DP leaves the park with Lance Berkman
A condensed version of Dan Patrick's interview with Houston Astros outfielder Lance Berkman appeared in the May 12 edition of ESPN The Magazine
DP: Best barbecue in Houston?
|Lance Berkman enjoys conversing with catchers, but he avoids the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate.|
LB: I'm going to have to go with Good Company Barbecue on I-10. From the ballpark, it's probably 15 minutes but it's about five minutes from my house.
DP: Fat Elvis or skinny Elvis?
LB: Definitely Fat Elvis.
LB: Because I think any great performer or athlete has to have a little bit of a gut to be great.
DP: And are you personalizing that?
LB: Not exactly.
DP: What's the toughest ballpark as far as fans heckling you?
LB: Wrigley Field. I'll probably get scalded for saying this, since people like Wrigley because it's nostalgic, but if they blew that place up it wouldn't bother me at all. People think it's a good hitter's park but it really isn't, because they keep the grass about knee-high in the infield and when the wind blows in you can't see. And the temperature's never comfortable -- it's either freezing cold or sweltering hot. It's just a tough place to play.
DP: What about the fans? Do they get on you?
LB: They do indeed.
DP: Give me a sampling.
LB: Well, a lot of what they say can't be repeated in a magazine or otherwise. They're definitely the most vulgar fans in the league.
DP: Any must-see TV shows?
LB: I don't watch a whole lot of TV. I don't necessarily have any favorite TV shows.
DP: So there's nothing that's a guilty pleasure for you? Shows that make you say "I don't like admitting that I watch the 'Bachelorette' or 'Survivor'"?
LB: No, but I've watched quite a bit of the Golf Channel here recently. So I guess I'm addicted to the Golf Channel.
DP: Whose movies do you not miss?
LB: Two of my favorites are Mel Gibson and Robert Duvall.
DP: If they put something out, you're going to go see it?
DP: What movie star do you think either looks like you or best exemplifies you?
LB: Hmm, that's a tough one. I'm not real sure. I don't know that anybody's ever compared me to a movie star. I'm too ugly to be compared to a movie star. I've been accused of looking like Fat Elvis.
DP: You should come out with the sideburns.
LB: Yeah, exactly.
DP: Do you have a fear of flying?
LB: That is correct. I do not like to fly.
DP: How do you cope with that?
LB: There's not much you can do about it. I mean, I've got to do it to play ball, so I just get on there and pray that nothing happens.
DP: Do you have guys who refuse to sit next to you?
LB: No. I mean, I'm not white-knuckling it or anything. It just makes me a little bit uncomfortable.
DP: Did you lose any money in Enron?
LB: No, I did not.
DP: Do you enjoy Minute Maid products?
LB: Yes, I do. Coca-Cola is their parent company, and one of the best beverages on the face of the earth is an ice cold Coca-Cola.
DP: How many could you go through in the course of a day?
LB: If I was undisciplined, I could probably have one at every meal in the day, maybe another one for general purposes.
DP: So what you're saying is you're disciplined?
LB: Well, I try to limit myself because those things are just pure sugar. Nothing puts weight on you quicker than that. So I try to limit myself to one a day.
DP: Favorite Texas musician.
LB: There's just so many. I'm going to have to think on that one for a second. I like country music so I'd probably have to go with Willie Nelson.
DP: Did you ever see Willie in concert?
LB: Never did.
DP: Better go soon.
LB: Yeah, running out of time.
DP: Hottest Dixie chick.
LB: None of them.
LB: Well, for one thing, they're not very patriotic, which I'm not very pleased with, and that matters more to me than their physical appearance.
DP: Did you throw out your Dixie Chicks CDs after that?
LB: I don't have any Dixie Chicks CDs to begin with, and now I'm even less of a fan.
DP: As an athlete, should you just be an athlete or should you be able to speak up on political issues?
LB: Well, I think anybody can voice an opinion on where they stand politically. I mean, part of why our country is great is because everybody can have an opinion. I don't think that an athlete or an entertainer should be taken any more or less seriously than a general citizen of the United States. I think everybody is entitled to their opinion. We're not going to agree, but we shouldn't give any more or less weight to what somebody is saying based upon the fact that they're semi-famous or an entertainer or athlete.
