Lance Berkman is a born raconteur. Or as Moises Alou says of his
fellow Houston Astros outfielder, "That boy talks some crazy
s---." When Berkman tells a story, his hands wave furiously. His
Texas twang rises a notch. His eyeballs bulge, and his fingers
twitch. Berkman loves his wife and daughter, and he's thoroughly
devoted to the art of hitting a baseball, but few things get him
more juiced than spinning a yarn--especially the one about the
white plastic bag. A white plastic bag in his locker in the Enron
Field clubhouse is enough to prompt Berkman to look for the
nearest unfamiliar face, grin and say, "Have I got a story for
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."
Even more amazing than the time Berkman slicked back his hair,
created sideburns from his wife Cara's mascara, put on white
pajamas and paraded around as Elvis at a friend's birthday party.
Even more amazing than the time he smacked six home runs in a
doubleheader at Rice. Even more amazing than the time he shot
eight deer in a day of hunting, then donated most of the meat to
a homeless shelter. "Golly, I wasn't gonna eat it all," he says.
The only story Berkman doesn't tell is the craziest, most amazing
one of all. It's about a pudgy, unrecruited nobody from a Texas
high school who, at age 25, has become one of the National
League's leading MVP candidates. In his first full major league
season the Astros' leftfielder is an indisputable, out-of-nowhere
phenom, ranking at week's end in the top 10 of almost every
significant hitting category in the league, including second in
batting average (.351), third in hits (136) and on-base
percentage (.439), fourth in RBIs (92) and runs (83), and eighth
in homers (28). "Get Lance going and he'll talk and talk and
talk," says Cara, who gave birth to Hannah Leigh, the couple's
first child, last month. "But if you expect him to do a lot of
bragging, you'll be let down. Lance likes to make people laugh,
not build himself up. He sees himself as just another baseball
His is not the story of an athletic prodigy choosing among six
sports. In his spare time Berkman is not a chef, a mountain
climber, a dance instructor or a stamp collector. "The most
important things in my life," he says, "are God and family, then
baseball." In the 1960s Lance's father, Larry, was a three-year
walk-on outfielder at Texas. It wasn't that Larry wanted his only
son, the second of his three children, to play baseball; he
insisted on it. As soon as Lance was old enough to wear a mitt,
the two would take BP and play catch in the backyard of their
Austin home. Which reminds Lance of a story....
"When I was six, my dad took me to sign up for youth league," he
says. "I remember it was raining real hard, and when we got
inside, my Dad was told the only sport I could play was tee-ball.
Well, my dad says to the guy, 'Tee-ball ain't real baseball. He's
not playing.' We leave and we're walking in the rain, and I'm
crying. Really, really upset. But that was that--no tee-ball."
The next year Larry signed Lance up for youth league and was
adamant that he learn to switch-hit. A natural righthanded hitter
and lefthanded thrower, Lance had to alternate at bats from each
side of the plate, regardless of who was pitching or what the
game situation was. That edict remained in place until Lance
entered high school. "When things were tight and my team needed a
run, my teammates used to beg me to hit righthanded," he says.
"But my dad wouldn't allow it. He made sure I learned to
switch-hit." Has it paid off? Through Sunday's games Berkman was
batting .315 righthanded, .359 lefthanded.
Berkman insists that Larry, who is a lawyer, wasn't in the Marv
Marinovich mold of over-the-top pushy parents. Although Larry
coached Lance throughout his youth, they had only one major
confrontation. Which reminds Lance of a story....
When Berkman was an 11-year-old outfielder in Little League, his
team, the Astros, lost the championship game to the Cubs in extra
innings as the ump, a nervous adolescent, blew call after call.
As the game ended, a number of enraged Astros parents stormed the
field. Lance began kicking dirt on the umpire's shoes when--gulp!
"My dad grabbed me by the neck and pushed me against the fence,"
recalls Lance. "He screamed, 'I don't ever want to see you
kicking dirt on an umpire or yelling at an umpire again!'"
When Lance was 16, his family moved from Austin to New Braunfels,
a San Antonio suburb. He batted .330 with four homers in 27 games
as a junior at Canyon High, attracting the attention of, oh, zero
college and pro scouts. "Lance was sort of chubby, and he didn't
look like a great athlete," says Ralph Behrend, Berkman's high
school coach. "But when practice was over, Lance and a friend
would stick around the field and hit on their own. You couldn't
get him away from baseball."
