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If this is it for Berkman, it ends an underappreciated career

If Lance Berkman has hit his last ball and played his last game, it has been a wonderful career for a man of tremendous integrity, candor and yes, ability.

If it's true Lance Berkman has a torn ACL, as the initial report of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch indicated is the likelihood, it's a sad day for baseball because the star switch-hitter has suggested in the paper's previous report that a bad diagnosis could mean the end for him.

But don't cry for Berkman.

It has been quite a run. And while he's come to the plate 49 times this year, if this is the end, it will always seem like the finishing play of a fantastic career was his two-out, two-strike, game-tying single in the 10th of Game 6 off Texas right-hander Scott Feldman that prolonged the Cardinals' season and allowed them to win their improbable World Series one day later.

It was nice to finally see Berkman get his enormous World Series moment after going underpublicized for most of his career. How many would figure that Berkman's .955 career OPS is better than those of Vladimir Guerrero (.926), David Ortiz (.924), Josh Hamilton (.928), Prince Fielder (.926) and even Jeff Bagwell (.948), his former Astros teammate who many have suggested should be a Hall of Famer.

Berkman was recognized for his unusual honesty and openness throughout his career, and that was well deserved. The Rice-educated slugger never gave an ounce of slack to the legions of steroid users in his time, as many others did to protect their cheating brethren. He was unequivocal in his derision of steroid abuse, and I recall him telling me in spring training last year he didn't believe steroid guys should be in the Hall of Fame, without exception. Good for him.

Berkman was open book to the fans, and he was almost always dead-on in his opinions. (But I disagreed this spring when he used the word "extortion'' to describe how commissioner Bud Selig got new Astros owner Jim Crane to move next year to the American League.) He was that rare player who was both opinionated and usually correct.

Berkman was often praised for his smart words, but he should be glorified more than he was for on-field accomplishments that were not only remarkable but remarkably overlooked. Six straight years, he posted at least a .400 on-base percentage, nine straight years he had at least 90 walks and 10 straight years he had a slugging percentage of at least .500. And he wasn't slowing down. He surprised folks with a .959 OPS at age 35 last season, and had an even 1.000 OPS this year before the knee injury derailed him, perhaps for good.

Fittingly, perhaps Berkman's greatest accomplishment just might have been one that is rarely mentioned: anchoring a rather pedestrian 2005 Astros lineup that miraculously managed to make it to the World Series (with the help of pitching stars Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, of course). The rest of the '05 Astros lineup was composed mainly of light hitters and players whose flame burned out quickly; for those who don't recall that starting eight, the others were Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, Willy Taveras, Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus, Chris Burke and 39-year-old Craig Biggio.

"That was the worst everyday lineup to play in a World Series,'' one star player once told me. And it isn't hard to agree.

For Berkman to get that team into the World Series, well, that may be the single most underappreciated achievement in a career that was marked by underappreciation.


 
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