DP: But is it your job, do you think, to be able to bring it to somebody's attention or wait until somebody brings it to your attention?
LB: My job is to play baseball, and to be an entertainer in that capacity. But I think it's a unique opportunity and it's a unique platform to be able to voice opinions and take stands for certain things. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to stand up for what I believe in.
DP: According to BaseballLibrary.com, you have a habit of impersonating mascots. Give me your best impersonation story.
LB: Now see, here's an example of how one incident can blossom into an inaccurate report. What happened was I had minor knee surgery when I was in Triple-A in 1999 -- I had a little torn meniscus and they went in and shaved it off so that it wouldn't give me any trouble. I was ready to go after about three weeks of rehab but they wanted me to sit out a month, so I had a week where I felt like I was fully ready to go. But they were holding me back and I wasn't getting the chance to play. So, I came to the park. I knew I wasn't going to be in the game. And so I snuck into the mascot's room and put on the costume of the large water rat mascot. There's a boy and a girl, and I put on the girl costume and went out unbeknownst to the manager and was dancing around on the dugout and walking around the field. A couple of guys recognized me in the suit by the way I was walking and they let the manager know, and he got pretty upset.
DP: Didn't you also take batting practice wearing a sumo-wrestler costume?
LB: Yes, I did.
DP: So you're saying this is only one incident.
LB: Well, I wouldn't call a sumo wrestler a mascot. That's just an on-the-field promo. But yes, I have been known to put on a mascot uniform here or there.
DP: Is that your fetish?
LB: Well, I don't know if I'd go that far.
DP: Jeff Bagwell said two years ago, "Have you ever spoken to Berkman?" I said "No." And he goes "Oh man, he's out there." It's almost as if people expect you to be different.
DP: Best-tasting gum.
LB: Oh, that's a tough one. I'm going to have to go with Dubble Bubble. I enjoy the taste.
DP: Best gum for bubbles.
LB: Any real good bubble gum, you should be able to produce some decent bubbles. But the trick is to get a lot of the sugar out of the gum. You can't blow big bubbles if the gum still has a lot of sugar in it.
DP: You've explored this?
DP: Longest-lasting gum.
LB: Let's see ... one characteristic of bubble gum that it doesn't hold its flavor for a very long time. Because once the sugar gets out of it then it doesn't have any taste. So you have to go with the sugar-free gum if you want long-lasting flavor. It depends on what you're after. It's like a power hitter or like a sprinter at a marathon. They're two different athletes, two different species.
DP: So it depends on whether you want something long-lasting or you want that short burst?
DP: Strangest thing you've thought of in the outfield.
LB: Playing the outfield a lot of times is just kind of a stream-of-consciousness experience. Because you can think about just about anything on the face of the earth while you're standing out there during a pitching change or even if it's a boring game and the guy's not throwing a lot of strikes. Your mind can definitely wander. I can't think of necessarily one specific strange thing I've thought of but I'm sure there's been many.
DP: What about at the plate?
LB: Sometimes I just step in there and I'll see the first pitch and step out and go, "I have no chance."
DP: Give me the last pitcher you faced where you did that.
LB: Well, Randy Johnson, just about every time. You step in there and you just hope that maybe that day he's not on. But even if he's not it's still pretty unhittable. Kerry Wood can be that way.
DP: How many hits do you have against Randy Johnson?
DP: Did you ask for the ball?
LB: No. I wouldn't dare do that, he might hit me in the neck with the next one.
DP: Do you sometimes see somebody's stuff and say, "What am I doing here?"
LB: Yeah. A lot of times I'll kneel down on the on-deck circle and think, "Goodness gracious, this guy looks like he's pretty nasty from the side." And then you get up there and the first pitch confirms it, and from that point forward you're just trying to survive. That happens a lot, where you're just like, "I have no clue how I'm going to get anything done against this guy."
DP: Have you ever accidentally hit a home run?
