year-old or that 17-year veteran coming to camp saying he’s “in the best shape of his life.” Which often translates into “I’m old, I’m slow, and I am desperate to stay in the big leagues for as long as I can, and look how a) great I look b) fast I am and c) hard I’m working!” In Puma’s case, all of the articles written about him were true — he really was in the best shape of his life, or, at least in the last six or so years).

I don’t think that Puma decided to hire the trainer because all of a sudden he cared more about producing for the Cardinals than he did as an Astro. I don’t think he did it to thumb his nose at the Astros, who politely declined his offer to re-sign last offseason. I think he just realized there’s a difference between playing the outfield and playing first base, and he was going to have to do a lot of extra work if his knees were going to have a chance to hold up at this position, at his age. If the Cardinals signed him as a first baseman, I do not believe he would have gone the personal-trainer route.

A byproduct that none of us saw coming was what it did for him at the plate. Two seemingly healthy knees and one slimmed down midriff, and suddenly, he looks like the May of 2008 Puma. Do I fault him for that? No. Do I wish he had had this epiphany in his last couple of years here? Absolutely.

But to assume he didn’t care while he was here and does now, as a Cardinal, is just flat wrong.

___________

So, while I have your attention, can we talk Play Green?

This week marks the Astros’ annual foray into all things Green at Minute Maid Park, where quickness and efficiency isn’t just how they want to win baseball games — they hope to promote an environmentally-friendly way of life as well.

In honor of Play Green week, the team will wear green Astros caps during Tuesday’s game with the Cardinals. On Wednesday, the Astros and FS Houston will work side-by-side to build a green Habitat for Humanity home. Several green features include vinyl, low E, double pane windows with a sunglass tint, 5/8” roof decking with a radiant barrier coating, high rating 16 SEER, 2.5 ton cooling system with 95 AFUE furnace and the entire home is wrapped in 7/16” OSB sheathing then covered with a 3/4” sheet of Dow high-performance Energy Star rated underlayment.

Play Green® Ambassador Hunter Pence will join the group from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. to help with the building efforts.

On Thursday, the Astros staff, in partnership with Keep Houston Beautiful, will visit the team’s adopted block located less than one mile from Minute Maid Park at McKinney and St. Charles for litter cleanup.  The Astros first adopted the block in 2008, and visit the site regularly to ensure its upkeep.

At the game that night, the Astros will hand out Play Green® Grocery Tote Bags to the first 10,000 fans, courtesy of Methodist Transplant Center.

The Astros will recognize one environmentally friendly classroom on Friday as a reward for Playing Green. Chris Johnson will visit fifth grade students at Heritage Elementary School. The students at this LaPorte ISD school are actively involved in various conservation activities on their campus.  In addition to recycling cans, using scrap paper, and the backs of advertisements for assignments, students keep re-usable water bottles at their desk and once a quarter they walk the grounds and the boys compete against the girls to see who can pick up the most litter.

Johnson’s visit rewards the kids for their Earth-friendly efforts and while there, he will read Curious George Plants a Tree, present the kids with their own autographed copy of the book along with tickets to that evening’s game where they will be recognized in a pre-game ceremony.

Saturday is Hunter Pence Play Green bobblehead day. The first 10,000 fans will receive the bobbleheads, courtesy of Grand Slam for Youth Baseball.

On Sunday, May 1, the Astros are hosting something new — Bike to the Ballpark. For $10, fans will receive a game ticket, an event packet including a personal bib number and a goodie bag filled with various “green items.” Best of all, each fan registered for the event will get a chance to enter a raffle for a brand new bike, courtesy of Bike Barn. One male and one female bike will be awarded. Also included is a complementary bike inspection at the Astros designated starting location, TC Jester Park in the Heights, along with a bike valet at Minute Maid Park.

A designated starting location at TC Jester Park will be offered for the ride, and is approximately five miles from Minute Maid Park. TC Jester Park is located at 4201 T. C. Jester, Houston, TX 77018. Fans living in the outer suburbs are encouraged to drive to the secure lot at this location, and from there take part in the organized ride into Minute Maid Park. Fans do have the option, however, to bike in from home. Once at Minute Maid Park, your bike will be stored in Parking Lot D with security for the duration of the game.

For full details and a route map, click here. Registration ends on Thursday (April 28).

21 Comments

Lance’s trainer was on 1560 this morning and he’s quite upset. Lance hired him FOUR years ago, not this winter. He said Lance worked no harder this offseason than any of the previous three and that his physical issues had more to do with injury limitations than “laziness” or a lack of desire to be in shape. Can’t the Astros just take the high road and thank him for his years with the team?

Alyson…….Lance Berkman will forever be as Astro. PERIOD.
He and Roy left (or wanted to) because Drayton McLane
would NOT let Ed Wade improve this team. Signing old-
been there done that cheap players, sent a pretty loud and
clear message. Milo Hamilton ripped Berkman in an interview
that shocked me to read it. The Astros are not going to contend with the line up they have now, and may not next year. My hope is the kids in OKC will come up, and make this team respectable in 2013-2014. Thanks for all you do,
I know you miss Roy and Lance too. Becky:) :)

1560 The Game spoke with Berkman’s trainer this morning who has trained him the past 4 years. Danny Arnold basically said all these notions that he did something different this offseason to prepare is incorrect. He trained in the same way he has for the past 4 years.

He said that the difference this is year is that he’s just having a good year and there are decent hitters in the lineup around him… so they can’t pitch around him as they could when he was in Houston.

I’m not sure I buy that completely, but I also don’t completely buy into Milo’s lame attempt at a smear campaign either. I think it’s a combination of him having a better year, having protection in the lineup and him having a fresh start on a team that can compete and is expected to win… not shoot for .500.

