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January 30, 2014

Skewed Left

Saying Goodbye to Lance Berkman

by Zachary Levine

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My favorite baseball player informed the world of his retirement yesterday, if I’m allowed to say that sort of thing and keep my BBWAA card. Lance Berkman had all the qualities of a favorite player before I started covering the game, when I was allowed to have a real favorite. He was a personality. He played on really good and interesting teams. He was a saber-appreciated player given his skill set. He hit left-handed. (OK, he nominally switch-hit, but really, he hit left-handed.)

But I didn’t really have favorites when I was just a fan, and so my favorite players were the ones who were fun to talk with as a reporter, and Berkman was absolutely that. I didn’t have the pleasure of covering him for long—I started covering the Astros something resembling full-time in 2010, the year it all started going bad and he was traded to the Yankees. But he was without a doubt the most interesting and outspoken ballplayer—on topics from drugs to the state of his or any other franchise to Bud Selig—I’ve ever dealt with. He had the best grasp of the business of baseball and his role as a player in that business. And the fact that he was pleasant never hurt and won’t hurt when Hall of Fame ballots are due in five years.

The testimonials are all over Twitter from writers, broadcasters, and fans. Mine will be mostly a little different—a testimonial to Lance Berkman’s career through trivia, anecdotes, and musings. An appreciation:

1. He should have been the last link to the Astrodome.
Berkman served a unique role in Astros history. He was the only true link between the primes of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, whose teams went to six postseasons in nine years from 1997-2005, to the laughingstock of the 2010s.Nobody else in franchise history came close to surviving both this hideousness and this hideousness with continuous service.

He should have been the last link to another piece of Astros history, but because of recent events, he will not be the last active player to have played his home games at the Astrodome, which shut its doors after Berkman’s debut season of 1999.

That honor will belong to a forgotten Houston Astro, Bobby Abreu, who was on the team in 1996 and 1997 before the Devil Rays took him in the expansion draft and traded him to the Phillies.

2. It’s not often you can hit a grand slam in one of the five or 10 best playoff games of all time and have it be mostly forgotten outside the home market, but that’s Berkman’s fate for arguably his biggest hit.

Brad Ausmus would tie it at six on another home run you never see, and then Chris Burke would win it a few hours later in the 18th inning, sending the Astros to the NLCS.

3. If you want to make Berkman sound really impressive, the most common play has been to start citing his switch-hitting ranks.

He trails only Mickey Mantle in on-base percentage and in slugging percentage. Only Mantle, Eddie Murray, and Chipper Jones in home runs. The rate stats tend to look better than the raw stats for a player whose career was cut relatively short (5,000 fewer plate appearances than Murray, almost 3,000 fewer than Jones).

As presumably the world’s foremost consumer of Astros media guides in Berkman’s final years with the team, I’ve had to look at a lot of these stats and always sort of wondered what they meant.

Are we supposed to give him extra credit for being so good compared to switch-hitters because switch-hitting is super-hard? I mean, you basically have to be a major league hitter two different ways. Or are we supposed to devalue it slightly because you always have the platoon advantage and never have to face that LOOGY or that brutal right-on-right guy in an increasingly specialized game?

Or is it just a piece of trivia, in which case, bring it on.

4. There was nothing Berkman liked better than Texas.

(Aside: I understand that he’s not dead, just roll with it.)

Born in Waco, raised in New Braunfels, educated at Rice, Berkman debuted with the Astros, finished with the Rangers, and could never see himself anywhere else after the game.

As most important baseball events do, Berkman’s retirement sent me into something of a Baseball-Reference vortex. I wanted to see where his career with the Astros ranked among hitters from the same state as the team. Turns out he was not even in the top 10 by WAR, which went like this, with Berkman 11th at 48.2 with the Astros:

Player

Team

Hometown

WAR

Honus Wagner

Pirates

Chartiers

113.3

Lou Gehrig

Yankees

New York

112.6

Barry Bonds

Giants

Riverside

112.5

Cal Ripken Jr.

