ST. LOUIS — A lot of players coming off knee surgery 2 1/2 weeks ago wouldn't even think of trying to suit up and play ball yet. But with time running out in the season and perhaps his career, Lance Berkman feels differently. He says he owes the St. Louis Cardinals that much.
Berkman, who reportedly was considering retirement even before his surgery Sept. 11, said Saturday he isn't trying to come back for any kind of selfish reason. He's trying just in case he can help the Cardinals win another World Series.
"I'm good," Berkman said, meaning satisfied with his career. "I don't need to step a big toe on the field ever again to feel perfectly fine. But the reason I would even try it is because I feel obligated to the organization. It ain't for me personally."
From the outside looking in, it's easy to disagree with Berkman that he owes the Cardinals anything. St. Louis is paying Berkman $12 million this year after he gave the Redbirds perhaps the best season of his career in 2011 for $8 million. He has made 96 plate appearances this season — three since Aug. 3 — hitting .263/.385/.450 with two homers overall. It's not Berkman's fault he's hurt — no matter what critics of his waistline might say. It's true the man some call "Fat Elvis" (Berkman prefers "Big Puma) has never been an Adonis. But he's not some malingerer, either.
However, Berkman says he gets little joy from just hanging around, eating ice cream during games and being an elder statesman with no particular role. He doesn't feel part of the team.
"You'd like to think so, but the reality is, you're not," Berkman said. "The guys on the field are playing a game, the guys that are coaching and managing are doing that. I'm just around for ... ambiance."
The Cardinals are getting better news on infielder David Freese, who is closer to returning from a sore right ankle. Berkman appears to need more time. He doesn't really have it.
Though he remains realistic, even a little doubtful, Berkman said he will keep trying to see game action before Cardinals manager Mike Matheny finalizes the postseason roster, if the Cardinals qualify for the wild card. They came into play Saturday leading the Dodgers by three games with five to play.
"It's not going to happen if it doesn't happen before the end of the regular season," Berkman said. "That's why it would have been nice (by now) to try and have this week to try and get in some games."
No such luck.
Berkman doesn't feel on the verge of returning, but said that could change in a day or two. Or it might not. C'mon, Lance, predict the future! He has been taking batting practice every other day but has yet to do any running. Not that running has been a huge part of his game. He slugs. But that's not enough.
"The problem is going to be, you don't have a 40-man roster when you go to the playoffs," Berkman said. "If you can't run, then you're severely handicapping your team. You're basically saying that I'd be on the roster to come off the bench and hit a homer if we needed it in some desperate situation. And the [probability] of that, after not having played (most of) an entire season, is not great."
Yeah. How often does a Kirk Gibson moment come along, anyway? But, because of the roster flexibility allowed for the wild card game, being a pinch hitter swinging for the fences might actually work out for Berkman. At least for one game.
"Yeah, you could do that," Berkman said. "You could keep some of the starting pitching off the roster and go with a guy. But again, you're looking for a miracle. If it comes down to that, then we're in trouble."
Berkman is a switch hitter, but said batting right-handed so soon after surgery won't work because of the stress it causes his right knee.
A six-time All-Star with 360 home runs and 1,843 career hits, Berkman is 21st all-time in on-base percentage plus slugging. He's not a likely Hall of Famer if he stops playing now, though there's been talk of him and the Astros reuniting in the AL in 2013.
First things first, though: One last try with Team Fredbird.
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