LB: Oh yeah, I've done that several times.
DP: And do people believe you when you say, "I didn't mean to hit that."
LB: That is where all the batting practice you take and all the years of playing come in. I mean, sometimes your body just takes over. You just react, you know? You see a pitch and before you know it you've hit it well and it goes out of the ballpark, and you're running around first and you're thinking "Good gracious, how in the world did that happen?" That happens quite a bit, especially like with two strikes. You're up there just trying to survive, just trying to put a ball in play and the guy throws a pitch and before you know it you've hit it well and it goes out.
DP: Got any tips for Craig Biggio as he learns to play the outfield?
LB: You'd better get ready to run out there at our park, because I'll tell you what, there's a lot of room in center field.
DP: Have you ever run into the flagpole out there?
LB: I have not. The good thing about that is it's so far away from home plate that it hardly ever comes into play. And if it ever does come into play you have time to kind of drift back there because the ball has a lot of air under it. If a guy hits a line drive that far, you're not going to catch it anyway. So you're not running full speed, looking back trying to catch a line drive. And if it's got a lot of air under it, you can generally go in under control.
DP: Do you like that train that goes around?
LB: I hate it. I think it's the most annoying thing about our field. And you know, we have to deal with that thing every day.
DP: I keep waiting for Bagwell to hit a ball that will actually knock it off the track.
LB: You know, it doesn't look like it, but that thing is enormous. It would take a direct hit from a missile to blow that thing off the track.
DP: Would you like to be the conductor?
LB: No. I mean, there's nothing to it. It goes back and forth on a track not even a quarter-of-a-mile long. It doesn't seem like it would be very much fun to me.
DP: What's the key to successful switch-hitting?
|Lance Berkman's bubble gum of choice? Dubble Bubble.|
LB: The key to successful switch-hitting for me is to try to hit left-handed as much as possible to keep me off the right side of the plate. Being a switch-hitter is pretty much the bane of my existence, because you do have to worry about two different swings and it seems like just when the game is getting at its most critical moment, here comes a lefty and you've got to figure something out from the other side of the plate and you don't have much time to do it.
DP: What's the worst thing a coach ever said to you?
LB: Oh, let's see ... I was playing in high school in the summer league and my coach asked another coach why a certain university wasn't going to recruit me. The guy responded that he didn't think I would ever hit in college. That's the worst thing I've heard.
DP: Best conversation you've had with a catcher at the plate.
LB: Benito Santiago is pretty accommodating to conversations. A lot of catchers don't like to talk; they're really focused and concentrating, but he'll talk to you. At least you can hold a conversation with him.
DP: Give me an idea. You step in the box and how does the conversation go?
LB: Well, it just depends on how the game's going. If it's a tight game, late in the game and it's a serious situation, you might not say anything. But early in the game, after a particularly nasty pitch, you might say, "Damn, that was a pretty good pitch there" (or something like that). I mean, we're not discussing Calvinism versus Arminianism or anything like that. Just trying to keep some light banter going.
DP: Who's the guy who just won't talk to you?
LB: Mike Matheny. He's a great guy, but he just will not talk to you on the field.
DP: But does that make you now want to try to engage him in conversation?
LB: Well, I always say "What's up, Mike?" or something like that. But you respect the guys who like to play the game that way. I don't want to impose on anyone who doesn't want to have a conversation while they're trying to play baseball. But to me, that just makes the game more entertaining.
DP: Can you be friends with a pitcher on the other team?
LB: Well, yeah, but I don't recommend it. Unfortunately, I am friends with a lot of pitchers I have to face. It's always tougher because you want to see those guys do well, especially the guys who you really have a strong friendship with, but at the same time you're trying to compete against them. I find it easier to hit if I don't know the pitcher and he doesn't know me.
DP: [Astros manager] Jimy Williams is known to express himself in original ways. Has he said anything memorable lately?
LB: No. It's spring training so he's been pretty laid-back.
DP: But don't they all have sayings? Managers will always repeat themselves by saying something trite?
