Greatest Hits: Lance Berkman retires; why he was everything that is great about baseball

Original authorship date: 1/30/14

Wednesday afternoon, Richard Justice of MLB.com (and formerly of the Houston Chronicle) broke some sad, if expected, news on Twitter:

Yes, friends; the Big Puma is hanging up his paws spikes. Fat Elvis has left the Twinkie factory. After all, “when the going gets tough, quit.”

The sting has been dulled by months of expectations; it was reported earlier in the off-season that Berkman was leaning towards calling it a career, and with no recent news of interest by teams following yet another season blighted with knee injuries, the writing was essentially on the wall. And so it is that one of the all-time great hitters rides off into the sunset as they all inevitably do.

All-time great hitters? You read that right; Berkman’s career certainly justifies the lofty comparisons and superlatives that have rightfully been draped on his shoulders since the news of his retirement broke.

For his career, Berkman posted a stellar .293/.406/.537 batting line, popping 366 home runs to go along with 422 doubles, 1,201 walks (160 of which were intentional) and 1,146 runs scored across 7,814 plate appearances. He made six All-Star teams and finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times as well (four of them were top five finishes). He was also a tremendous performer in the post-seasonwith a career batting line in 52 playoff games of .317/.417/.532 with nine long balls. During his two trips to the World Series in 2005 and 2011, he hit a staggering .410/.520/.564 in 11 games played on baseball’s biggest stage.

He stacks up with some of the household names in baseball history as well. Only 38 other players in history got on base more frequently during their careers than did the Puma, and Berkman’s .943 career OPS is the 24th best mark in history, ahead of such greats as Willie Mays, Joe Jackson, Edgar MartinezVladimir Guerrero, Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, Tris Speaker, David Ortiz, Frank Robinson, Mike Piazza, Duke Snider, Mike Schmidt, Ken Griffey jr. and dozens more. He ranks 40th all-time in isolated power and 57th all-time in walks.

As far as his time in Houston goes, of his 1,879 career games played, 1,592 (85%) of them came in an Astros uniform. In franchise history, he ranks first in OBP, first in SLG (and therefore first in OPS), second in home runs, second in intentional walks, third in RBI, third in walks, third in doubles, third in runs scored, fourth in games played and fifth in total hits.

One fun stat that I stumbled across that you probably won’t hear elsewhere; since scorekeepers started tracking it, Berkman is first all-time for the Astros in total number of pitches seen. Berkman saw 24,364 pitches as an Astro, for an average of 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. As a quick reference, thinking about elite power hitters who are also very disciplined, Miguel Cabrera from 2010 through 2013, while hitting .337/.425/.612 and winning two MVP awards, saw 3.7 pitches per plate appearance.

So yes, an all-time great; the numbers make it clear that Berkman was pretty easily one of the game’s 100 best all-time batters on a per plate appearance basis. A Hall of Famer? No, probably not (even if he is worlds better than Jim Rice). But he has to be considered very close. Berkman never had the other tools in the box, like speed or defensive wizardry, nor did he have the huge totals that tend to make the voters forget that they’re supposed to value more than just hitting.

What he did have that is notable is consistency and fairly graceful aging; from his first Big League trip to the plate through the end of his age 30 season, Berkman hit .304/.416/.567 with a 149 OPS+. While he certainly did decline somewhat, Berkman hit .280/.393/.498 with a 137 OPS+ during the second half of his career from 2007 through 2013, a batting line over a seven year run that most ballplayers can only dream about owning. What’s more is that his decline in production was due almost entirely to injuries, rather than a decline in actual hitting ability; in the four seasons from age 31 and on in which he had at least 500 PA (2007-2009, 2011), Berkman hit .292/.404/.534, which is essentially his total career batting line, and only a small dip (due to a loss of some power) from his prime aged 23-30 seasons.

