Berkman more comfortable in camp
Astros legend accepting leadership responsibility this spring
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Soon after he signed his most recent contract a few years ago, Lance Berkman implied he might call it a career when that deal expired.
But Berkman, now a bit older (33) and apparently a bit wiser, has changed his tune. His contract runs through 2010 with a club option for '11, and if he's still healthy and productive, he'd like to continue.
"My kids are getting older, and that's a factor," Berkman said. "I can't guarantee that I'm going to hang around indefinitely, but if you were to ask me today, I would say I'm definitely planning to play past this contract."
As it stands, Berkman sees at least three or four more good years in his future -- as long as "Uncle D [club owner Drayton McLane] wants to pony up," Berkman said with a smile.
That part remains to be seen, but it's probably not premature to assume the two sides will find a way to keep "the Puma" in Houston. Berkman's career is still in full swing, yet he's already considered an Astros legend, cut from the same cloth as his predecessors, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, and likely headed for the same fate -- playing his entire career for one team.
Berkman, entering his ninth full season in the big leagues, is in a decidedly better mood this year than he was when he reported to Spring Training in 2008. At that time, the Astros' clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium was filled with virtual strangers, the result of Ed Wade's complete overhaul of the roster during his first offseason as the club's general manager.
Gone were several key members of the 2006 and '07 teams that did not make it to the postseason, and this made for one unhappy Puma, who admitted he was upset about the departure of many of his good friends -- Chris Burke, Brad Lidge and Adam Everett, to name a few.
This year, Berkman reported to Spring Training more like his usual self -- happy and chatty, cracking jokes and, for the most part, enjoying himself. That's partly because he's more comfortable around a team that remained largely unchanged over the offseason, and partly because Berkman decided pouting is simply unbecoming of a Major League player.
"You can choose to be miserable, or you can choose to make the best of whatever situation you're in," Berkman said. "This year, I decided to just come in and do whatever they wanted me to do, be as good of a player as I can be and be as good a teammate as I can be, and let the rest go.
"Whenever you have long-running teammates, and all of a sudden none of them are around anymore, it certainly is a deflating experience. But I'm over it. Plus, the second year you're around and you've played with guys all last year, you develop a bond with them."
The Astros are now in their longest playoff drought since they won their first division title 12 years ago. From 1997 through 2005, the longest they went without a postseason appearance was two years -- from 2002-03.
Their current stretch is three years and counting, having fallen short in 2006, '07 and '08. They did make a mad dash late last season that was almost enough to grab a Wild Card berth.
Berkman actually slumped as the Astros took off. He had a tremendous first half, hitting .347 with 22 homers and 73 RBIs. But Berkman hit just .259 after the All-Star break, even while the Astros were putting together the best second half in the National League.
Through the ups and downs, Berkman understood, sometimes grudgingly, that he is currently the face of the franchise, along with right-hander Roy Oswalt. At 33, Berkman is no longer a fresh-faced rookie content to quietly observe Bagwell and Biggio, and while he hasn't quite embraced his leadership role as completely as his predecessors, he still understands his responsibilities.
"Every year, I think your responsibility as a veteran and the position of leadership increases," he said. "The older guys are moving out, and you're kind of looking around, and you're starting to be the oldest guy around. But we've got guys like [Doug] Brocail, Darin Erstad, Geoff Blum -- guys that have been around a while. You don't feel like it's all on you, but at the same token, each passing year, you kind of assume more and more of the leadership role."
Oswalt has taken on that same role from the pitching side, but unlike Berkman, the 31-year-old swears he'll be done when his contract expires in 2011. The club holds an option for '12, but Oswalt has repeatedly said when the deals runs out in '11, so will he.
That would be an unusually early retirement for a Major League star, and Berkman believes Oswalt will stick around.
"Everybody I've talked to, even guys that are staunch advocates of cutting your career short, they all miss it," Berkman said. "To a man, I've never talked to anybody that retired while they still had something left in the tank and was pleased with the decision. Even if Roy hangs them up for a year, I predict a comeback after a year's absence."
Chances are Berkman still will be slugging away in Houston then, too.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.