My conversation with Lance Berkman yesterday wasn’t exclusively about politics and transgeder rights. I mean, the dude was an elite ballplayer so it’s not like I wasn’t gonna talk to him about baseball. The highlights:
- Berkman was pleasantly surprised about the 2015 Astros and, as a longtime member of the club when it was in the National League, amusingly noted that they exemplified “typical A.L. baseball,” with all of the “big power hackers” they had. He was most impressed with their pitching, however, and talked about Carlos Correa in awed terms. Berkman thinks they’re one starter and one reliever away from being something truly special. I think he’s right about that. Maybe more than one reliever given that a handful of their go-to bullpen arms are free agents, but still.
- A lot of our political conversation dealt with his perception that there is some entitlement to younger people that he finds displeasing, and that extends to baseball in some ways. He talked about how so many players have individual pitching and hitting coaches these days and how that wasn’t common when he was coming into the game. But he is not under any illusions that players from the past are better than players from the present or that the game was somehow better. “Everyone says it was better back in their day,” Berkman said. “They’ve been saying it forever. They’re always wrong about that.”
- I mentioned that the Hall of Fame ballot for 2016 had just come out in the hour before our conversation. He asked me who was on it. I read the list. He sort of gave a low whistle and said “man, I played with all of those guys” and laughed about feeling old. I told him he’s still OK as he won’t be eligible for a few years and he said “sooner than I think, probably.” What a drag it is getting old.
- I mentioned that, if everything breaks just right, his teammate Jeff Bagwell could get elected this year. I went further and suggested that, if it wasn’t for PED whispers about him, he’d probably be in already. Berkman agreed. He seems to understand the politics of the Hall of Fame pretty well. And, like a lot of ex-players, seems to be way less hung up on it than fans and those of us in the media do. I suspect that, if you devote your life to something for 30 years or more, external validation is not really necessary, even if it is welcome.
One final topic was a bit more serious.
Berkman watched the World Series but as both a baseball coach and a baseball player he was as frustrated by the approach Mets pitchers took when things got dicey. He specifically mentioned Tyler Clippard facing Lorenzo Cain in the eighth inning of Game 4 and Matt Harvey facing Cain in the ninth inning of Game 5. Cain walked both times, helping spark rallies which led to Royals’ victories. This is when Berkman said something that made me — and would make all baseball fans of a certain disposition — stop cold in their tracks.
“Solo home runs are rally killers, man.”
I stopped. I tried to gather myself. You hear such things so often, but you never think you’ll hear it said directly to you by someone you admire. After nearly an hour of talking about some of the most controversial, hot button political issues of our time, I was about to lose my composure over an old dubious chestnut of baseball analysis. I took a deep breath and tried to think of how to challenge him on that, but thankfully I didn’t have to.
“At least from the pitchers’ perspective,” Berkman added. He noted that, obviously, there’s nothing better than a home run, but that having runners on base can rattle a pitcher in ways that a homer really can’t. He agreed, of course, that a homer is the worst thing that can happen when you’re pitching, but at least it’s over and you can go back to the windup and pitch with no one on, and there’s some benefit to that psychologically.
More specifically, his point wasn’t that it would’ve somehow been bad for the Royals if Cain had hit a homer off of Clippard or Harvey in those situations. It’s that Clippard and Harvey — especially Harvey, who threw a 3-2 breaking ball to Cain — should’ve stuck with fastballs and not gotten cute the way each of them seemed to with Cain while behind in the count. His point was that, ahead in the game 2-0 in the ninth inning, you risk the solo homer by challenging Cain with a heater rather than try to be too fine, put him on base and let a potential rally get started.
I don’t disagree with that and, upon explanation, I caught my breath and regained my equilibrium. But man, telling a baseball writer that a homer is a rally killer is like yelling “fire!” in a crowded movie house. You gotta be careful with your words, dude. Someone could get hurt.