Sanctified Slugger

When Lance Berkman steps to the plate, he bares more than the weight of winning on his broad shoulders. He also carries the challenge of balancing his career, his family and his duty to share the gospel with those around him.
By Chad Bonham

It’s a little less than two hours before game time and Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, is already starting to fill up.Some fans have been patiently waiting along the first base line for hours now, just hoping for a chance to snag an autograph or two. Megastars such as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are prime targets. Flame-throwing closer Billy Wagner and popular catcher Brad Ausmus are also on the “A-list.”

Then there’s Lance Berkman.

With all of the clamor and fuss of a Major League Baseball game surrounding him, Berkman, age 27, sits calm and seemingly unaffected in the home team’s dugout; his feet casually propped up on the bench.

“I never really understood why people are so crazy about athletics and baseball players,” he says.

Those are strange words coming from a true All-Star and MVP candidate. After all, it’s those crazed fans that help pay his multimillion-dollar salary. But despite all the disingenuous answers star athletes give reporters these days, something about Berkman’s matter-of-fact comment rings true.

“The only difference between the fan and me is that God decided to bless me with the ability to play baseball,” Berkman says plainly. “I still feel like I’m just playing a game.”

Consequently, Berkman’s boyish looks and carefree demeanor reflect a certain throwback charm. He’s a strapping 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound man’s man with a scrappy goatee and thick, slightly unkempt brown hair. But Berkman is not your typical big hitter with even bigger biceps. He’s strong, but not a flamboyant muscular specimen à la Barry Bonds or Mike Piazza.

In 2002, Berkman hit home runs like a true slugger with a breakout season that tallied 42 round-trippers and 128 RBIs. Even more impressive was his ability to go deep from both sides of the plate, something most switch-hitters find difficult. He claims there was no physical changes but rather credits “catching balls with that good trajectory” for his success. And in the field, Berkman has produced similar results having committed just 21 errors in 858 total chances since debuting with the Astros in July of 1999.

Those are just a few of the statistics that make Berkman a special baseball player. There’s something else that just makes this Austin, Texas, native plain special. Berkman exudes a genuine attitude of humility rarely seen in professional athletics. His nonchalant nature may come off as overconfident or even cocky at first. Those close to Berkman, however, say there’s more to this sanctified slugger than meets the eye.

Running Home

For Berkman, faith and family go hand in hand. He and his younger sisters, Brooke and Jennifer, were the benefactors of strict-but-loving parents who instilled certain disciplines, the most important being devotion to God and the church.

Berkman was born in Waco, Texas, but spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Austin. Halfway through high school, the family moved to New Braunfels, Texas. One thing that never changed was their faithfulness to the Church of Christ in Westlake, Texas.

But like so many teens born and raised in the church, Berkman found himself going through the motions of religion rather than pursuing a serious relationship with Christ. It took some time away from home and help from a mentoring roommate named Jacob Baker before Berkman could truly turn that proverbial corner.

“It was my junior year at Rice [University] when I gained a good understanding of what it really means to be a Christian,” Berkman recalls. “It was really a life-changing year. [Jacob] had a consistent walk with the Lord. Unlike a lot of Christians who are nominal, he was somebody that claimed Christianity and had that real consistent, solid walk. From being around him so much and from having that example, that really led me to explore some areas of my life that weren’t fully committed to God.”

That year, Berkman’s spiritual breakthrough was enhanced by two other major events. On the field, he led Rice to the school’s first appearance in the College World Series. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association also named him the National College Player of the Year.

Off the field, he met his future wife, Cara, who coincidentally was Jacob’s sister and the daughter of Johnny Baker, an All-Pro with the Houston Oilers during the 1960s. The couple would later add daughter Hannah to the Berkman family in May of 2001.

Glory Days

Berkman’s flashy numbers made him a hot commodity that summer.

He was the 16th overall selection in the first round of the draft. After spending less than two years in the minor leagues, Berkman skyrocketed into the majors. While his late-season debut in 1999 didn’t guarantee him an opening day roster spot for 2000, he made his permanent mark with the Astros just two months into the season.

Once at the major league level, Berkman was awestruck by his surroundings. He was playing alongside Houston legends Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, commonly referred to as “The Killer Bs.” By virtue of his last name, not to mention a penchant for making All-Star plays, Berkman naturally was thrown into the mix. “The Killer Bs” expanded from a duo to a trio. Just being on the same team, much less considered on the same level, is a concept Berkman still has trouble grasping.

“That’s really kind of mind-boggling because of the standard of excellence that those two guys have set for a number of years,” Berkman says. “You’re talking about two guys that have played at a Hall of Fame level for 10 years and for the same team. That’s very rare and very unique. It’s been a privilege playing with both of them.”

Berkman plays down the big numbers he has produced so early in his career. It’s that conspicuous humility creeping out again. But he does have one major goal: lead Houston to the World Series. Having reached the top level of competition at the collegiate level, Berkman can only imagine what it would feel like to experience that kind of success on the world’s biggest stage. He’d also like to see it happen before Bagwell and Biggio call it a career.

