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ESPNRAG.COM article on Lance Berkman...good read!

Discussion in 'Houston Astros' started by Behad, Jun 3, 2002.

  1. Behad

    Behad Contributing Member

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    Here it is.

    Pop Star

    Someday, many years from now, when he gives up baseball entirely, Lance Berkman will just have to fall back on everything else he is: a family man and devout Christian who's a lot more thoughtful than your average Elvis-dressing, deer-hunting, duck-walking switch-hitter. But that side he'll show later. Not here. Not now.

    Not now because life is too sweet for the tighty-whitey-wearin', 1977 F-150-drivin', Double Bubble-chewin', high-pitched laughin', terminally Texan ballplayer. Not now because people are always coming up to him with, "You're so great this" and "You're so cute that," and Papa Bush stands and applauds as he plods home. Because those who love him see a little of themselves in return: the guy who runs like he's got bunions but makes the catch anyway. The guy who takes the game seriously, but not himself. The guy who wants to lose an inch off his belly but doesn't want to lose seconds at the plate -- the dinner plate. The guy who sports the prototypical hitter's physique, if this were your softball league.


    Not now because right now he's plopped behind some baby back ribs, wetnaps between his hands as if he's making a meatlover's prayer, with his material ready: "There are good gum cities and bad gum cities. Probably the best gum in the league is in the Cincinnati clubhouse. They've got Bubblicious. Or St. Louis -- Double Bubble. Everybody has Bazooka. We have the worst gum in the league. It's hard and stale. They probably brought it over from the Astrodome."

    And not now because stories and memories are flowing, and they can't be stopped. There was the time he killed eight deer in one day. Did you know he grew up swinging a bat at a tire? Or that he cried when he thought his major league career had ended before it began? And, of course, there was the day he got plunked in the family jewels by a baseball.

    What, you haven't heard that one? Hold on, we'll come back to it.

    ***

    How's this for a pick-up line: "I drove over here wearing nothing but my tighty-whiteys." Lance has used it. How's this for a Christmas card: a photo of yourself with painted sideburns, in your grandfather's white pajamas, posing as Elvis. Lance has sent it. How's this to cure boredom while injured: Put on your minor league team's female nutria mascot suit and run around the stands. Lance has donned it.

    Sounds like something out of Tales From a Career Bush Leaguer. But remember, this is a major league superstar we're talking about, someone who went from unrecruited nobody to All-Star by age 25. As he says, baseball is his "bidness," and "bidness" is booming. Last year, in his first full season in the majors, Berkman ranked in the top 10 in 13 offensive categories, including batting (.331), RBIs (126) and hits (191). He became the first switch-hitter in history to poke 50 doubles and 30 homers in a season. In April he became, after Mickey Mantle, the second switch-hitter to homer 10 times in his team's first 20 games, and he's currently on pace for 150-plus RBIs, which makes for interesting drama. Says teammate and first baseman Jeff Bagwell, "I hate to put this burden on him, but he could be an MVP."

    Mix this with his personality, and you have the Astros' go-to quote. "If you tell Lance we need you to do a radio show in Baton Rouge in 10 minutes, he does it," Bagwell says. Which has its downside. Take last September, for example: Berkman confronted public relations director Warren Miller after batting practice. "Hey, Warren," he growled, "that radio guy called me in my hotel room at 8 o'clock!"

    "Um, he did?" Miller said, mentally flipping through Survival Tips for Skinny PR Guys. "Well, uh, I'm going to have to do something about that." Berkman grinned, then said, "Ah, don't worry about it."

    It's beyond Berkman to worry about most things.

    Clothes? Clothes he doesn't worry about. He wears his All-Purpose Getup: T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a dirty, white North Face hat. Except for three hours every game day, this is how you will find him. Which leads him to a quick story:

    Berkman was driving to pick up Cara, then his girlfriend, in his beloved truck -- nicknamed Paps -- a '77 F-150 with no air conditioning. Sweating in the Texas heat, he pulled over and stripped to his tighty-whiteys so as not to get sweat stains all over his All-Purpose Getup. He put his clothes back on just before he reached her, then confessed the story. You have to love a guy like that, and she did. And she does. They were married in 1998, and had a child, Hannah Leigh, last May. Last year Cara suggested he sell Paps. In a moment of weakness, he agreed. "Still miss him," he says.

