When Lance Berkman signed a six-year deal with the Houston Astros during Spring Training of 2005, he sounded pretty positive his career would expire when the contract did.
Berkman was 29 years old. He had played in the All-Star Game three of the previous four seasons. Berkman was in his prime and happy to be playing ball. He seemed to approach the game the same way he did his life -- without ego, free of drama and with a healthy perspective on what's important.
Back then, Berkman, who turned 37 on Sunday, figured he'd have had enough of baseball by 2010. That's what a lot of young players tell themselves when they are years away from actually having to make that decision. While most are positive it'll be easy to just walk away, they find out later the process is agonizing.
That's why the past offseason was so strange for Berkman. Soon after the 2012 season ended, he figured his career was over. Berkman had gone through two knee surgeries, which limited him to just 32 games for the Cardinals last year. He wasn't sure if anyone would want him in '13, and faced with the reality this may be it, he started, as he called it, the "grieving process" to come to terms with the end of his playing career.
"There's the mental side of it -- 'Man, I'm not playing anymore,'" Berkman said from his Houston home on Wednesday. "Here I am, and what does life look like after your playing career? I got a brief glimpse of it. I wasn't scared of it. I think I would have been fine had I not decided to play."
Berkman occupied his time by volunteer coaching at his alma mater, Rice University. He worked under his college coach, Wayne Graham, to whom he has remained close since his final season at Rice in 1997. Berkman was enjoying himself so much that he really started thinking he could do this full-time. But then the Rangers called, and the lure of one more year in the big leagues was too tempting to pass up. His knees felt good, the money was right, and because the Rangers are located in his home state, Berkman knew he'd be comfortable in his new surroundings.
Berkman is slated to be the Rangers' designated hitter, although he's also hoping to play in the field -- likely first base -- from time to time. The even alignment of the leagues, 15 teams in the American League and 15 in the National League, necessitates more Interleague games for each team. If Berkman plays in as many games as he's hoping, he'll need to have a presence in the field when the Rangers play in NL parks.
Regardless of what the Rangers have planned for him, Berkman feels he'll be ready. He's confident his knees will hold up. He spent the offseason working on only strength, with the conditioning part of his regimen on hold until he starts Spring Training. The Rangers' focus for now has been on Berkman's joints and legs, and they requested he concentrate on that specific area before shifting his workouts to something more aerobic.
"I actually feel a heck of a lot better now than I did even in January when I signed," Berkman said. "I felt like there's a pretty tough road ahead in terms of getting this thing back to where I consider to be acceptable playing condition. But it's coming along nicely. I feel like I've added a lot of strength, and I'm pretty pleased with the way it feels now when I'm doing my exercises. I've made big strides."
Berkman will head to Surprise, Ariz., on Thursday night, and will report to Rangers camp Friday. It'll be his first time training in Arizona after more than a dozen springs with the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla., and two with the Cardinals in Jupiter.
With a long list of items to check off before the season starts, it's unlikely Berkman will spend a lot of time pondering what's next for him after '13. But looking at it now, he figures if all goes well, he'll play this year and next, and then be done.
"A lot of things can happen to change that situation," Berkman said. "If I go out there during Spring Training and suffer another injury or just don't feel like I can do it, that obviously impacts what we're talking about now. But if everything goes according to Hoyle, then I'll be back for another year and then that will probably be it."
Regardless of exactly when retirement beckons, Berkman's legacy will identify him as one of the best hitters of his generation. He's averaged 32 homers and 108 RBIs over 14 seasons. Berkman hit .296 with 326 home runs and 1,090 RBIs during 12 years with the Astros, and after a brief stint with the Yankees for two months in 2010, he enjoyed a resurgence with the Cardinals in '11, hitting .301 with 31 homers, 94 RBIs and a .959 OPS.
Berkman was a key member of St. Louis' World Series championship team that year, posting a .423 average (11-for-26) in the Fall Classic, including a very memorable base hit in Game 6 that helped ward off elimination by his new team, the Rangers. The Cards eventually captured the Series in seven games.
Having had a taste of what it feels like to win the whole thing made joining the Rangers that much more alluring. Berkman sees it as the best of all worlds -- he's able to stay in his home state of Texas, and he has a legitimate chance to earn another ring.
"The situation was a great fit," Berkman said. "A big part of being an older player, you get in the second half of the season especially, you need that little something that you're playing for. I think the Rangers are going to provide that. It's an exhilarating experience, to get through the dog days knowing you're in contention."
Knowing he's in Texas should help, too. Don't underestimate Berkman's loyalty to his home state. He's a proud Texan, and the fact that he will have played for both of Texas' MLB teams during his career means something. It means a lot, actually.
"I was born in Waco," Berkman said. "All my family's from Georgetown. I lived most of my life in Austin growing up, moved to northern San Antonio, graduated from New Braunfels Canyon, played my college ball at Rice, played 12 years in the big leagues for the Astros. And now I'm getting a chance to go up to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
"So there's really not an area of Texas [where I haven't played], other than maybe El Paso. I've got pretty much most of the state covered, as far as where I've played and where I've lived. It's a source of pride. I guess people wouldn't get that if they're not from here. They might think it's overplayed or overblown. But it is a factor that is important to a native Texas guy."