Berkman facing difficult decision about his future

2012-08-12T00:35:00Z 2012-08-15T00:13:55Z Berkman facing difficult decision about his futureBY JOE STRAUSS • Cardinals Insider
August 12, 2012 12:35 am  • 

PHILADELPHIA • His family's Houston residence boasts spurs on a rustic den wall, a signed Major Applewhite Longhorn helmet in a display case and a map of Stephen Austin's Texas hanging within an impressive room that extends other reminders of his native state's complicated, defiant past. He drives a pickup truck and maintains two ranches.

Lance Berkman long ago attended his first rodeo. A pragmatic Texan, he understands he is approaching his last.

The Cardinals first baseman who became a key component of last year's magical September rebirth and October world championship run currently endures his third stay on the disabled list this season. The first was due to a calf strain. The last two are tied to a right knee that recently required its third surgery.

A recent MRI disclosed that compensating for his right knee's discomfort likely compromised cartilage behind his left. Walking is tolerable. Rotating the knee, such as what occurs when hitting, had become excruciating.

Berkman frequently has eaten pain in his career. But that was as a younger man.

The Big Puma is now 36 and a veteran of five knee surgeries. Next season is only a hypothetical.

"I've tried not to think that far ahead, but whenever you get to a certain age and begin to play year to year, you almost have to," Berkman says. "At some point it ends for everyone, no matter what. A guy like (Baltimore Orioles designated hitter) Jim Thome is trying to play forever. But he's not going to. No matter what, at some point you're going to have a last game or a last day. I'd by lying if I said I didn't contemplate that."

Since joining the Cardinals in December 2010, Berkman has earned his first World Series championship ring and reached 360 home runs and 1,200 RBIs. He placed seventh in NL Most Valuable Player balloting after many within the game thought him career-dead.

"I'm pretty certain my legacy within the game is set," the career .296 hitter said within Wrigley's forsaken visitors' clubhouse a day after hitting his latest home run, which also represented the most recent of his 1,200 RBIs.

Berkman insist he'll play again this season — though admittedly not in an everyday role. He acknowledges the need for Allen Craig to play regularly. He also knows September offers few allowances for players trying to find form.

Berkman will also first accept a minor-league rehab assignment, something he avoided when returning prematurely last month from the May surgery to shave cartilage from his weakened right knee.

"We just can't afford to let me get up to speed at the big-league level," he says.

Berkman's reluctance to go on a rehab assignment to Class AA Springfield had less to do with his distaste for minor-league environs as it had to do with a sense of urgency as a season began to wither.

"It's a matter of necessity, no doubt about it," Berkman says about his need for a rehab tour before returning. "Before, I felt I had blown such a big part of the season and I thought I was in a place where I could jump back in and relatively quickly get back up to speed. Really and truly that's what happened."

Berkman won't say if October represents the last stop on a 14-year career. He doesn't have to. His knees likely will have final say, anyway. He has pushed himself through an intensive off-season conditioning program the past two winters. In-season maintenance represents an additional grind on a body with several creaking parts.

"At some point you get to a place where it's just not worth it," Berkman says. "You just can't muster the will anymore. It's just the fact of the matter."

Reaching for a routine throw caused Berkman's right knee to buckle at Dodger Stadium on May 19. After enduring surgery that required an eight-week rehab, Berkman returned to take a pitch from Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw off the same knee July 24.

The pitch found him precisely on the surgical incision. A nerve shut down. Muscle above the knee began to atrophy. Suddenly the switch-hitter lacked stability at the plate, especially when swinging righthanded. A season after appearing in 145 games Berkman has missed 100 starts.

"It's certainly been a frustrating year. Baseball's such a rhythm game. That's why it's hard to be a productive bench player. It's tough to stop and start all the time," Berkman acknowledges. "It's something I've never had to learn how to do. It's a big thing for me to feel like I'm part of the mix in the flow of a season. This year I've never gotten into a good rhythm."

The season increasingly conspires against him.

The minor-league schedule ends Sept. 3. General manager John Mozeliak last week voiced optimism about Berkman's return but conceded that his role would be limited to spot starts and pinch-hitting.

Berkman believes the only further surgery that can help his knees is full replacement, something he hopes to avoid for at least a decade.

"Really nothing can be done about it," he says. "There is a law of diminishing returns. The more you stick a scope in there, the more the scar tissue and the more the arthritis."

Still, Berkman is not prepared to discuss his career in the past tense. Though he has not discussed his future with Mozeliak, Berkman believes an opportunity exists with the club for 2013. Role and, of course, compensation would determine if the fit is a comfortable one.

"There is obviously a financial component to it on their side. If I told them I'd play for the minimum they'd do it in a heartbeat," Berkman says. "I would be surprised if there wasn't interest on some level. I think myself and Mo would be dealing in the realm of reality."

Berkman is making $12 million this season. He knows his next contract would be for significantly less. The player who readily admitted, "It's always about the money" during last season's negotiations is equally blunt about the future.

"It's about the money because I'm sure there's a price point they don't want to go beyond," he says. "There's also a price point for me where it doesn't make sense for me to keep playing. There may be a balance. There may not be. The club has been great to me. It's just a matter of economics."

Berkman says only a handful of situations would intrigue him. He is part of the Cardinals' glue, a gregarious talent who helped lighten the mood in a clubhouse that many perceived as squeaky tight.

"If you're playing GM and looking at this objectively, you're looking at an older player who essentially is missing an entire year," he says. "You look at it as a flier. The question is, how big a flier?"

The club is committed to Carlos Beltran as its starting right fielder in 2013. Craig projects as its regular first baseman. Berkman recognizes he may represent "an insurance policy" to the Cardinals.

"It wouldn't be my favorite thing but you have to accept the reality of the situation," he says. "Those things work themselves out. It's not my first choice. Who knows? At this point I'm not exactly sure what the scenarios are going to be. If it's not the right situation I'm OK not doing it. I'm OK walking away if it's not comfortable."

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