Orioles

Havre de Grace

95.5

Charlie Gehringer

Tigers

Fowlerville

80.8

Pete Rose

Reds

Cincinnati

78.3

Barry Larkin

Reds

Cincinnati

70.3

Tony Gwynn

Padres

Los Angeles

68.9

Ken Boyer

Cardinals

Liberty

58.2

Alex Rodriguez

Yankees

New York

52.5

5. The beginning of Berkman’s 2008 season was the best I’ve ever seen a position player play (non-Bonds division), and I watched pretty much every home game from Ryan Howard’s 58-149 MVP year.

In May, he had a stretch of 28 times on base in 35 plate appearances but cooled off to hit .471/.553/.856 that month. Almost as impressive was his April, in which he compiled a 1.030 OPS while anchored to a .272 BABIP. He would finish the first 81 games at .366/.447/.697 in his last run as a really dominant player until his ride to the World Series with the 2011 Cardinals.

6. A minus-15-run fielder for his career, Berkman sure inspired a lot of confidence. When the Astros needed to find ways to get him to play with Jeff Bagwell cemented at first and Daryle Ward and Richard Hidalgo in the corners, Berkman tried his hand in center field. He was bad at it: a -9.3 FRAA defender in 2002, playing mostly center, just like he was bad in the whole outfield, with huge negatives coming there and only somewhat offset by his pretty good first base performance.

This play in his one majority center field season of 2002 might have made it all worthwhile, though.

Hey, at least he can laugh at himself.

Berkman finished his career one of 11 players in baseball history to play 162 games or more at each of the outfield positions and at first base.

7. Retirements are usually treated with some sadness, especially in the case of a player like Berkman who could have been so much more in his last few years if it hadn’t been for his decaying body. But I and I think a lot of people are actually happy about this one.

"I think I'm actually glad about it," Berkman told Richard Justice of MLB.com. "I'm excited about the next chapter in my life. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my family, and at some point, I'll definitely coach somewhere."

Put simply if not crudely, Berkman can do more for us in retirement than he could have done as a half-ambulatory baseball player. He could walk into pretty much any television booth he wanted right now, but coaching is indeed the likelier route. While an alumnus of Rice, Berkman often talked even during his career of his desire to coach at the University of Texas, whose program has fallen on very hard times as part of a wider athletic slump from the Big 12’s flagship school.

There have been few players whom the baseball world at large has been more excited to see transition into something else.

8. I have no idea if he’ll ever make the Hall of Fame. I’m sure we’ll talk about that once or twice before the vote.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Lance Berkman

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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boards

I know several people who have met him (I have not) and every single person has described him as one of the nicest, most humble people you will ever meet. And always willing to mentor a young person. He will make a fine coach.

Proud to have his jersey hanging on my wall. (the only one I own-the jersey, not the wall).

Jan 30, 2014 07:36 AM
rating: 0
 
mblthd

If I hadn't been honest in my business dealings - well, of course, you can't always be honest, not with the sharks swimming around this town - but you're a writer, you don't think about those things - if I'd been totally honest, I wouldn't be within a mile of this pool - unless I was cleaning it. But that's no reason for you not to be! Honest, I mean. Not cleaning the pool.

Jan 30, 2014 12:10 PM
rating: -2
 
delatopia

Really enjoyable tribute. Thanks.

Jan 30, 2014 09:10 AM
rating: 0
 
lazyrasmus

As a Cardinals fan, I'd argue that this is his biggest hit:

http://m.mlb.com/video/topic/0/v19955467/ws2011-gm6-berkmans-clutch-single-ties-it-in-10th

Jan 30, 2014 09:11 AM
rating: 0
 
Plucky

Two other tidbits about Berkman that should be known/memorialized:

First, he is the only athlete I am aware of who has succesffuly given himself a nickname. The origin story of "The Big Puma" is told here: http://blog.chron.com/fantasyfootball/2008/05/i-am-partly-responsible-for-the-nickname-big-puma-well-kind-of/