But the fact is that Berkman was much more than numbers and records. He was more than just an on-base machine with excellent power and one of the sweetest left-handed strokes this side of Griffey. Berkman was a real human being, as much as a professional athlete can be. In a world of clichés and scripted answers, political correctness and secretiveness, Berkman was as open as they get. If you asked him a question, he not only gave you an answer, but you knew the answer he gave you was the real answer, the way he honestly felt at the time about a subject.

Despite this honesty, his comments were always tempered by a jolly nature and a good heart. While real and open, Berkman was never rude, cruel, mean, and certainly not superior. Richard Justice did a better job than I ever could in relaying who Berkman really was off the field, so be sure to check out his recollections. But be it the self-deprecating jokes, or better yet the stories from his days at Rice University (who can forget the Blue Dart or the plastic grocery bag?), there was always something about Berkman that drew me towards him as a fan.

I’ve realized over the years that, aside from the thoughtful pacing, the dueling nature of pitcher vs. hitter, the massive home runs and the diving catches, the pomp and circumstance and history and ingrained, indelible sense of nostalgic Americana, one of the things that I so love about this old, odd, stubborn, strange, heartbreaking and euphoric game is the human element.

I’m certainly not speaking about umpires being allowed to blow calls that technology should make easy. I’m speaking about the familiar, everyday nature of baseball. For six months, we see these boys on a daily basis. We get up, go to work, grind away, then come home and see them working and grinding as well. On the weekends as we relax, we see them playing day games out in the sun. We see them drafted, hugging families as they take the first real step on the path towards a dream we share but realize we can’t achieve.

We follow them as they slowly work their way through the minors, making adjustments, biting and clawing, as we dream of the day we’ll see them in the big stadium for the first time. We watch as they finally make it, realize that dream they’ve held in their hearts for a decade, or one and a half, or two, and then immediately begin adjusting, biting and clawing again to hang with the big boys.

We see them struggle one day, then the next, and then the next week, and then when the hour seems darkest for them, we cheer and hoot and holler as they break the week or even month-long slump and make us and themselves believe again. Days turn into weeks, to months, to seasons and years. Others come and go, some with tremendous promise unfulfilled, and some barely mists that cling to the morning air before the sun wipes them from our collective consciousness. Some are short-time fan-favorites, two-month rentals or one-hit wonders. The flops and flame outs seemingly serve to cast a brighter light on the ones that stick, and even more so, those that excel.

Careers in the NFL are short, and the season consists of but sixteen games, roughly just one tenth of the games played in the baseball season. The gridiron warriors are also hidden under heavy, thick pads and helmets, their faces and emotions often obscured. They show up for three hours a week, do battle with one another, and then go home. The NFL is notoriously strict on player-fan interaction and interviews given to the media. There’s a cold, impersonal aspect to following the NFL. Perhaps it’s good for the brand, as you really closely follow a team rather than individual players (notable superstars aside, granted), but the formula makes it hard to fall in love with individual players.

By contrast, baseball players wear simple uniforms (how many other sports do the athletes wear belts in?), their faces exposed to the camera. We see, up close, the concentration in a pitcher’s eyes as he stares in to get the signs, the glance of the batter at the shifting position of the fielders, the base runner watching the coach carefully, intent on not missing a sign.

We see the bright smile after making a fine play to end the inning and bail out the pitcher who has worked himself into a jam he can’t escape on his own, the euphoria and high fives of a player returning to his teammates in the dugout after a mammoth, game-tying long ball in the eighth inning, the juxtaposed jubilance and agony from the two teams on opposite sides of a playoff series-deciding game after the last out, when one group knows their dreams yet have life that year and the other knows that seven months of blood, sweat and tears has amounted to a disappointing footnote in the baseball history books.

The methodic pace of the game allots us time to concentrate and calculate, to deeply understand all possible consequences and outcomes of the next pitch while waiting for the pitcher to throw it, to plan and strategize as though we were at the helm next to the dugout stairs ourselves, and the emotional roller coaster, the building tension and the final release when it’s all over is shared between player and fan in a way largely unique among sporting events.

