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).