A PAIR OF OFF-SEASON CONVERSATIONS SET THE TONE for Lance Berkman in 2011. The well-publicized chat came during his appearance on a Houston radio station in late January. The Texas native had recently signed with the Cardinals, but previously he had spent 12 years as an Astro, and now he suggested that the cross-state Rangers would be "an average team" in 2011. He added that they had pitched "better than their talent level" in their 2010 run to the AL pennant.
"Well, I think I was wrong," Berkman said nine months later, on the eve of the World Series between the Cardinals and the Rangers. "I was asked an opinion and I was trying to be honest [about] what I thought at the time. Turns out I didn't know what I was talking about. I guess I'm a poor evaluator of talent."
Not entirely, as a private phone call between Berkman and Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. suggests. Shortly after signing the switch-hitting slugger to a one-year, $8 million free-agent deal, DeWitt called Berkman to welcome him to the team. Berkman was forthright about why he had signed with St. Louis. As DeWitt later recalled, Berkman said, "I came here because I really believe this team's got a shot to go to the World Series. It has that kind of talent."
One out of two ain't bad. So while the never-shy Berkman has been especially vocal this postseason—going out of his way to chime in on such topics as players' media responsibilities—he maintains credibility because of his sincerity, accountability and affability. And because he is, once again, a star offensive player.
Berkman, in other words, speaks loudly and carries a big stick.
And as far as talent evaluating, it was Berkman himself who proved many people wrong. His 2010 season had seemed to augur a troubling decline. A career .300 hitter with an average of 31 homers over 10 full seasons, Berkman batted .248 in '10 with 14 homers. His righthanded swing was in such disarray that he was reduced to a platoon role after being traded from Houston to the Yankees last summer.
But the Cardinals took a chance on him, and the 35-year-old rightfielder mashed 24 home runs before the All-Star break. Then, during the stretch run in which the Cardinals went 23--9, he batted .339 with a .446 on-base percentage.
Berkman's final numbers this season—he made the All-Star team and wound up at .301 with 31 home runs, 94 RBIs and a .412 on-base percentage—led to an all-but-foregone conclusion: In October he was named the NL's Comeback Player of the Year.
"We were bullish that he was going to have a bounce-back year," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "That's what our scouts were saying. To have the year he had, that would probably be a little unfair to say we expected that."
Berkman's forgettable 2010 may have been due more to health issues than an erosion of skills. He had arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks before that season and never fully got back on track. "The big thing with Lance [in '11] is he's healthy," Cardinals batting coach Mark McGwire says. "The one key thing to hitting a baseball is, you've got to have a base underneath you. You've got to have two strong legs. Last year he was coming back from knee surgery."