KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Lance Berkman nicknamed himself the Big Puma because he thinks of himself as sleek and agile. It is rather obvious that he did not come up with this moniker in the morning.
When Berkman arrived at the Houston Astros' camp one morning last week, he wore a T-shirt, cargo shorts and late-for-Psych 101 stubble. Most of the Astros had been there for an hour or so, Mark Loretta playing with his son, Craig Biggio trying on his new Nike gear, Chad Qualls talking a young player out of signing up for a 401k before his arbitration years. Berkman made it 10 minutes before the workout began, and it seemed as though gravity was the only thing forcing his body toward the locker.
Sleek and agile it wasn't.
"Who's in charge of this camp today?" Berkman said.
"Me," replied Brad Ausmus, the Astros' veteran catcher.
"OK," Berkman said. "I'm going home."
And the thing is, he could have. Lance Berkman could skip the rest of spring training, spend some time with his three daughters, lead a search party throughout Mexico for his beloved Paps (more on that later) and return in time for the Astros' opener April 2 at Minute Maid Park, and he'd still be the best player on the field, one of the game's natural hitters and the most underappreciated player in the National League.
Such a title is certainly subjective, so consider the facts: Last season, Berkman hit .315 with 45 home runs and 136 RBIs, got on base 42 percent of the time and slugged .621 in a lineup with more holes than a gopher colony.
"What he did was nothing short of amazing," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. "Frankly, I couldn't believe guys were pitching to him. And he took them to the cleaners. He helped us get as close (to the postseason) as we did. You need a big hit? He gets it. You need a home run? He gets it."
It was one of the greatest seasons ever from a switch hitter, better than any individual year from Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, equal to Chipper Jones' best. Only Mickey Mantle – the person Lance's father, Larry, wanted him to emulate while swinging at a tire from both sides in the back yard – put together demonstrably better seasons.
And still, Berkman's went almost universally unnoticed, even with the Astros pushing the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of September for the NL Central title.
"If you're not in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or Atlanta," Berkman said, "you really don't exist. Just part of the business."
There are exceptions, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols foremost among them. Generally, Berkman is right. Biggio is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, even if he somehow doesn't get 70 hits this season to reach 3,000. Jeff Bagwell might have been Cooperstown-bound as well had his shoulder cooperated. Neither's legacy reaches far beyond Houston.
Part of it, too, is that Berkman's defining characteristic might be his sloth. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he'll enter a rib-eating contest before one for Mr. Universe. Teammates stopped counting how many times Berkman lost track of outs during an inning. At 30, Berkman is finally making the full-time switch from outfield to first base.
"It's my more natural position," Berkman said, "and I enjoy it more than the outfield. You enjoy the game more, and … "
"Shorter run to the dugout," Biggio interjected.
"True," Berkman said.
What Berkman lacks in nimbleness he more than makes up for in personality. He is a true son of Texas, down to the Lone Star flag on his batting gloves.
Take Paps. That was Berkman's name for his first vehicle, a 1977 Ford F-150 without air conditioning or a radio. Paps did have character, though, and Berkman drove him until he would drive no longer.
When Berkman signed with Houston in 1997, his wife, Cara, intimated that it was time for a new truck. A few years later, as an anniversary gift, she tried to track down Paps. The best lead: He's somewhere in Mexico hauling watermelons, still running after all these year.
"I miss ol' Paps," Berkman said.
And he said it with the perfect mix of irony and sincerity, knowing that to yearn for something like his beat-up first car is both amusing and noble.
"That's why we love him," Biggio said. "He's unique in his own way, goofy, yeah, but he's come to be a leader here not only because of what he does but who he is."
No longer is that Fat Elvis or Fatty Kruk, the two nicknames saddled on Berkman since college. Seeing as anything with a derivation of "Fat" tends to stick – even if Fat Albert went on Atkins, he'd still be Fat Albert – Berkman went on the most single-minded campaign to eradicate fats since the food police declared war on hydrogenated oils.
He was, after all, the man who signed a six-year, $85 million deal to stay as the Astros' linchpin through 2010, the potential Gold Glove winner in the eyes of Purpura, the one who, with the signing of Carlos Lee this offseason and the rapid ascent of outfield prospect Hunter Pence, could find himself beneficiary of even better pitches.
Berkman deserved something good. On a Houston radio station, he suggested Big Puma. Hey, the American League has a Big Papi, right? The hosts thought it was brilliant and a new superhero was born.
"Big Puma is catching on," Berkman said, "bigger now than it's ever been."
Bigger, sure. No one can deny what Lance Berkman does.
Sleeker and more agile?
Maybe some day.