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Berkman at the Bat 

A flag football injury sent the Houston Astros' Lance Berkman back to the minors for rehabbing. The climb back up passed through Zephyr Field.

First Inning

Here's a simple accounting of all the money stuff.

First off, some of the clubhouse workers and hangers-on are telling Bunyanesque tales of some big-league rehabbers peeling hundreds off a thick roll to buy lunch for the entire clubhouse.

Lance Berkman could possess such a roll. This year, after averaging a star-like 113 RBIs and 107 runs for the four previous seasons, Berkman signed a six-year contract for a reported $85 million.

Then -- the details are fuzzy -- the former Rice star tore up his right knee playing flag football. So for this year's wobbly Astros, so far no RBIs, no runs scored. He's been working to get the knee better and now comes a final rehab test before going back to the majors, a few days playing for Round Rock (Texas), the Houston Astros Triple-A affiliate.

He's played baseball in this town before. He came to New Orleans in 1998 when the Zephyrs were Houston's Triple-A team and spent parts of the next three seasons here. He hit three home runs in his first game in a Zephyrs uniform and when the Z's played Buffalo in Las Vegas for the Little World Series, he again hit three in a game. The last one went over the wall and then went into warp speed. He could do that -- hit what seemed to be a lazy fly that would shift into another gear and just keep going and going.

But that was then and now is the minor leagues. Baseball on the rocks, no chaser. A week at the Best Western when you're used to the St. Regis. Players on the margin between Triple A and the Big Show often shuffle between the two and guys on the way out grab for a second chance, like one-time Vegas headliners playing Indian casinos in the middle of nowhere. There's no comparable minor league in football or basketball where you can fight for your cover, no decompression chamber where you can indulge or confront the Grand Illusion one more time.

So how or why a flag football game? As somebody said at Zephyr Stadium, 'That took a lotta brains.' Only speculation, but Lance Berkman is by all accounts a regular guy, a straight shooter, one of the boys. Could he have been fighting to make sure that $85 million wouldn't turn his skull around by doing things that he did before the money got there?

Doing stuff like a regular guy.

Like a little flag football, maybe.

Second Inning

It's just like a major-league clubhouse, only smaller and not as nice.

The bat racks bulge with Louisville Sluggers. Members of the visiting Round Rock Express find their lockers by taped nameplates. They sit at long tables, working crossword puzzles and reading USA Today. Some munch donuts or watermelon slices.

Lance Berkman comes in wearing a black shirt, jeans and two-tone brown shoes. He has a sharp-cut goatee and a red wristband with some phrase of Christian inspiration on it.

He has the look of a once-pudgy kid who grew out of it nice and tall, though he lacks the look of a steroid suspect. He mixes well. He knows most of the Round Rock players from spring training and he acts like he's among equals.

This locker room is a familiar place. 'When I lived here, I really didn't get to see much, I could have been anywhere,' he says. 'But I've seen people in the stands who would talk to me when I was with the Zephyrs. They ask if I remember them. But it just doesn't seem like there's as many people in the stands as when I played here.'

There's not as many today, just a bunch of school kids. When Berkman comes out to lead off the game -- Round Rock will have him batting lead-off to maximize his times-at-bat during his rehab -- he's wearing No. 37, not the previously announced 17. None of the kids cheer the announcement of his name.

After taking a couple of pitches outside, Berkman then fouls one off his fists, swings and misses, and then passively watches strike three tickle the outside corner.

He looks to be in a hurry on his way back to the dugout.

Third Inning

'In Triple A you didn't know whether they were going to throw a fastball on the black or a fastball behind your back,' once declared Tony Gwynn, who won eight batting titles for the San Diego Padres. 'It was easier to hit up here than in Triple A because the guys are around the plate and you're playing the same guys over and over.'

One of the Round Rock players in the dugout is having some fun with a little kid sitting in the front row. The player has a baseball with a long piece of tape wrapped around it. He keeps tossing the ball on top of the dugout and when the kid makes a grab for it, he pulls it back by the piece of tape.

Just another way of trying to ignore the monotony of the dugout on the road in a day game before a crowd made up almost exclusively of school kids on a field trip. But not for Lance Berkman, who is watching the Z's pitcher intently.

'After a while in the majors, you know most of the pitchers and what they're gonna throw,' says Berkman. 'But here it's all new, so you're paying attention.'

In the second, Berkman comes up to face Brian Powell with two out and a runner on second. He took some pitches in his first at-bat, but he's up there hacking now. First pitch, roped to the right and the run comes home.

Someone's paying attention.

Fourth Inning

That bow-tied Boethius called George Will once wrote, 'Greatness is never given. It must be wrested by athletes from the fleeting days of their physical primes.'

Lance Berkman can be a tad philosophical about it too, sitting in the dugout before the start of batting practice.

'Everyone knows there's a last game in you,' he says in his soft Texas twang. 'I don't think mine's close, but this is a good reminder that it's there. I've never been in rehab before, so this is a good wake-up call for me.'

He gazes around Zephyr Field, the hard-knock infield, the outfield signs, and for a minute he keeps his thoughts to himself. There is such a thing as letting go of the game, but not now. Now is the time for taking hold of it again.

Then Tim Foli, the Zephyrs manager, drifts over for some good-ol'-boy teasing and Berkman goes to the top of the dugout steps and seems glad to see him. Anything to get in the way of a memento mori.