Although he went undrafted--"Professional baseball wasn't even on
my radar," says Berkman. "I was just a kid who loved to play"--his
spectacular senior year (.539, eight home runs, 30 RBIs in 28
games) enticed Rice coach Wayne Graham to offer him a partial
scholarship. "Lance didn't blow me away at first," says Graham.
"But there was something special about the way he swung a bat."
As a freshman Berkman was part of one of college baseball's
alltime great triumvirates: Toronto Blue Jays centerfielder Jose
Cruz Jr., Kansas City Royals leftfielder Mark Quinn and Berkman
batted back to back to back. Cruz, a junior at the time, was
Berkman's road roommate. Quinn, a senior, was his mentor.
Nevertheless, things didn't start out smoothly for Berkman, who
struck out in his first two at bats, had a couple of hits, then
went 0 for 17. "He was a little insecure, and he kept walking
past me in the dugout, looking at me like I was about to pull
him," says Graham. "Finally I went up to him and said, 'Lance, if
you're hitting .100, you're still in my lineup because you can
flat-out hit.'" Berkman had 17 hits in his next 21 at bats.
In his three seasons as an outfielder and first baseman at Rice,
Berkman batted .385 with 67 homers and 272 RBIs. The Owls reached
the NCAA regionals for the first time in school history, in 1995,
and made their first trip to the College World Series, in '97. He
left school after hitting .431 with 41 homers and 134 RBIs as a
junior and was chosen 16th by the the Astros in the first round
of the '97 draft. Berkman stays in touch with many Rice
teammates, who were a tight-knit bunch. He measures his college
career not in stats but in moments that still make him smile--and
sometimes wince. Which reminds Lance of a story....
"When I was a sophomore, Coach Graham called me into his office,"
says Berkman. "He had a list of all the first basemen in the
Southwest Conference, and he went down the list and explained why
I was the worst. One guy was hitting about .200 with three home
runs, and Coach said even he was better." Berkman chuckles. "It
made me feel bad, but it was the wake-up call I needed. I wanted
to prove him wrong. I wanted to show him I could play."
He has. O.K., nobody thought Berkman would hit .351 this early.
Heck, he may never hit .351 again. Last season, though, in only
353 at bats in 114 games, Berkman hit .297 with 21 homers and 67
RBIs. It was a good barometer. "He's got what you'd call crazy
pop," says Houston infielder Bill Spiers. "Nothing looks normal
with Lance. It can appear as if he's barely swinging the bat, and
the ball goes 400 feet. He can bat lefthanded and hit the ball
straight down the third base line, and he can bat righthanded and
hit a ball off the rightfield wall. The bat control he has is
What Berkman lacks in defensive ability (he's an average
outfielder), speed (he's no Lou Brock, though he runs the bases
well) and body type (at 6'1", 210 pounds, he's less Mr. Universe,
more Mr. Kruk), he makes up for with strong wrists (which he gets
from his father) and--most important--a keen mind that has turned
him into an elite guess hitter. "Maybe five times this year,
Lance has had what you'd call a bad at bat," says Astros manager
Larry Dierker. "Quite simply, he understands the art of hitting."
Berkman rarely studies tape, and he's not into scouting reports.
"The problem is, you read something about a pitcher from two
weeks ago, and by the time you see him he's adjusted," says
Berkman. "I go game to game, at bat to at bat. That's my way."
With Berkman on fire and Houston in the thick of the playoff
race, his way could earn him an MVP award in his first full
season. What a story that would be.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Impact player In his first full season Berkman is among the league leaders in runs scored.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO
At week's end 25-year-old Lance Berkman was slugging .675, fourth
best in the majors, behind fellow National League outfielders
Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa. Should Berkman
continue at that pace for the rest of the season, he would have
the third-highest single-season slugging percentage ever for a
switch-hitter (minimum 400 at bats). --David Sabino
SWITCH-HITTER SEASON PERCENTAGE
Mickey Mantle, Yankees 1956 .705
Mickey Mantle, Yankees 1961 .687
Lance Berkman, Astros 2001 .675
Mickey Mantle, Yankees 1957 .665
Chipper Jones, Braves 1999 .633
"Lance has got what you call crazy pop," Spiers says. "The bat
control he has is unheard of."