Second, the most comical of his fielding shenanigans occured at Rice, and is told in a great SI article about him from long ago (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1023115/index.htm). It is worth quoting in full:

"Five years ago, when Berkman was a sophomore at Rice, the Owls were playing at TCU. "The wind was blowing real hard that day from right to left," he says. "I was in leftfield, and the batter hit a sky-high fly to left." Berkman broke toward centerfield, but the wind started blowing the ball to his right. As he changed gears and headed that way, the wind kept pushing the ball farther toward the line. At the last possible moment a speeding Berkman slid, feet first, into the leftfield corner, but the ball fell into a pile of debris on the warning track. There were candy bar wrappers, Big Mac containers and—bingo!—a couple of white plastic bags. "When I slid, my left leg collided with the foul pole and went numb, and my right foot got stuck in the fence," he says. "Still, I reached over and picked up the ball. But in my rush to pick it up, I grabbed a plastic bag too."

Berkman looked up, saw the batter rounding second, shook off the plastic bag and, on one knee, tried to throw the ball to the infield. As soon as he released the ball, however, a gust of wind lifted the plastic bag. "I threw the ball, I'm not making this up, and it flew right into the plastic bag," Berkman says. "The ball, in the bag, dies after 30 feet. The hitter's going for an inside-the-park homer; my foot is stuck in the fence; I think my other leg's broken; and my coach is running down the third base line yelling, ' Berkman! You're the worst outfielder I've ever seen! You're a joke!' "

Berkman pauses to catch his breath, then smiles. "Anyone who was there," he says, "will tell you it was the most amazing thing they ever saw." "

Jan 30, 2014 09:18 AM
rating: 12
 
jnossal

Good story, but my favorite Berkman fielding play came on July 31, 1999, at the Astrodome. Eighth inning, Astros up 4-3. Berkman is playing left field and Tony Womack hits a bloop over the third baseman's head. Thinking might save the one-run lead, Berkman comes up on the ball, but gets caught in-between, has to stab at a shoestring catch, but misses it and the ball rolls to the wall with Fat Elvis trotting after it in what had to be the worst 100-foot jog of his career.

Womack circles the bases (I think he walked the last three or four steps, probably because he was laughing so hard). Bonus: the bases were loaded, so Womack gets credited with an inside-the-park grand slam. Tony Womack! Dbacks win the game 7-4.

I was at the game, seated right in front of where Berkman misses the catch. I thought for sure he'd be credited with an error, but nope, Womack got his bit of baseball history. And it became very obvious that whatever fine qualities Lance Berkman might have, he should never, ever again be asked to stand around in the outfield with a glove on.

Go Owls!

Feb 01, 2014 16:40 PM
rating: 1
 
jnossal

Sorry, July 21.

Feb 01, 2014 16:42 PM
rating: 0
 
dougkm

Thanks for tribute to Lance. He was my favorite as well, and I am a guy who grew up in NY rooting for Duke Snider and then Sandy Koufax. Lance was a great player whose injuries tempered his numbers, and like Oliva, Mattingly, and Murphy, injuries will likely keep him from the Hall of Fame. What I really liked about Lance was his honesty and self-depreciating sense of humor. He really loved his life as a player, and "got it" that he was a very fortunate guy. I can really understand why he must have been a joy to cover, especially when compared to too many guys who think the world revolves around them. Of course, he was always good for an insight or humorous comment on a slow day as well.