Fifth Inning

Behind the Round Rock dugout, a couple of rows back, sits a knot of knockers, a clutch of critics. They've come out tonight to cheer the fresh air and boo Lance Berkman. Baseball's a great game for cheering or booing; the action's leisurely enough to think creatively and on nights when large chunks of the seating are empty, the shouted jibe resonates for a good half-inning.

Five young men and among them four baseball caps (half worn backwards), three scruffy shaves, two pitchers of beer. All looking to be about Berkman's age. When a Round Rock batter fans, one yells, 'You swing like Berkman!' The yell is loud and the half-empty stands make it sound even louder.

In the eighth, runner on second, Berkman batting right-hand against New Orleans lefthander Joe Morgan. The pitch is swung on and crunched, crushed, creamed. The ball heads toward center on a line and is hit so hard that it's rising. The Zephyrs fielder, running hard to his left, reaches up on tip-toe like a Greek faun plucking wine-dark grapes held aloft.

'Awwww,' say the critical young men in mock disdain.

Baseball. Some days you eat the bear. But on the days that he eats you, it's tough to be on the road and on an achy knee.


Sixth Inning

'The pressure never lets up,' Stan Coveleski said of baseball when he played it for the Cleveland Indians in the 1920s. 'Don't matter what you do yesterday. That's history. It's tomorrow that counts. So you worry all the time. It never ends. Lord, baseball is a worrying thing.' 'The most fun thing about baseball is camaraderie,' Lance Berkman says 80 years later. 'The worst thing is games day after day after day. It's hard to bring that much energy and concentration to that so many times.'

On this day Chad Durbin is pitching for the Z's and the first time through the lineup he's throwing lots of offspeed stuff. Called strike to Berkman in the third, then a long foul. Then two balls, one high, one low. Then a screaming foul. Then a swinging strike to end the inning.

The crypto-scientist will tell you that the difference between a batter's 'sweet spot' and the 'hole in his swing' may be in inches or less. The difference between a fastball and a change-up may be measured in hundredths of a second. And you've only got two-fifths of a tick to make the existential choice.


Seventh Inning

By the seventh, even most of the school kids had gone, filing out noisily to a yawning fleet of yellow buses. There's only one cluster of red-shirted kids along the right-field line. The scattered dozens still in the stands have to lift their legs up for the sweepers tidying up the aisles. Baseball fans, all Š

Lance Berkman remembers something of minor-league ballparks and their sometimes-terrifying emptiness. In 1998, the Zephyrs won the Little World Series by beating Buffalo at the neutral Las Vegas field.

'After the last out, we all ran out to celebrate, but you could hear the champagne corks popping because there was nobody cheering in the stands. It was like we were celebrating alone.'

The game goes into extra innings. Berkman leads off the tenth against Roy Corcoran. He lashes out a long foul to left, then works a walk. The Round Rock manager takes him out for a pinch-runner, but he sticks around to congratulate the winning pitcher.

Then he talks to the TV cameras, even though he'll probably have no need of those particular cameras ever again.

That's what major leaguers do -- the ones with class.


Eighth Inning

He's not hitting the ball good, and he'd probably be the first to tell you so. But it's too soon to be a slump and it's way too soon to even mutter the word.

This is how the old Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer described a slump: 'You decide you'll wait for your pitch. Then, as the ball starts toward the plate, you think about your stance, and then you think about your swing, and then you realize that the ball that went past you for a strike was your pitch.'

Just that. Those tiny moments of self-doubt that can be an annoyance to a businessman are time enough for the pitch to be past you for a strike and become another building block for a full-blown slump.

Lance Berkman has failed to hit on his first two times at the plate; the second time he flailed at a third strike and missed it badly.

'I remember when he got here in '98. He hit some home runs early, then he went sour,' recalls a veteran baseball watcher. 'But you would have thought he was hitting .350. That's how he played every game.'

That's it. To experience your own limitations and to find new ways to win.

In the fifth inning, the Z's get catcher Hector Ortiz to second with two out. The next batter singles sharply on the ground to left. Berkman, known as an outfielder with more will than skill, charges the ball and comes up throwing. The throw is clean and strong and Ortiz is out at home.

A winning play in the struggle to overcome struggle.


Ninth Inning

Lance Berkman looks around the clubhouse. 'You do feel that all of this is a no-win situation. If you get good, you're supposed to. You're on rehab from the major leagues. But if you don't hit, people start saying, 'Hmm.'' He smiles.

Zephyr Field seats maybe 10,000 fans. If baseball is American's Leisure Religion, Zephyr Field is at most a chapel. But here is where Lance Berkman is testing his body and scouts from the major leagues are here to give his test a grade. Religions are not made of cathedrals alone. Sometimes the faith is renewed in chapels with only a few true believers around.

The third out of the inning is made and Lance Berkman comes trotting in from left field. He carries his glove in a palms-up way and his right left in a slightly odd gait. In the stands, a Zephyrs fan jumped up and held his hands and legs in a mincing way that made everyone laugh.

But nobody can see thoughts and what if what is bring thought on that trot from left field is something like this:

There's pain in my body and my knee is really participating in this pain, and maybe, just maybe, some of it shows some hitch in your giddy-up that can't fool a good major-league scout for an inning. Soon all of baseball will be watching ... .

click to enlarge 'Everyone knows there's a last game in you,' Lance - Berkman says. 'I don't think mine's close, but this is a - good reminder that it's there.' - HOUSTON ASTROS
  • Houston Astros
  • 'Everyone knows there's a last game in you,' Lance Berkman says. 'I don't think mine's close, but this is a good reminder that it's there.'
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