Berkman catches up with former Astros mates

Berkman catches up with former Astros mates

Berkman catches up with former Astros mates
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Lance Berkman didn't enjoy making the 130-mile trip between Kissimmee and Jupiter, Fla., while he was a member of the Astros, but he made sure he was on one of the Cardinals' team buses when they hit the Florida Turnpike bright and early Saturday.

With the Cardinals playing split-squad games, Berkman requested to make the trip back to Osceola County Stadium, giving him a chance to catch up with former teammates, coaches and others he grew to know well during his 13 years in the Astros' organization.

"It's really strange," said Berkman, who received a nice ovation before his first at-bat and then singled to left field. "When we were pulling up, I was thinking of all the Spring Trainings I've had here, even going all the way back to instructional league here and playing in the Florida State League. There's a lot of memories, and now it's time to do something else.

"I think after having been through this experience and after I played the first game or two at Minute Maid Park, the weirdness will kind of go away."

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Berkman, 35, was traded to the New York Yankees from the Astros last August after 9 1/2 seasons in a Houston uniform. He signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Cardinals in the offseason to be their starting right fielder and has been slowed this spring by nagging calf and elbow injuries that have limited him to mostly designated-hitter duties. Saturday marked his second consecutive game in the outfield.

"I feel great," he said. "It's much ado about nothing as far as I'm concerned about the physical aspect of it. I feel healthy and ready to go."

When the Cardinals' bus finally arrived, Berkman was one of the first to emerge from the clubhouse. Wearing a different shade of red than he did while he was with the Astros, Berkman roamed the outfield and caught up with former teammates like Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee. He later spent some time with Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton behind the batting cage.

"I wanted to come through and see a lot of the people I've gotten to know and gotten close to over the years being here," he said. "It's just a good environment because it doesn't have quite the intensity of a regular-season matchup, and so it's, to me, a great opportunity to come here and say hello and kind of get some of the awkwardness out of the way.

"It's a good group of guys here, and I certainly enjoyed playing here and catching up with everybody. I hadn't seen or talked to them since I got traded last year."

A year ago at this time, Berkman was recovering from knee surgery and wound up missing the first two weeks of the regular season. He batted .248 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs -- some of the lowest numbers of his career -- combined between the Astros and Yankees.

Berkman has been primarily a first baseman the last few years, but has more games under his belt in the outfield (871) than he does at first base (717) in his career. He finds the talk about his ability to still play the outfield rather amusing.

"You've always got something to prove every time you step on the field," he said. "I've always felt like I want to play well. However you term it, whether it's something to prove to somebody or whatever, I want to play well. I want to get back to the level I was a couple of years ago offensively, and I don't have any qualms about playing defense in the outfield. That's still a question mark that's been put on me. I just want to play well. I want to go out there and make all the plays and hit well."

The Astros-Cardinals rivalry was at its peak during Berkman's heyday in Houston, with the teams meeting in consecutive National League Championship Series in 2004-05. The Cardinals won in seven games in '04, with the Astros winning in six games in '05 to advance to their first World Series.

"When I played over here, the Cardinals were my least-favorite team on earth," Berkman said. "I really wanted to beat them every time we played them, and now kind of joining them, you see the other side of it. I certainly don't hold the same kind of animosity to the Astros I had towards the Cardinals, but I anticipate playing some great games against them, and it's always going to be a great series."

Berkman's true homecoming will happen April 26, when the Cardinals make their first of three scheduled trips to Houston, where Berkman keeps a full-time home with his wife and four daughters. In addition to the April 26-28 series, the Cardinals visit Minute Maid Park on June 7-9 and end the season there Sept. 26-28.

While he's made some cherished friends and memories in Houston, Berkman is content with the Cardinals.

"It's been a great camp," he said. "You couldn't ask for a better group of guys to be with. The family likes it down there [in Jupiter], and the girls have enjoyed it. All in all, I've had a really good experience this spring."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.