That would all be nice, Berkman admits. But he understands, perhaps better than the rest of his teammates, why it can never be his ultimate goal.

“All glory is fleeting and the Bible always talks about how our glory is like the flowers of the field,” Berkman says. “‘The grass withers and the flowers fall but the Word of the Lord stands forever.’ If you have that attitude . . . even if you play 10 years which is a long career, that’s just a very quick period of time in somebody’s life.”

“I don’t really get caught up in being seen or enjoying people coming up and wanting your autograph or things like that,” he adds. “For me, that’s not an area that I really struggle with because I just know it lasts for such a short period of time.”

Scholar on Deck!

It doesn’t take much time spent with Berkman to realize this guy is a true disciple of the Bible.

He regularly takes correspondence courses from the College of Biblical Studies in Houston. During every home stand, Berkman makes sure to check in with Dr. Robert G. Anderson Jr., a professor at the college, for evaluations. That commitment to self-discipleship has bled into the Astros clubhouse where Berkman has made a major impact on the teammates he practically lives with for seven months out of the year.

Last season, he volunteered to take on the role of team representative for Baseball Chapel, the organization that oversees Sunday worship services in all major league and minor league ballparks (see page 20). It’s a chance for Berkman to live out his faith in a tangible, yet approachable way.

“I try to be a leader, spiritually, for some of the younger guys on the team,” Berkman says. “It’s a good position to be in. It’s something that I really enjoy. I feel almost that it is a responsibility.”

Although Berkman is only in his fourth year at the major league level, he’s already considered a veteran and someone that the younger players can look up to. In particular, Brandon Puffer, Kirk Saarloos and Pete Munro, a trio of young gun hurlers, find there is much to learn from the sagely teammate.

“Even though he hasn’t been around that long, he’s like a veteran,” Puffer says. “He’s a superstar in this game, but he treats you like anybody else. Having a guy at the top who gets the respect from the guys and is also a brother [in Christ] is huge.”

When asked about Berkman’s spiritual impact on the team, Saarloos recalls a road trip that took place late in the 2002 season. It was around 10 p.m. on the night before a pivotal series against division rival St. Louis was set to begin. Getting some much-needed rest was secondary to one group of players with a passion for the Word of God.

“There was about six or seven of us who had a Bible study,” Saarloos says. “Lance led it and it was just amazing that a Christian man like that who is a perennial All-Star is also an all-star in terms of what he knows about the Word.

“I was just amazed at the grasp he has on the Word and the ability to lead not only in the clubhouse, but the ability to lead the young Christians on this team. It was almost like sitting in church listening to him. It was amazing.

“Obviously you respect him for what he does on the field, but for me, I respect him a lot more for what he does off the field and in the Word.”

Ripken’s Record

Berkman won’t say how long he plans to play baseball. Barring injury, it’s conceivable he could perform at a high level for another 10 years or more.

Berkman does believe he’s in baseball for a specific reason, as a ministry to his teammates and others in the Astros organization, and as a light to the fans. No, he doesn’t have a timeline, but he trusts God will reveal when it’s time.

“It’s a tough life,” Berkman says. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to be major league baseball players, but I’m speaking in terms of raising a family, and being away from your wife and your children.

“For seven months out of a year I’m never home for more than a week at a time. That gets to be tough. I feel that God’s given me a platform through baseball and right now He wants me to play baseball. I’m going to do that until I feel like it’s affecting my first responsibility which is the ministry of my family.”

These days, when No. 17 steps to the plate, he bares more than the weight of winning on his broad shoulders. Berkman also carries the challenge of balancing his career, his family and his duty to share the gospel with those around him. Somehow, he never seems stressed by the heavy load.

“I hope that when I get done playing, people will be able to say there’s more to Lance Berkman than on-field performance,” Berkman says. “I hope they’ll be able to see Jesus living through me.”


Big League Brotherhood

Players who attend Baseball Chapel say the no-frills meetings are for warriors, not wimps.

On any given summer day, the training room inside Yankee Stadium will likely be filled with players bulking up their already athletic builds. But at least once a week, one corner of the room gives way to a different kind of workout.

It’s called Baseball Chapel and without fail, the faithful spend a few minutes together every Sunday of the baseball season. The players make known their requests, a Bible lesson is taught and after about 15 minutes, the service is closed in prayer.

“It’s a no-frills chapel service,” Yankees chapel leader George McGovern jokingly says. “No choir, no collection, no special music or anything like that.”

In Houston, the scene is familiar. On average about 15 to 20 players, coaches and team representatives gather in a clubhouse conference room. There usually isn’t enough room for everyone to have a seat so many players find a comfortable spot on the floor. “It’s nice to look around and see that you have brothers in Christ here in the big leagues,” Astros pitcher Kirk Saarloos says.

