Coach Berkman

*Note: at the time of the writing of this article, Adam Wainwright had just completed a four-hit shutout, which provided a tremendous boost to an overused St. Louis Cardinal bullpen and a huge step towards Waino reaching the consistency he desperately longs to regain. He struck out 9 and walked only 1 and said “..that might be the best feeling I’ve ever had pitching…I’ve done some things that are pretty fun, but I can never remember feeling that emotional after a game”. Huge news in Cardinal Nation, but not a topic I want to delve into in this¬† space…however, rest assured that weighs easy on this writer’s mind as we deal with a tougher topic here…

Lance Berkman.

He is one of the guys that reminds me that baseball is ultimately a game people play because they love it, or at least at one point in time they did.¬† Berkman is one of the few guys that does not give “jock-talk” interviews, but actually speaks openly and honestly with the media. He stands up and takes the heat when the team does not play well. He is refreshingly honest about what he is good at, and what he is not. And he is also a dang good baseball player.

2011 postseason heroics aside (which will always be revered in Cardinal Nation), Berkman revitalized his career after a very disappointing and injury marred 2010. For the season, he played in 145 games, hitting 31 HRs 94 RBI and a slash line of .301/.412/.547. He was, in my opinion, unquestionably the first half MVP last year, putting up 24 HR and 63 RBI by the All-Star break. He did all of this after rehabbing a knee injury that greatly hurt his 2010 performance. Many doubted at 35 years old, he would be able to return to “the Berkman of old”, and that the Cardinals were throwing 8 million dollars down the drain last season.

We all know how that story ended. Berkman was a key piece of the 2011 World Series title, felt he could still contribute at a high level, and wanted to stay in St. Louis. Speaking openly with the club and the media, he said his services should be worth 12 million for the 2012 season, and the Cardinals agreed. Contract signed. Full speed ahead in the attempts to defend the crown.

Then come the injuries.

Berkman had just returned from the DL when he re-injured his right knee last weekend against the Dodgers, on a seemingly routine play. An MRI Monday revealed a tearing of the meniscus and cartilage responsible for cushioning the knee. Berkman is undergoing surgery this week, which will be his fifth knee surgery. Early prognosis is he will be sidelined a minimum of six weeks.

I bragged on Berkman’s honesty earlier, and will again. He is just not sure he wants to go through the grinding rehab one more time to get himself back to playing at an elite level at 36 years old. I can not say I blame him for feeling that way. It would be a terrible way for him to go out, but reality is, he may never play again. There is some time needed to figure out what the rehab process will look like following surgery, but I began to run through the “what-ifs’ regarding a Berkman retirement…and not from the standpoint of replacing his production on the field, but figuring out a way to keep his leadership, toughness, and knowledge within the organization.

The Cardinals have shown a trend towards hiring former players as coaches in recent years. Jose Oquendo has been third base coach for a long time, Mark McGwire the hitting coach the last two seasons, and John Mabry was brought into the fold as assistant hitting coach this season. Why not make Berkman an offer to stay on as a coach if he finds out his playing days are done? I realize there is not an open slot at this moment, but the organization should make a commitment to him, just like they did Mike Matheny, and give him a chance to scout or coach.

Of course, there is a great chance he would say no. He may want to return to his ranch in Texas or even rejoin the Astros organization. I just hope Mozeliak would make his best effort to keep Berkman in the mix after his playing days are over. The organization would be much stronger for it.

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