Berkman not ready for final chapter of career
ST. LOUIS -- There was a time a couple of years ago when Lance Berkman could hardly wait for his Major League career to end. Those emotions came at a time when the Astros were losing and the clubhouse environment wasn't the best. It was tough on him -- and on Roy Oswalt, as well -- to see a franchise that had been one of baseball's smartest and most efficient come undone.
Berkman spoke of coaching the baseball team at the University of Texas, or maybe doing nothing at all for a couple of years. Regardless, he left little doubt that his time was almost up, and that he wouldn't be letting the door hit him in the backside on the way out.
And then a couple of things happened.
One is that the Astros traded him to the Yankees. First, the trade itself stunned him. When he got the call, he had to sit down and gather himself. The Astros believe he forced their hand by asking to have his 2011 contract option picked up, but Berkman seemingly never really wanted to leave.
That trade to the Yankees did something he couldn't have imagined. It got him interested in baseball again. It reminded him of all the things he loved about the game. He joined the Yankees in the middle of a stretch run, and with ballparks packed and every game important, Berkman got reenergized.
He didn't play all that well, primarily because he was trying to ignore an aching knee that he'd been attempting to play through for an entire season. His numbers would have been better if he'd taken a month or two off to strengthen his leg, but he wanted to be out there and believed he could still contribute, even at 50 percent or 75 percent.
After the season, he tried to interest the Astros in bringing him back to his adopted hometown. They had no interest, and that rejection turned out to be a great thing as well, because it led to a deal with the Cardinals.
He found out why players love playing in St. Louis in a way they don't love playing many other places. It's not just that Busch Stadium is packed most nights. It's not even that baseball is the No. 1 sport in town every single day of the year. It's not even the atmosphere around the Cardinals.
It's all those things, all the things Mark McGwire talked about when he was traded to the Cardinals in 1997. It's tough for those of us on the outside to understand it, but there's something different about baseball in St. Louis. It's similar in Boston and New York and Philadephia and other places, but the fans are warmer than in those places. They very seldom boo. They're with the Cardinals -- win, lose or draw.
Yes, that's oversimplifying the thing, but it's the best I can do. For Berkman, his love affair with the Cardinals began almost immediately.
During a quick trip for the annual winter fan fest, he clicked almost immediately with his new teammates. In Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter and others, he made friends he's likely to have for the rest of his life. He appreciated Tony La Russa's intensity, too, and came to have a very high regard for the new guy, Mike Matheny.
His feelings for St. Louis baseball were intensified by how the season played out. The Cardinals came from 10 back to clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season and then won one of the great World Series ever played.
After Game 7, he stood outside the Cardinals' clubhouse and searched for the right words. He was like hundreds of other players who reach a certain point in their career and say all that's important is winning a ring. They've accomplished so much in terms of money and statistics, but if they haven't won a championship, there's something missing.
For Berkman, it was more an abstract thing. He loved the concept of winning a championship. He loved thinking about it and talking about it. But when it happened, it was an overwhelming experience.
"I can't even describe the emotions," he said.
This season, his 14th, was a continuation of the magical ride that began last year. He loved his teammates and loved getting another ride with the Cardinals. With young players pressing for spots on the big league roster, he knew he might not be offered a contract for 2013.
If that ends up happening, he can live with it. He has already gained something important out of his time in St. Louis, and not just in helping the Cardinals win their 11th World Series championship.
Now, his 14th season has been interrupted with a fluke injury to his right knee that occurred when he stretched for a throw last weekend at Dodger Stadium. He initially thought he'd ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, which would have ended his season.
The Cardinals announced on Friday that Berkman had undergone surgery that "found a partial tear in the medial meniscus, which was removed, and a ... cartilage tear, which was debrided." The team estimated Berkman could return in eight to 10 weeks.
My guess is that Berkman would have attempted to play in 2013, even if he was sidelined for the rest of this season. If the Cardinals don't have a spot for him, his hometown Astros could have an opening for a designated hitter as they move to the American League.
He'd love these new Astros, the youngest team in the National League, and at the moment, one of its most surprising. With a slew of young talent in the Minor Leagues, the Astros could get better in a hurry, and Berkman just might enjoy the energy those kids bring to the park.
Regardless, it's tough to see him walking away at a time when he can still play at a high level. These last two years have reminded him that playing Major League Baseball is a privilege and just about the best, most challenging thing he'll do in his life.
He and his buddy Andy Pettitte have had these talks a few times in the past year. Pettitte also believed he'd enjoy retirement. He enjoyed the year away from the Yankees, back with his family in Texas. But he missed the Yankees in a way he never thought he would.
Pettitte and Berkman are both religious men, and they've both spoke of God giving them a gift. Both feel they're obligated to maximize that gift, and to set an example with the way they live their lives.
They're both such likable, decent men that baseball will be poorer when they ride off into the sunset. However, there's a good chance that ride may not happen for awhile. These final chapters of both careers have been more fulfilling than either ever dreamed.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.