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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Berkman has left lasting impression with personality

Berkman has left lasting impression with personality play video for Berkman has left lasting impression with personality
Let's begin with the day Jeff Kent walked into the trainer's room a couple of hours before a game one Sunday at Minute Maid Park.

"Good morning," Lance Berkman said.

Kent didn't respond.

"Good morning," Berkman repeated.

Still no response.

"Look, Jeff," Berkman said, "in our society, it's customary that if I say, 'Good morning,' you say something like ... I don't know. Let me think. ... 'Good morning, Lance.' "

Kent snarled.

"I see you every day," Kent said.

Flash forward a few years.

Berkman had been summoned to a Spring Training meeting with Cardinals management after some controversial remarks were published.

"Well," general manager John Mozeliak said as the meeting began, "I guess you know why you're here."

Berkman shrugged.

"Contract extension?" he asked.

Now, how can you be mad at a guy like that? Mozeliak couldn't.

And there's this one, courtesy of Matt Holliday.

When Berkman and a few of his teammates were at dinner in 2011, a woman approached the table.

"Are you Cardinals?" she said.

"No," Berkman told her, "we're people."

And there's that nickname, The Big Puma.

Berkman gave it to himself after he'd gotten one he didn't care for as much -- Fat Elvis. During an interview with a Houston radio station, the hosts began to kid him about being Fat Elvis, and Berkman said he needed a nickname that better reflected his various talents.

"You know, speed, athleticism, cunning," he said.

Oh, brother.

One of the hosts mentioned "Puma," jokingly.

"Yeah," Berkman said, "The Big Puma. That's me."

For all the rest of his days, he has been Puma. Strong. Quick. Athletic. Cunning. Yes, it's a self-deprecating knock, because he's doesn't appear to be athletic or quick, and he's certainly not cunning.

When he's in a certain mood, Berkman will entertain the media with tales of all the times Rice University baseball coach Wayne Graham -- a legendary, revered, tough-as-nails man -- cussed him out.

Berkman told so many stories that finally Graham had enough.

"Berkman!" Graham growled. "Stop making me part of your comedy routine."

When Berkman toyed with retirement this winter, Graham offered him a job on his coaching staff.

Finally, there's this one.

On the morning after Texas lost to Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series title game three years ago, Berkman telephoned a reporter and said he needed to get in touch with the Longhorn quarterbacks, Colt McCoy and Garrett Gilbert.

McCoy had been injured early in the contest, and Gilbert, a true freshman, had come off the bench and kept the Longhorns within striking distance for most of the game.

"I just want to tell 'em as a Texan how proud I am of them," Berkman said.

This is the guy the Texas Rangers, who signed Berkman to a one-year contract, are getting. They're hoping that at 36 and after an injury-shortened season with the Cardinals, he still has some productive baseball left in him. He was tired of the game and broken down physically when the Astros traded him to the Yankees in 2010.

When Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long met him, Berkman said something that shocked him.

"I haven't felt comfortable at the plate since 2006," he said.

Long examined some video from 2006 and was stunned at the difference in the player he was seeing then and the player he was seeing at the time. It was impossible to have a discussion of baseball's best players back then without including Berkman.

He was right there, a tick behind Albert Pujols, but certainly in the conversation. By 2010, that Lance Berkman was gone.

Long approached Berkman and said, "You're just using your upper body when you swing. What's wrong with your legs?"

Berkman told him he'd had a slow recovery from knee surgery and that he'd tried to play through a pulled calf muscle. In other words, he was screwed up at the plate. His legs had lost their strength, and he was trying to compensate in other ways.

Berkman's friends in Houston had known about these problems, but he would not discuss them. He also would not take himself out of the lineup. He believed that even at 60 percent or 70 percent, he could still help the Astros win games.

The Yankees put Berkman on an intense strengthening program for his legs, and by the time the playoffs began, a little of the old Berkman surfaced.

Still, he didn't know how much baseball he had left and wasn't sure what to do with himself. Then the St. Louis Cardinals offered him a deal.

He had gone to baseball heaven, and he quickly rediscovered his love of the game. No matter what happens to him now, I'm guessing his 2011 season with the Cardinals will always be the most fun he has ever had.

He loved the packed house. He loved manager Tony La Russa and his no-nonsense style. He loved his teammates, all of 'em, Chris Carpenter and Holliday and Allen Craig, all of 'em.

He loved how every game in St. Louis is a big deal, how expectations are high and that those who came before -- Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock -- set a standard for the Cardinals of today.

Berkman loved being associated with the Cardinals, and when they won the 2011 World Series, he stood outside the clubhouse and said, "Honestly, the emotions are overwhelming, more than I ever expected."

He fit with the Cardinals. His sense of humor and easygoing personality were great medicine for a clubhouse in which the biggest star at the time, Pujols, led by example instead of words.

Even last season, when a bad knee limited him to 81 at-bats, Berkman was probably the most popular Cardinal among his teammates. He was easily the most popular among the media because of his honesty and his ability to put things in a blunt perspective.

For instance ...

"Right now I stink," he once said. "Go ahead and write it. It's the truth."

He'll be the first to place blame on himself, the first to look at himself in the mirror. Because he will never point fingers, others tend not to as well.

There's a good chance he'll love the Rangers almost as much as he loved the Cardinals. There's a similar clubhouse environment, led by Adrian Beltre. The Rangers have a beloved manager in Ron Washington and a brilliant GM in Jon Daniels. They're a winning organization, with plenty of old friends, including team president Nolan Ryan.

The Rangers also play in a packed ballpark and in an environment in which winning is expected. This has been a transitional winter for the franchise with the departures of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young and the inability to sign Zack Greinke or acquire Justin Upton.

But the Rangers have a core of winning players and a great farm system. The personnel may have changed, but the expectations don't. Washington leaned on Young to put out fires in the clubhouse and to be the leader. Beltre is that guy now, but Berkman will be a huge asset.

His tone and his personality play well over a long season and will affect others. The Rangers are hoping his right knee will allow him to be the impact player he was in 2011 (.959 OPS, 31 home runs).

He's working relentlessly this winter to get ready, and he understands he has more yesterdays than tomorrows. If this is his last rodeo, he wants to make it a good one. He's one of those players who has made the game better by being a terrific player and a good citizen. Let's hope we see lots more of him.

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.

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