Jan 30, 2014 09:49 AM
rating: 0
 
Pinson

In the inevitable world of athletes' offseason folly, Clint Barmes is seriously injured stumbling upstairs with the deer meat and never again is the same. No alcohol or rec drugs involved there, right? Jeff Kent falls out of the back of a truck. Tragically and sadly, three Clev pitchers run their speedboat into a dock at high speed, one nearly decapitated. In contrast, one of Berkman's many injuries was (if I recall correctly) a pulled hammy while engaged in his regular game of touch or flag football on the Rice intramural fields. MLB star goes back to campus and plays with Rice students and alums for fun & fitness? There was something refreshing about that...and still is. As a Rice alum, I sure hope Berkman takes the Owls' reins from his classy mentor, 78-yr-old (almost) Wayne Graham, NOT the Texas Longhorns. Graham today issued an open invitation to Berkman to join the Rice staff, which he has helped before as a volunteer. This is the "good guy" end of the spectrum.

Jan 30, 2014 09:55 AM
rating: 1
 
rweiler

It's widely believed that Kent's injury was from a motorcycle accident which would have been a violation of his contract, hence the 'fell of the truck' version. But that's Kent's story and, as far as I know, he is sticking to it.

Jan 30, 2014 10:11 AM
rating: 3
 
delatopia

More specifically, the rumor was that Kent was showing off and popping wheelies, which makes the accident especially inane. Giants didn't contest it, though, even though they might have won a case, but they were probably right -- just sweep it under the rug, get it behind us, and don't build a wall between you and your player.

Jan 30, 2014 10:34 AM
rating: 1
 
jzanko

On my Rotisserie team for several seaons. Great Rotis player!

Jan 30, 2014 10:01 AM
rating: -3
 
John Carter

Interesting.

I love the home state chart. Although, it would be even cooler, if it were more nuanced. Bonds and Gynn were born in the L.A. area not San Diego’s. Boyer’s Liberty is closer to Kansas City then St. Louis. However, there may be some hitters who were born out of state, but still in their team's range of fans. I found two - maybe 1½:

Roger Connor born in Waterbury, Connecticut (about the mid point between New York and Boston) put up 52.6 rWAR for the 19th century N.Y. Giants plus another 6 rWAR for the New York franchise in the Players League in 1890.

Derek Jeter born in Pequonnock, NJ has 71.6 rWAR, so far. That puts him sixth on the list. It would take him a couple of more very good years to pass Pete Rose.

Berkman, then, would be in the top 10, except that Waco is closer to Dallas than Houston - so, not.

Jan 30, 2014 11:36 AM
rating: 3
 
Pinson

The MLB trio of Cloyd, Ken and Clete Boyer were born in 1927, 1931, and 1937 respectively. Bbl-Ref lists their birthplaces in Missouri as Alba (iron country in the hills about 100 mi S of StL), Liberty (now KC suburb), and Cassville (SW corner of MO near Ark border). As widespread as those three places are (3 vortices of a triangle each 200+ miles apart), all the boys graduated from Alba HS and considered it their hometown. Not only are distances not the same in the flyover country as the E coast, but if you know anything about where MLB franchises were located in the 1920s and 30s and about Branch Rickey's many farm clubs and radio network, "it was all Redbird Nation." New Orleans, Houston, Little Rock, Tulsa, Denver...the 'Birds owned the Southern Plains and South-Southwest.

Jan 30, 2014 14:31 PM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

OK. That's fine. We could get even more nuanced. Frankly, I would bet more people consider the town where they lived during high school more their "home town" than the place where they happened to be born. I certainly do myself.

However, I was using birth town because that's where this little project started. I ruled out Ken Boyer, because the Kansas City Athletics were around during his prime years as a baseball player.

Jan 30, 2014 18:58 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

That my comment is rating just a -1 is bewildering. You would rather not know that Derek Jeter belongs on that list of all-time homeys? This makes me feel so lonely, it is depressing.

Jan 30, 2014 19:04 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

I for one enjoyed the tidbit -- thanks for sharing!

Jan 31, 2014 02:00 AM
rating: 1
 
BPKevin

Excellent article, thank you for this. Lance has always been one of my favorite players. I was fortunate enough to have Berkman as a mainstay of my fantasy teams for years. Always enjoyed have this great "baseball guy" on my team.
Alternative title "Fat Elvis has left the building."

Jan 30, 2014 13:00 PM
rating: -1
 
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