    Berkman does worry about baseball, because baseball hasn't always come easy. Or, as he would say, "Bidness wasn't always great." He did not spring up at 2 months, toss his pacifier in the air and whack it into the hallway with his rattle. It was his father, Larry, who had the idea for the son to play ball. So when Lance was 6 in Austin, Larry hung a tire from a tree in the backyard and started to shape his son as a hitter by having him build arm strength without lifting weights. Says Larry, "It was his least favorite thing to do."

    But Lance did it anyway, and he even bought in when Larry came up with a scheme to keep his son focused. He called it the Five C's: Confidence. Competition. Concentration. Commitment. Conditioning.

    Who knew there would be days when Lance was missing all five?

    ***

    So the story about when Lance got drilled in the jewels goes like this: One day in college, at Rice, he was goofing around during practice. The team was working on double plays. Lance, playing first, had been throwing wild all day. "Then I scoop up a grounder and make a terrible throw to second," he says. "I'm so mad at myself I put my head down." But the shortstop makes a great catch and fires it back to first, where it plunks Berkman right in his cupless ... well, you know.

    Wayne Graham, Berkman's coach, ran over screaming, "There is a God, Berkman!"

    Graham remembers Berkman as someone who "liked to have a little too much fun," but when you're this funny, comedy finds you, sometimes in the form of a white plastic bag.

    What, you haven't heard that one?

    As a sophomore playing leftfield against TCU, Berkman found himself running in circles under a sky-high popup that was swirling in a brutal wind. He slid to make the catch but missed by a mile. Meanwhile, his right foot had gotten stuck under the outfield fence, which left him squirming to find the ball, which had rolled under a white plastic bag. He tossed the bag into the air and picked up the ball. But just then, the wind picked up, hanging the bag in the air like smoke. And ...

    "I threw the ball right into the white plastic bag," Berkman says. "The ball, in the bag, died after about 30 feet. My foot is stuck in the fence, the hitter's getting an inside-the-park homer and my coach is running and yelling, 'You're the worst outfielder I've ever seen!'"

    Berkman laughs now, which is good, since baseball hasn't always been so funny. Although he hit .539 with eight homers and 30 RBIs as a senior at New Braunfels Canyon High, in New Braunfels, Texas, he was chubby and didn't look like an athlete, and got just a partial scholarship to Rice. He kicked off his collegiate career by striking out in his first two at-bats, eventually going 0-for-17. His nickname? Fatty Kruk. Graham called Berkman into his office to tell him he was the worst fielder in the Western Athletic Conference. But in the same breath, he told him he wasn't pulling him from the lineup.

    Fatty Kruk stayed with it and became National Player of the Year in 1997 and, in June of that year, the Astros' first-round draft pick. Still, he was so nervous the night before his first batting practice with the Astros that he was up until 11 hitting off a tee. In 1999, when he was called up to the big leagues for the first time, he had Larry fax him the Five C's on the road. He logged extra hours in practice. He listened hard to his coaches.

    And nothing worked. He started 0-for-10, which became 2-for-21. His first SportsCenter moment was diving to make a catch against Arizona late in a tie game. He missed by six inches, giving Tony Womack an inside-the-park grand slam. One of Berkman's friends called all the way from Paris to say it was the Worst Sports Play of the Day.

    Everything was a blur. Against Florida, as Berkman left the on-deck circle, an ump said, "You walk like a duck." Berkman struck out. He was sent down after 34 games. The joking stopped, as did the stories over ribs. "I cried," he says. "I thought that was it for me. It was the worst I've ever felt in my life. I felt sick every day. I wondered how much worse it could get."

    But not everyone was as down on Berkman as Berkman was. Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, who once said Berkman was "possibly the best offensive player this organization has ever drafted," called him up again in late May 2000. He hit .297 and started relying on himself. He perfected his swings by taking BP before BP. "He uses the whole field," says Houston manager Jimy Williams. "He's not a pull hitter. He can bat lefthanded and hit the ball down the third base line, or righthanded and hit it to the wall."

