NOTE: With the Cardinals playing in Houston tonight, here’s a look at Lance Berkman’s return from die-hard Astros fan and Aerys reporter Terri Schlather.
Tuesday night when Lance Berkman comes home to Minute Maid Park, I feel certain he will be warmly welcomed by the fans in Houston. I know that I, for one, will have warm fuzzies at the sight of him on the field where he belongs, despite the fact that he’ll be wearing an odd uniform. I won’t be able to help but smile at the thought of this Texas boy coming home.
Whether you know him as Fat Elvis, Big Puma, one of the “Killer Bs” or LB, you can’t deny that Lance Berkman has not only ingrained himself into record books, but also into the hearts of fans. I hear he’s already winning over the fans in St. Louis and even inspiring a Twitter fan club that hashtags #LBFanClub on all of their tweets, but I can’t imagine they’ll ever have the love for him that those of us who are Astros fans always will.
In July of 2010, when Berkman was traded to the N.Y. Yankees for Jimmy Paredes and Mark Melancon, I remember being shocked. Now, as any Astros fan knew, the club needed to make big changes and they were going to start rebuilding the farm system and the faces in MMP were definitely getting younger. But knowing that didn’t stop me from having to call my dad in a panic. “Berkman’s going to the Yankees?” Now, there’s no one in the United States who dislikes the Yankees as much as me, so this felt like a slap in the face. I was only appeased by the reports that Lance didn’t really want to leave. I think my heart broke a little that day.
My memories of the self-named Big Puma start long before the nickname. I knew of him as a first baseman playing for the New Orleans Zephyrs, but didn’t see him play until the Astros called him up midway through the 1999 season. He was moved to the outfield, as Jeff Bagwell owned first base in Houston at the time, and the Astros would never be the same to me again.
There are moments in his career that will live on forever in Houston, like when he hit an eighth inning grand slam in the 2005 NLDS against the Braves in what would become the longest game in MLB playoff history – the Astros won that game in the bottom of the 18th inning and the series and the NLCS over the Cardinals as well, only to be swept by the Chicago White Sox in the World Series although Berkman led the Astros hitters with 6 RBI in the four games and a .385 average. Or when he hit his 300th home run in a game against the Diamondbacks or when he won the 2004 Home Run Derby with 51 homers or when he broke the Astros single-season record (held by Craig Biggio) hitting 45 home runs and 136 RBIs. His list of achievements could go on and on and on. And I fully expect him to someday be in Cooperstown.
Now, I could give you all his stats – he’s a five-time All-Star, he’s still ranked 12th in batting average (.303) for active players, 12th among active players for slugging (.561) and he’s 7th in OPS (.983) – but I might cry if I start telling you how great a ballplayer he is when his old team is struggling so much this year. He hit more day-game home runs at Minute Maid Park than anyone – 147. (We could really use all those home runs he’s been hitting for St. Louis down here!) But the man is more than his playing.
Berkman’s a likeable guy. He’s a husband to wife, Cara, and a dad to four adorable girls. He’s public about his Christianity and faith, and whether you believe the same thing as Lance or not, you can’t help but respect his dedication to the things he loves in life.
He’s also a funny guy. In fact, one the things I miss the most about him (other than his hitting) is that there was a Twitter account called @PumaOneLiners and it was used to tweet all of the funny lines that would constantly come from him as well as other Astros. It made for one really fun Twitter feed! He said things like, “One run games can go either way and most of the time they do.” Or when he ended a game with a strikeout and slammed his bat down and he later told the media “there was a centipede on the ground and I wanted to smash it before it scared the crowd!” Since his departure, the username was changed to @AstrosOneLiners and his contribution of one liners are definitely missed!
I always thought the fact that he gave himself his own nickname was a classic in and of itself. Of course, if I had been dubbed “Fat Elvis” as he had, I might find a way to change my name too! Alyson Footer, Senior Director of Digital Media for the Astros, has a lot of memories of the fat comments and asked him about it once. “I remember writing a story about him when he was on that historic offensive tear in May of 2008 and we talked about why everyone thought he was fat, even though in person, he clearly wasn’t fat at all. He explained that he has a fat face – described them as ‘big jowls’ – and that between that and the camera adding 10 pounds, that’s why everyone thought he was fat.” He wasn’t “Fat Elvis” forever, though.
The story is that just before the 2006 season Lance was a on a Houston sports radio show and he joked with the hosts that he didn’t know why people called him Fat Elvis because he was more like a Big Puma, and went on to say that Puma just made sense as he was “agile, athletic, sleek … all the things that describe my game.” Although his tone was quite sarcastic, the name stuck.
The number 17 is still prominently displayed on the backs of many fans at Minute Maid Park and I don’t think that will go away anytime soon. So, no matter what uniform he wears when he takes the field, no matter what city he is in and no matter what fans claim him, I think the people of the city of Houston will always consider Minute Maid Park to be Lance Berkman’s baseball home. I hope he does too.
Terri Schlather (AGirlintheSouth) is the Senior Houston Astros Reporter for Aerys Sports. You can read her Astros blog at www.talesfromthejuicebox.com, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @agirlinthesouth.