Lance Berkman made his way to Kissimmee, Fla. in the summer of 1997 with something to prove. Houston's No. 1 pick in the '97 Draft walked onto the field for batting practice, and heads began to turn.
"I didn't know much about him," said then-Kissimmee manager John Tamargo. "I knew he had power, but that was basically all I'd known about him. He ended up being a pretty good outfielder for me."
Berkman, making one of many good first impressions, started launching balls over the fences -- from both sides of the plate.
"The first I saw Lance, what struck me about him, was him taking BP," said Tamargo. "He'd hit the ball and it would take off. It didn't seem like it would take off, but it just kept going and going and going. Big, long swings, tremendous power."
Tamargo is one of many who gushes about that Berkman power stroke, a familiar sight to Astros fans for the last decade.
"He just stood out," said Jim Pankovits, a long-time Astros coach who managed Berkman in 1998 with Double-A Jackson. "No doubt about it, he was by far the best hitting prospect in the league."
Berkman, the No. 16 overall pick in the 1997 Draft, spent parts of four seasons in the Minors before reaching the big leagues in 1999. He began the 2000 season in Triple-A, but was back with the Astros by the end of May, the beginning of a record-setting Major League career.
Groomed to be a switch-hitting slugger from a young age by father Larry, a former college player, Berkman attended Rice University on a partial scholarship after tormenting high school pitchers for Canyon High School in New Braunfels, Texas for four years.
Not exactly a five-tool prospect, Berkman was ignored by scouts and Major League teams as a senior in high school despite a .539 average -- a lack of speed and arm strength left him with a chance to prove, again, that he was worthy at the Division I level.
He joined Rice in 1995 and, three years later, was named the National College Player of the Year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. The Texas native was also named first team All-America by Collegiate Baseball Magazine, Baseball America and The Sporting News in 1997.
"His presence on the field ... you could tell he'd be a Major Leaguer," Tamargo said.
Berkman batted .385 with 67 homers and 272 RBIs over three seasons with Rice -- his 41 homers in '97 ranked third-most in the entire NCAA and his 134 RBIs that summer was the second-highest single-season total in NCAA history.
That, finally, was enough for teams to take notice. Berkman, after leading Rice to the College World Series and being named Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, skipped his senior campaign and joined the Astros for a $1 million bonus.
The 6-foot-1 Berkman was assigned midseason, to Class A Advanced Kissimmee as a rookie. Tamargo watched from the dugout as Berkman made an immediate impact, hitting .293 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs for the Cobras as a 21-year-old outfielder.
"You could tell the way he hit the ball and went about his business, he'd be a successful Major Leaguer," Tamargo said. "I saw him when he was just a youngster, just starting out, taking swings and almost falling down, to when he got his balance, shortened his swing and had that tremendous power. It's been fun to watch his progression."
Tamargo has a unique and gratifying perspective on Berkman -- he was his first manager, coached him again at Triple-A and spent six more years with him in Houston as the Astros bullpen coach.
"I had the privilege of seeing him in his first year in the big leagues," said Tamargo, currently the manager of Class A Short-Season Everett in the Northwest League. "He got his swing under control. You could tell he'd shortened it up a bit and that was basically it. You knew he was going to hit, and for power."
The Waco, Texas native returned to the Lone Star State and earned Texas League All-Star honors in 1998 with Double-A Jackson, hitting .306 with 24 homers and 89 RBIs in 122 games for the Generals, enough to rank fourth in the Astros organization in home runs. He was named the Astros' Minor League Player of the Year.
"I used to throw him batting practice and he didn't like hitting off me, 'cause I threw a cutter in on him," laughed Pankovits, a former infielder who spent five seasons in the Majors with Houston and another with Boston. "I don't know if that helped with his approach to hitting, but I gave him fits."
Berkman earned a bump to Triple-A New Orleans by the end of his second year, which also turned out to be his final full season in the Minors. In the 1998 Triple-A World Series, Berkman hit .467 with three homers to help the Zephyrs win the decisive Game 4. He was named series MVP.
"I remember we were in Las Vegas and he came up there at the end of the season with a couple other guys," said Tamargo of Berkman's Triple-A debut. "We put them out there and low and behold, he carried the club."
Houston's lineup was stacked, but the team was eager to see its top prospect in action. He was one of 24 Minor Leaguers selected to represent the United States in the Pan Am Games in late July 1999, but plans were changed when Astros oufielder Carl Everett went on the disabled list and Berkman's phone rang.
He took his first Major League swings for Houston on July 16 against Detroit, just five days after starting the 1999 All-Star Futures Game in Fenway Park. He pinch-hit against the Tigers in his debut and made his first Major League start a day later in left field.
Berkman struggled a bit, batting .237 in 34 games and was sent back down to New Orleans out of Spring Training in 2000. After two options and two recalls, the switch-hitter joined the Astros for good on May 25, 2000, after batting .330 with six homers and 27 RBIs in 31 games for the Zephyrs.
"The Big Puma" has been on cruise control ever since. He signed a six-year, $85-million deal in March 2005 and a year later joined his father's idol, Mickey Mantle, as only the second switch-hitter in Major League history to hit 40 or more homers in multiple seasons.
"He was a leader for us back then too," said Tamargo. "He was light-hearted and kept everyone loose."
A five-time National League All-Star, Berkman has also been named Houston's Player of the Year four times and finished in the top five in NL MVP voting four times.
"It's always a thrill to see him every Spring Training," said Pankovits. "I get to talk to him and visit and catch up. He is one of the top five, in my mind, Astros of all time."
Minor League career breakdown
1997: Berkman led Rice to the College World Series as a All-American at first base. He was a Western Athletic Conference All-Star, the Conference Player of the Year and won the Lubbock Regional MVP Award during the College World Series. Houston selected him in the first round and he hit .293 with 12 homers and 35 RBIs in 53 games for the Class A Advanced Kissimmee Cobras.
1998: Berkman, with just half a season under his belt, was promoted to Double-A Jackson, where he hit .306 with 24 home runs and 89 RBIs for the Generals. He was named Houston's Minor League Player of the Year, a Texas League All-Star and a Baseball America First-team Minor League All-Star, finishing the season with Triple-A. |
1999: Berkman reached the Majors, but spent most of his third season with Triple-A New Orleans. He was named MVP of the Triple-A World Series after hitting .323 with eight homers and 49 RBIs for the Zephyrs. He made his Major League debut July 16. |
2000: Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio finally had some elite company -- Berkman joined Houston in late May after two months with the Zephyrs and finished the season in consideration for NL Rookie of the Year. He hit .330 with 27 RBIs in 31 games at Triple-A. |