I first encountered Lance Berkman on his 1997 Bowman card. It's a pretty unique card shot outside of the AstroDome with the former Rice star leaning on the front of an old Ford pickup truck. There were plenty of other cool players in the set at the time, so this card was filed away with the rest of my Bowman cards that year and remembered more as a curiosity. Aramis Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, and Vernon Wells were the big names in this set when it was first released and the immediate years afterwards.
Just like all the other big names in the 1997 Bowman set, Berkman also made it up to the majors. However, unlike players like Vernon Wells and Aramis Ramirez, Lance Berkman was actually able to play for a good team. Not many people remember how good some of the late 90s and early 2000s Astros teams were because they did not make it far in the playoffs outside of the 2005 World Series. The teams included future Hall of Famers like Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, and Craig Biggio. Throw in a year of Carlos Beltran and a bunch of other great players like Mike Hampton, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, Moises Alou, and Billy Wagner.
While all kinds of good players came and went in Houston, Berkman ended up playing a total of 12 years for the Astros and posted a line of .293/.406/.573 with 366 home runs, 422 doubles, and an OPS+ of 146. I saw plenty of Cardinals/Astros games during those days and always had a good amount of respect for Berkman. He was a good player, but you could tell that he had a good time playing the game. As a fan, he was a fun player to watch.
For years he was quietly the face of Astros. Bagwell and Biggio slowly faded away, but Berkman kept plugging away. In fact, one of his best seasons came during the 2006 season when he replaced Jeff Bagwell at first base for the Astros. Bekrman's 2006 season was .315/.420/.621 with 45 home runs and 136 RBIs. There were a few more good years in Houston until he was traded away to the Yankees during the 2010 season. I did not give the Puma much of a thought once he was off the Astros until I came across a curious headline on MLB Trade Rumors one evening.
At first I thought the signing was a bit of a joke. Perhaps Berkman had signed on to be a bench player. However, Berkman ended up in the outfield. Honestly, I know I was not the only Cardinals fan who cringed a little bit at the thought of The Big Puma roaming the outfield for the Cardinals. Berkman ended up having a great year, and by all accounts, was a key factor to keeping the team loose during their unexpected playoff run. In the end, I am not sure Cardinals fans will remember the regular season Berkman enjoyed as much as his key Game 6 game tying hit during the 2011 World Series.
I was sad to hear that Berkman decided to call it a career earlier this week, but I think it was time for Lance to hang them up. After the 2011 season, he played a 2012 season with the Cardinals and the 2013 season with the Rangers. Berkman's time on the field was limited during both seasons do to injuries. Clearly it was time to go.
Even though Berkman is retiring I will still continue to collect his cards. I picked up quite a few during his two years in St. Louis and was surprised at how many cards I had from his days in Houston. If you are looking for a good 90s/2000s player to collect you cannot go wrong throwing a few Berkman cards into your collection. His rookie card, mentioned above, is quite inexpensive and readily available. Autographs aren't hard to find either and are generally pretty cheap. You want a nice on-card Berkman autograph you are probably going to be able to find one for less than $20. Relics, patches, all pretty cheap.
Farewell Puma, you will be missed.