After starring at nationally-ranked Rice University, becoming the Astros' #1 pick in the draft (16th overall), and then being voted playoff MVP for the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, Berkman became used to the spotlight. The young left fielder hit for both power and average, and complemented that plate prowess with competent outfield play and an above-average arm.
Berkman's .297 average and 21 home runs in 2000 gave the Astros enough confidence in him that they traded Roger Cedeno to the Detroit Tigers during the off-season to make room for him in left field. The switch hitter from Texas starred among stars in 2001, batting in a lineup that included Craig Biggio and Moises Alou, and rewarded the Astros faithful with a .300+ batting average and over 100 RBIs.
At times Berkman displayed almost preternatural maturity, rarely becoming upset with a bad at-bat, in spite of all the expectations around him. After grounding into an inning-ending double-play in his first major league at-bat, he reflected, "I got a decent pitch to hit and was a little out in front of it. It really wasn't what we needed right there, but it was one at-bat."
Of course, being mature doesn't mean he can't have fun every now and again. Berkman's record includes no less than three instances of impersonating a mascot. In 1998, while playing for the Zephyrs, Berkman was stuck on the DL while the team was in a slump. During one home game manager Tony Pena looked up and saw an unusually large Zephyrs' mascot dancing on the dugout. He quickly realized that his 6'1", 205-pound star outfielder was risking a re-injury to his knee, and ordered him down, slapping him with a $25 fine. On another occasion Berkman took batting practice while wearing a sumo-wrestler costume.
If there's anything that will prevent Berkman's career from soaring, it will be his fear of flying. While the rest of the Zephyrs boarded the playoff-bound plane jubilantly, a dour Berkman slowly dragged himself up the steps from the tarmac. Berkman has been known to drive hundreds of miles to avoid air travel.
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»April 16, 2002: Houston defeats Cincinnati, 8–3, as Lance Berkman becomes the 1st player this year to slug three home runs in a game. Berkman drives home five of the Astros' runs.
»July 2, 2002:
At Cincinnati, the Astros and Reds play the first inning with non–regulation baseballs, the result of a mix–up by an attendant in the umpires' locker room. The attendant did not notice the word "practice" stenciled on the 144 balls he rubbed up for the game; the practice balls generally have defects such as irregular stitching or weight deviations. Astros pitcher Wade Miller notices the practice ball when warming up and informs ump Mark Hirschbeck, who rules that the practice balls must be used in the bottom of the 1st before switching. Reds starter Wade Miller served up a homer in the 1st to Lance Berkman, who hits another in his next at bat, good for five RBIs. He leads the National League with 74 ribbies. The Astros win in the 10th, 6–5. Austin Kearns has four hits, and Adam Dunn a homer for the Reds.
»September 21, 2002:
Behind Wade Miller's 12th straight win, Houston beats the Cardinals, 6–3. Miller's streak ties a club record. Lance Berkman has a double and homer, driving in three runs, and Eli Marrero hits a home run for the 3rd straight game. Miller's batterymate Brad Ausmus collects his 1000th career hit, but also ties the NL record with his 30th GIDP of the season. Ernie Lombardi had 30 GIDP to set the mark.
»September 29, 2002:
The Cardinals win their 97th, beating the Brewers, 4–0. Andy Benes pitches five innings before leaving with a back twinge. Wayne Franklin pitches seven innings for the Brewers. Edgar Renteria knocks in the game's 1st run in the 8th with the 1st of two RBIs. He finishes with 82 RBIs, the highest for a Bird SS since Doc Lavan's 82 in 1921. Albert Pujols has no RBIs, but finishes with 127, one behind National League leader Lance Berkman. Pujols is the first batter since Ted Williams in 1939–40 to drive in more than 250 runs in his first two seasons in the majors. Pujols drove in 257 runs in his first two campaigns. Just four big–leaguers have posted 250 or more RBIs in their first two years in the majors. Joe DiMaggio holds the record with 292 ribbies in his first two; Dale Alexander with 272, is in 2nd place.