LB: Yeah, they generally do and a lot of times they do that more to the media than the players. But he told me a funny story: Umpire Joe Brinkman, he has a tendency to get pretty far away from home plate when he calls balls and strikes, and he was doing one of our games at spring training. Jimy said one time he got into an argument with Brinkman and went out there and asked him if he wanted Jimy him to buy him a ticket so he could umpire from the first row because he's so far back. I thought that was pretty funny.
DP: What uniform do you think you would look better in?
LB: I like all the older team uniforms, the classics. I think the Cardinals have a good uniform. The Tigers, the Yankees. The teams that have been around. The Red Sox. I like the uniforms that are more old-school.
DP: What uniform could you not see yourself in?
LB: The Phillies.
DP: Why is that?
LB: I don't know. I'm just not a big fan of Philadelphia in general.
DP: Favorite friend on another team.
LB: I know a lot of guys on other teams. Sean Casey, I think, is everybody's friend. He's a great guy. And then, Jay Powell with the Rangers and Russ Johnson with the Mets this year. Those are three of my good friends who play other places.
DP: When I look at the home-run leaders I see names like Barry Bonds, and I see your name's also in there. Should your name be included in there, in your mind? That's the kind of player you want to be?
LB: Well, absolutely.
DP: But do you not want to be a home-run hitter?
LB: No, not necessarily. I mean, Bonds won the batting championship last year so he's just on another level, and Sammy Sosa is that kind of player, too. I don't think I can ever get to a level like that. But I want to be a guy who produces runs, who drives in runs, who can beat you with a single or can beat you with a home run, who's just a tough out. One thing I've learned is that there's always going to be somebody better than you unless you're Barry. And on any given day, anybody can be a great player. On a particular day somebody who normally wouldn't be considered in the same league with Barry and Sammy can be better than them, you know? They're just having a great day at the plate. You just try to be consistent and try to be as good a player as you can be and not worry about comparisons. I don't have to be as good as Barry or Sammy to be a good ballplayer.
DP: What's the difference between you and Bonds?
LB: About 500 career home runs.
DP: But as far as talent goes?
LB: I don't know. He's at a totally different place than I am.
DP: But what makes him different than you?
LB: Well, for one thing, he's a lot older than I am. And he's got a lot more experience and he's been around a lot longer. I think he's learned things about his swing and about the way to approach the game that I've yet to learn. From a physical talent standpoint, his swing is so mechanically sound that it enables him to get a better look at the ball, I think, than anybody else in the game. And his hands are probably as quick or quicker than anybody out there.
DP: If you were going to study a film of anybody, a video of someone hitting, who would you want to study?
LB: I really don't think that that would be productive for me just because everybody's swing is different.
DP: There's nobody like you?
DP: Well, everybody's different. Every major-league player has the same general mechanics, but it's how you individually get to the same spot. Everybody starts a little different. I mean, Gary Sheffield has a different start than Jeff Bagwell, and Bonds has a different approach than Sammy. Everybody starts differently but everybody gets to the same general spot before the ball is delivered. And for me, hitting is such a personal thing. I can't watch a film of Barry hit and then have that improve the way I hit. It'd be like you reading Shakespeare and then being able to go out and write just like him. I mean, that just doesn't happen because you've got your own unique style of writing, and hitting is no different. Maybe I would watch a film of myself because I know when I do things right and when I do things wrong.
DP: When's the last time you got a steroid question?
LB: It's been awhile.
DP: It's usually the guys who are ripped who we're asking about that. It's like Luis Gonzalez said: "If they ask me, all they have to do is look at this body and know there's no chance with something like that." So do you just go on automatic pilot when somebody asks you a question about that?
LB: No, I mean, I think people who cheat will be found out. And as a guy who doesn't use steroids, it creates a playing field that's not level and I would have no problem if the testing was more stringent than it is right now. And I have no problem taking the test. I've got nothing to hide. I just think that if you're going to test you might as well find out for sure who's doing and who's not and really try to put a stop to it. I mean, I don't think the test should just be eyewash for the media or for the fans. If they're going to test, they should do it in a manner that really produces results in the form of clamping down on the guys who are using.
