A look back at Lance Berkman’s time with the Astros.
January 29, 2002, 16 years ago today, the Astros signed Lance Berman to a 3-year contract worth 10.5 million dollars. Drafted by the Astros in the with the 16th overall pick of the 1997 Major League Baseball Draft out of the hometown Rice University. Berkman was named the 1997 National College Player of the year and an All American.
Berkman quickly climbed the ladder from single A, Kissimmee Cobras to triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs in 2 and a half seasons. He was called up hitting a red-hot .323 with eight home runs and 49 RBI.
Berkman went on to play 11 seasons with the Astros before becoming a journeyman for the Yankees, Cardinals, and Rangers – all teams the Astros have fierce rivalries with. A 15-year rap sheet, Berkman aka the “Big Puma” posted a career .293 batting average, 366 home runs, 1234 RBI, he played 1879 games, six all-star appearances, and made a few top 5 MVP voting finalist.
What’s with the Nickname?
I remember just like it was yesterday. It was early 2006, and I was listening to Lance Zierlein and John Granato on the radio. They had Lance Berkman in studio for all 3 hours of the show. They went on to discuss baseball among a few other humor relief topics. Those guys loved to joke around.
The topic of nicknames was brought up, and Berkman stated, to his dismay, that he has been dubbed “Fat Elvis.” Unsure of why he went on to tell the listeners that once a Cubs fan threw Twinkies at him and he ate them. But he didn’t like “Fat Elvis.” He went on to explain that he was sleek, agile and a graceful athlete. Berkman said, “I’m more like a Puma.”
“Pumas are fast and lean and deadly,” he said. “That’s me.”
The hosts were cracking up, I was cracking up and for those who call him that to this day I’m sure are still laughing about it. The nickname was picked up across the country on many TV and radio affiliates and moved on to become a household name.
An unlikely nickname for an unlikely guy.
Out of position
Berkman was a first baseman. But at the time of being called up to the majors, the Astros already had a hall of famer first baseman. You may remember, one Jeff Bagwell. To find a spot for him in the line-up the Astros asked him to move around the outfield spending time in left and right field until he found his rhythm, he was even assigned back to the minors for more practice. Known as a very powerful hitter Berkman came back with a force. He cemented his role in the starting lineup and was hitting a near .300 scoring runs and hitting home runs. Even more honorable than being solidified in the starting lineup, Lance became a legend amongst the Killer-B’s.
What 2005 meant.
Besides being hurt for the majority of the 2005 season, Lance moved to first base, a position he played throughout college and was most comfortable with. This was a magical season. Looking back now as the Astros win their first championship in franchise history, 2005 was a very close second.
The Big Puma was iconic in the postseason despite playing 132 games that year. Where were you on October 9th 2005? That was the infamous 18 inning NLDS that advanced the Astros in the postseason. Being down 6-1, Berkman hit a grand-slam closing the Braves lead to 6-5 and a solo shot by Brad Ausmus ties it and finally in the bottom of the 18th a Chris Burke walk-off home run decides the game.
The play call
I still hear Dave O’Brien and Rick Sutcliffe call that bases-loaded pitch count to Berkman.
“In for a strike and its 2-1 on Lance Berkman. I don’t think that’s a bad take there. You hit 2-0, he was looking middle in, Farnsworth painting that outside corner. I think Farnsworth right now will have to come right back with another fastball in the strike zone. And Berkman knows that as well. He hits a Grand Slam right now. If you’re Atlanta, you still got the lead. You walk, it changes.”
“Swing and a drive left field it’s high… It’s gone, Grand Slam Lance Berkman. 6-5 Braves lead” “Bedlam and Minute Maid Park in Houston!”
And just like that, the Astros are back in it. As we all know, the rest is history.
Most people will remember Ausmus tying shot in the 9th or Chris Burke’s walk-off homer. But for me, the Grand Slam is what I remember this game from. As a huge Berkman fan, he was the right guy at the right time in the right situation for this powerful switch hitter.
Lance Berkman final years with the Good Guys and beyond.
He would go on to play for the Astros for five more years. He would further impress the MLB and stack his stat sheet even becoming the only switch hitter in MLB history to hit 40 or more home runs in multiple seasons.
In 2010 he found himself with the New York Yankees via trade. In 2011 Berkman signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for a 2-year deal that earned him a Comeback Player of the year award and a World Series Championship that was bittersweet. More bitter because it was due to a long-hated rival in the Cardinals. Also sweet because the player we loved so much finally got a taste of victory.
He would finish his career in 2013 with the Texas Rangers, and then retire. The Big Puma signed a one-day contract with the Astros on April 5th, 2014 to retire where it all started, in Houston Texas, as an Astro.
Where is he now?
As of 2015, former Astro Lance Berkman is the head baseball coach at Second Baptist University in Houston. He is eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, whether he gets in or not is up to the baseball writers with votes. His numbers don’t scream Hall of Fame. With 1905 career hits, he is just 95 short of the 2000 hit club. Maybe he’ll get the nod on switch-hitting alone with the numbers provided.
According to Bleacher Report, Berkman is ranked 9th of the 25 best switch hitters of all time in a 2012 article. You’re in our Hall of Fame, Big Puma.
***** Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference*****