The emotional investment in the game, the team, and the individual players, reinforced every 24 hours for six or, if we’re lucky, seven months in a row, fosters a kind of deep, emotional, personal attachment that should make it no wonder that steroids and the Hall of Fame are such a point of fiery debate in baseball and baseball alone. We’ll defend our guys tooth and nail and rail against guys we deem to have defiled the sacred game in some way because, frankly, for a baseball diehard, many of the members of the team are almost as close to their hearts as family members.

This seems like one of the reason we turn our noses up, to a degree, to those that seem fake and can’t do anything more than fire off a tried-and-true baseball cliché or two in a post-game interview, and then head for the parking lot. They’re the distant relative that only comes over on Thanksgiving, mumbles a few things while standing off to the side, and then disappears until the next holiday. We don’t know them the way we know the closer family.

Berkman was as close to a family member or a friend as you’ll get from a professional athlete. Always honest, warm, friendly, funny, never too busy to sign, or at least say “hi, thanks for the support.” Back after the World Series run in 2005 when I was morphing from casual curiosity to baseball fanaticism, I didn’t understand a ton about the game yet. I didn’t realize yet that RBI and pitcher wins were useless, I didn’t understand why you needed a guy with a strong arm and better range in right field compared to left field, I didn’t grasp the infield fly rule or the Rule 5 draft’s eligibility requirements, and I’d never heard of pitch framing or BAbip.

There was one thing I knew though; that Berkman guy was alright. I leaned in close to the radio when he was giving an interview, because when he did, he was going to say something that actually meant something, and it would probably crack me up too. I leaned in close to that radio when he was up to bat as well, because odds are something exciting was about to happen (2006 was a very nice year for the Puma, after all). Biggio, while having my respect, was getting old and declining, and was the king of the cliché. Pettitte wasn’t long for Houston and was pretty dry. Ensberg was cool, but he was already on the last leg of his career and didn’t have the hype and history of some of the other guys. Oswalt was a great pitcher, but wasn’t exactly an engaging personality.

But Berkman, wow. This was like a real guy, but he was also a professional athlete. He could have almost been a neighbor or something, who tinkered under the hood of his pickup on the weekends and took his kids bowling, but also happened to be a sports superhero by night. I loved following him as a player, but I really fell in love with the human that he was as well. Lance Berkman quickly became my first baseball man crush.

I cared about how he did even if the team was beginning to circle the drain. No matter where the Astros finished in the standings, if Berkman hit 30 bombs and I got to hear Joe Buck announce his name over the loudspeakers in whichever stadium was hosting the All-Star game that year as representing Houston, that was enough to dull the pain of a mediocre team. The Astros might lose the game that night, but if Berkman went 2-for-3 with a double and a walk, I was darn glad I tuned in to be there when it happened.

Lance Berkman is the guy for me that Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio probably is for some of you. Or maybe your guy was Nolan Ryan or Mike Scott or Jose Cruz or Rusty Staub or even Bob Aspromonte; the first guy that caught your attention, your imagination, and your loyalty, and turned you from casual to diehard. Maybe it wasn’t even an Astros player who did it. He’s the guy you’re illogical about, and you know it, and you don’t care. He’s the one whom you’re heartbroken to see go, even if you know it’s for the best and it works out well for both player and team (and boy did it with Berkman).

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The unique way we form such close, fierce attachments to baseball players is one of the things that sets the sport apart from the rest. Most of you reading this are doubtless like me; far to young to remember baseball’s golden age in a personal way. We have only stories from those who do about the players who were real citizens as well, holding off-season jobs to make ends meet and always willing to chat with a fan near the field before game time.

Though things have changed with the injection of huge player salaries and media scrutiny, that faint golden glow lives on when a player as genuine and accessible as Lance Berkman comes along. In a way, The Big Puma is everything that is good and right about baseball from ages past.

From this big fan (and I’m sure I speak for many others) to you Lance; best of luck in your life after baseball (as a player) and enjoy your family; we’ll always consider you a part of ours.