DP: Yeah, but that's the problem. It is window dressing. And when the White Sox were going to take a stance, I thought "Good, if you guys feel strongly about that, let's put this into law and make sure that it's not just, hey, you tested positive for steroids and we're not going to tell anybody and we're not going to get you help or you don't have to pay a fine or anything." I mean, I don't even know what it's for anymore.
LB: Well, I do: It's a public-relations move to try to get people off of everybody's back. You know, we've got this testing in place so nobody can say anything now. Although I don't think the testing procedure really has has teeth, to be honest with you.
DP: But we keep hearing percentages, and it's such wide-ranging percentages that it's hard to know. It's almost like guilt by association. It could be close to 70 percent who are using steroids, so it's almost as if you're guilty until proven innocent.
LB: Well, I would be shocked if the percentage of people using steroids is as high as 50 percent.
DP: Well, give me what you think. You can sit there in the dugout and say yes, no or maybe.
LB: There are some teams that probably have nobody who takes them, but on average there might be three guys on the 25-man roster who either are taking steroids or have taken them. So that's 12 percent?
LB: And to me, that would be a reasonable figure. And I actually think that steroid use was more prevalent 10 years ago than it is right now.
DP: Oh, probably so. But I think that we have things now that you can use that although it's not steroids, it's cheating.
LB: Right. I told somebody the other day that I would sign an agreement with every player in baseball to not lift the weighs during the off season. And I think if we banded together than we'd all have a lot less work to do during the off season.
DP: That's big of you.
LB: Yeah. Some guys just love it. I mean, some guys get in the weight room and really enjoy that. I can't stand it, to be honest with you. I mean, I'd rather just hit and then play the game and not have to worry about keeping up with everybody who's lifting weights and doing stuff like that.
DP: Do you think less of a teammate if you think he's cheating?
LB: That's kind of a tough question. I would have no respect for his personal code of ethics because cheating is cheating. And there's no way to justify it. At the same time, I can understand how somebody would be driven to that, based upon the risk/reward. I mean, if a guy's on the bubble, the difference between making $50,000 a year in Triple-A or $300,000 a year to be on a big-league roster is a pretty big pay jump. So I understand why somebody would be put in a position where they felt they needed to do something to get an edge if they were on the bubble. But having said that, cheating is cheating and I don't think you can justify it by anything.
DP: When did you know you were a big-leaguer? Was there something you bought or something somebody said or a moment when you went "You know what? I'm in the Show."
LB: It took me a while to get used to it. I mean, I wasn't one of these guys who came up and just felt like I belonged immediately. I guess after the 2000 season was when I really felt like, "I know I can compete and I know I can do well at this level." In 1999, I was up for two months and struggled a little bit. Didn't hit very well. The first part of 2000, I struggled. And then I finally started to put it together in my second stint up in 2000 and I got a chance to play everyday because we had an injury. The guy who was playing in front of me in the outfield broke his hand and was out for three months so I knew I was going to have a little time to sort of prove myself. And at that point, when I started to play consistently and to produce consistently, I knew that I could compete and do well in the big leagues.
DP: Did Richard Hidalgo show you his bullet wound?
LB: Yeah, he did, actually. It was pretty grisly. It's just very fortunate it didn't hit any nerves. It just pretty much went through muscle tissue.
DP: That's unbelievable.
LB: It really is.
DP: I mean, when you go home for the offseason and he goes home for the offseason, I don't think you worry about not being able to come back or losing your life.
LB: No, I really don't. That's one of the securities we have in this country that our troops are fighting for right now, that a lot of times we take for granted.
DP: First car you had.
LB: First car was a '77 Ford F-1-50 pickup trick with no AC and no radio.
DP: Not exactly a chick-mobile?
LB: No, it wasn't. But I will say this: it definitely was a barometer for the girls I was dating, because if they didn't like it then I wouldn't be dating them very long.
DP: So if they could get in with no air conditioning and no radio they were your kind of girl?
LB: Exactly. I knew it was where I needed to be.