    Says leftfielder Daryle Ward, "He needed to play every day. He could always hit." And last year, in the lineup every day, Berkman was an All-Star. This winter his number was retired at Canyon High and then he signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Astros. Well-paid? Sure. But Forbes recently tabbed him the best bargain in baseball.

    Now, about his fielding: His speed and arm are average. Good at-bats will not make you forget that he's playing center for the first time. Still, he's far from a liability. The other day, he had a different sort of SportsCenter moment, climbing up the hill at Astros Field to make a sensational over-the-shoulder catch. While Berkman wants to be known for being more than a startling hitter, that's all people can talk about, which makes sense. He is among the league leaders in home runs and has some people wondering if Mantle's record for home runs by a switch-hitter (536) is in jeopardy. Not that Berkman's wondering. "I'm not a guy who's going to hit a home run every eight at-bats or six at-bats or whatever Barry does that's so ridiculous," he says. "I'm not even hitting .300."

    No, he's not focused on the Mick. But he is a focused hitter. He tears himself up after a bad cut, and he can't let it go. After making the third out in a game earlier in the year, Berkman started jogging to leftfield. Ward said, "Man, you're playing center." Three innings later, again the third out, he once more started jogging toward left. Ward just pointed. "Oh yeah," Berkman said.

    After a recent win over Florida, in which Berkman went 2-for-5, he sat in the locker room, holding a slice of pizza, clearly ticked at himself. He was asked about his first two at-bats -- a homer to center and an RBI single off the leftfield wall. He wasn't in the mood: "Yeah, and then I wasted the next three." Shoulders slumped, he ripped a bite of pizza, stewing and chewing away.

    "The wonderful thing about baseball," says the man formerly known as Fatty Kruk, "is that players come in all shapes and sizes." Berkman is smiling, patting his gut. Truth is, he is not fat. Husky, but not fat. "I just enjoy pizza and desserts too much." Last year, a few hours before a key game against San Francisco and mired in a slump, Berkman (6'1", 220) treated himself to a fried chicken platter and washed it down with eight sodas. (He went 3-for-4 in a win.) At Rice he went on a diet and carried around a notebook to count calories, but since the similarly built Tony Gwynn approached him at an All-Star Game to discuss hitting, he eats what he wants.

    And say what you want. Vets don't usually listen when a 26-year-old opens his mouth, but in Houston they do. Berkman doesn't want to step on the toes of Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio, but as the Astros inch toward becoming Berkman's team, he picks his spots -- sitting next to a new guy on the bus or inviting someone stuck in a slump to lunch. He started twice-a-month dinners for players to discuss problems, issues, religion, ballpark gum, anything. When a player's having a rough time, he's more likely to belly up to him than dress him down. "He's a great teammate," says pitcher Shane Reynolds. And then, loud enough for Berkman to hear, he adds, "We just need to get him some new clothes. And a haircut. Look at him. He looks like a caveman."

    Berkman lets it slide. It's still early in the season, and he's got things to do: help Cara pick out plumbing systems for their new house, take BP before BP, hit another home run, answer questions about whether his home run pace will hang with Bonds' and Sosa's. "Ask me in September," he says. If bidness is still booming in the fall, then he'll talk about that.

    But not here. Not now. This night, he puts on his dirty white hat and his T-shirt and jeans. The postgame spread is barbecued chicken. And, munching away, he asks, "Did I tell you about when me and Daryle went fishing in Lake Summerville and the boat broke down?"

    What, you haven't heard that one?
     
  2. RunninRaven

    RunninRaven Contributing Member
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    I thought his new contract was 4 years for 10.5 million?
     
  3. Stevierebel

    Stevierebel Contributing Member

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    No, it is just three. Doggie has a four year deal. Maybe like Wags, there is an option at the end. But its base is 3 years.
     
  4. kidrock8

    kidrock8 Member

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    I can't wait for Hidalgo's overpaid contract to expire.

    How in the world was Doggy ever able to get a contract worth twice that of Berkman's?
     

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