Berkman’s trainer was on 1560 this morning. You know, the same one he’s had for four years. He said Berkman’s routine really hasn’t changed that much and that he’s doing the same things he did now as when he was an Astro. Berkman might have taken the diet a little more seriously this off-season, but the the biggest thing is he’s healthy. His trainer also had some not so nice things about the way MLB teams in general “rehab” injuries.

great article, alyson! do you think there is any chance berkman could retire as an astro? i know we are pretty set in our ways with going forward young, but…. but….

Berkman was a great Astro and it was sad to see him and Roy leave last season. However, I’m still torn with him signing with the Cardinals. And I wasn’t a fan of his comments in the offseason about the Rangers, either.

Thanks for giving Lance the respect he deserves. He is a great player and was a valuable assest to our team for a long time. I believe he would have been an assest to our team had they chose to take him back and let him finish his career here. I heard the radio footage from Milo yesterday and I was surprised to hear some of his comments regarding Lance. I guess that kind of thing is what keeps people interested though. I hope the fans give Lance the welcome he deserves and from there we can play to win – Best wishes to Lance I hope he is able to have a shot at getting a ring before he retires he certainly deserves it.

While I’m sure his trainer has been working diligently with Berkman for many years, the notion that he didn’t do anything different last offseason than any other time is absurd. Berkman is 15 pounds, minimum, lighter than he was any other year except for the year he was coming back from knee surgery after flag football (at which time he had the same physique as now — lean and muscular). If Berkman has been doing the exact same thing exercise-wise and he looks he does now, well, that must be one heckuva diet he was on.
The fact is that he worked out harder because he had to get into shape to be an outfielder. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is what it is.

There are only 3 teams in all of baseball that I will never cheer for. Those teams are the Yankees, the Cardinals and the Cubs. Unfortunately Lance has been with 2 of those teams. I wish him nothing but the best and I cherish all of the years that he spent here, he was a great Astro, I however, can NOT and WILL NOT cheer for his team, though I hope he does well. I’ll be at the game tonight. I will give Lance his due respect with a standing ovation before his first at bat, but after that he’s a Cardinal and I don’t cheer for Cardinals.

Let me also say that I don’t wholly disagree with Milo’s comments. I just don’t think Lance purposely didn’t work hard when he was an Astro and did as a Cardinal. He got himself into shape to play the outfield and his knees are healthier. And now he’s tearing it up at the plate. Yes, I wish everyone would work out that hard no matter what position he is playing. I alluded to that as well in the blog. There are million ways to look at this.

#5 and #7 showed up each season in shape and gave it their all, regardless of the team’s chances. #17 and #44 had to be around a new setting in order to turn in a high level of performance. I’ll take the first two.

Bob, I don’t disagree with you. I totally see that side of it and have thought the same thing many times over the last couple of years. That said, Bags and Bidge never had five-year stretches like the Astros are in now. Not an excuse, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to scream loyalty to an organization when you’re actually playing for something meaningful every day.
Alyson

Greis, totally agree…the one thing no one is saying that probably needs to be said is that the fact that Puma’s doing so well while playing for the Cardinals and Tony La Russa is, to keep it family-friendly, gag-inducing. The whole thing is enough to make you want to…well, you know.
Alyson

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I too miss the “May of 2008 Puma.” The big knock against him has always been his lack of leadership. People expected him to be Bigg or Bags, and that’s just not who he — or for that matter Oswalt — was. I’ll remember Big Puma for what he actually was: a switch-hitting machine that carried our offense for nearly 12 seasons. Like others, I thought the retirement talks grew old, but who can really blame him? The Purpura and Cooper days were hard to stomach. But he played through the pain and even in his worst of days, battled in the middle of the lineup. I hate that he’s a Cardinal, but I’ll cherish the days when No.17 was Big Puma. FYI, here were my thoughts on Berkman moving on and returning to H-Town: http://www.sethstringer.com/apps/blog/

Ciao Alyson et al,
I think the main thing that’s bothering most of us is that Puma’s now back in our division with one of our main rivals. Had he signed as a DH or something in the AL and was producing numbers like this…doubt that many of us would be having this same vehement discussion…just saying.

And being one of the lone Stros fans in Little Rock, AR, which surprisingly is in the Astros home market according to DirecTV (though I no longer have DTV), I’m surrounded by Cardinals fans here…so believe me, I get it. And it makes me absolutely sick to see Puma wearing the birdies. I thought I couldn’t stomach him in the blue pinstripes, until I saw the first pics of him wearing the red…barforama. :(

Footer! 1560 had the trainer on this morning and and…

Great article. The guys over at mlbtraderumors.com linked to you.

Healthy or not, this roster did not have room for Berkman.

Hey Alyson, this comment was too big for twitter so I had to do it on here. I love Berkman as a fan but in my opinion on the “Business” aspect of baseball, Berkman HAD to be in the best shape of his life with the Cardinals. He has legit competition there and he could’ve ended up on the bench like he did in New York. With Houston, I felt like he had no urgency to be in great shape because we all loved him and it didnt matter wether he was out of shape or not. As long as he came to the plate every game and gave that boy-ish grin on first chatting it up with the opposing team, we didnt care because he was the last thing we had tied to the Killer Bees and to the 05 season. I’m glad to see him in top shape and I plan on attending the next St Louis game in Houston just to see him. Always will be a big fan!

P.S. #12 looks entirely too weird on him

Kevin (@kevg13)

I for one was happy to see Berkman and Oswalt go. Only because under Drayton McClain the Astros will never be a top contender in this league. I am happy to see Berkman and Oswalt go to teams that give them their chance at winning a World Series (Every Players Dream). I will always cheer for Berkman and Oswalt no matter what team they are on.

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