It wasn’t long ago that these inspiring scenes of worship were virtually nonexistent. In fact it was exactly 30 years ago that Baseball Chapel was officially created in order to fill a huge gap in the lives of these professional athletes.

The first hints of such an organization came in the early 1960s when players from the Cubs and Twins held chapel services while on the road. In 1973, Detroit sportswriter Watson Spoelstra approached Commissioner Bowie Kuhn with the concept of chapel for every major league team. Several changes took place throughout the next five years, and by 1978, Baseball Chapel had expanded to the minor leagues and to the winter leagues in Latin America.

According to Baseball Chapel’s executive director Vince Nauss, chapel programs have been established for all 210 teams in the major and minor leagues and many independent league teams. Approximately 3,000 players, coaches, managers, trainers, office staff and other team personnel, umpires and members of the media attend each week.

But beyond the sheer numbers, Nauss is proudest of the spiritual growth he has seen in the athletes themselves. “There are more players that are equipped to do ministry from the inside out,” he says. “We’re only as strong as the number of disciples we make among the players.”

Saarloos is one of the players who has been strengthened by the ministry of Baseball Chapel from A ball in Lexington, Kentucky, all the way to the major leagues. He came from a Christian home and was admittedly leery of the temptations he might face as a professional athlete.

“Coming into pro ball, you hear a lot of stories,” Saarloos adds. “You don’t know what it’s going to be like. I walked in and got involved with Baseball Chapel. It was perfect for me.

“I got to fellowship with other Christians on the team and was able to get into the Word on a regular basis with our chaplain. It sets your day right before you go out on the field.”

Standing on the field during batting practice, Gene Pemberton beams like a proud father. In a sense, the Astros’ 60-something team chaplain is a spiritual dad to many of the players. He often interrupts himself to point out some of the ones who have seen major changes since getting involved with Houston’s chapel program.

“Take a guy like [Houston Astro] Orlando Merced,” Pemberton expounds. “He’s really made a commitment this year. He said at one time he wanted to be a Christian, then he still wanted to do what he was big enough to do. But he’s turned his life totally over.”

Baseball Chapel is also a key factor during times of crisis. From national tragedies such as the September 11 attacks to more personal losses such as the untimely death of pitcher Darryl Kile of the St. Louis Cardinals, professional baseball players often need a place to turn for comfort and answers to tough questions.

“Those are the times that people are going to be more open,” Nauss says. “We can be there for them. We’re here for them every day, but we’re here especially in times like that. That might be the only time they may come to a service or come to let you know what’s on their heart.”

“I point to examples like [Texas Ranger] Chad Curtis or [St. Louis Cardinal] Joe Girardi,” McGovern says. “These are solid Christian men whose reputation is to play all out and to hustle and hate to lose . . . their motivation for performance is not just his self-satisfaction, but now they’re playing for the God of the universe.”

“I better see you in church, boy.” St. Louis Cardinal Joe Girardi is known for his faith.


Strike!

As far as the general public is concerned, the terms ‘salary cap,’ ‘luxury tax,’ ‘arbitration’ and ‘revenue sharing’ have one simple translation: greed.

Making loads of cash and performing in the public eye is always a precarious balancing act for the Christian athlete. In 2002, being a Christian baseball player was an especially tricky proposition.

Throughout much of the season, there was the looming threat of a season-ending strike. The fans were again faced with the prospect of being held hostage by a complex set of issues that no one seemed to understand.

As far as the general public was concerned, the terms “salary cap,” “luxury tax,” “arbitration” and “revenue sharing” had one simple translation: greed. Some blamed the players, others blamed the owners, and most were beginning to care less.

The strike was narrowly averted late in the season, but the reality remains that most fans believe baseball players are overpaid and play more for the money than the love of the game. Houston Astros outfielder Lance Berkman is one of a handful of players that obviously debunk the myth. Throughout the negotiating process, however, he was never too concerned with the public’s perception.

“People are going to think what they’re going to think,” Berkman says. “I’m not too concerned about how they view professional athletes. It would be impossible for us to sit here and explain. People are always going to think that if you play sports and make a lot of money that you’re spoiled and kind of whiny.”

Berkman’s statement may come off a bit brash, but considering the source (Berkman is one of baseball’s most generous players) helps deflect damage from his character. New York Yankees Chaplain George McGovern concurs that money and the Christian faith are sometimes strange bedfellows.

Unfortunately, the perception of the selfish athlete is not always terribly far from reality. During the threat of a strike, fans in major league cities across the country did not take kindly to the prospect of seeing another World Series canceled à la 1994. Especially frustrating was watching players who earn an average of $2.38 million a year haggle with team owners who profit from a $3.5 billion industry.

“If they strike, even for one day, I will not go to a game again,” Reds fan Duane Wiles told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I will not even listen to a game or watch a game [on TV]. That would be it.”

For Berkman, it’s not a nagging concern. Instead, stewardship ranks high on his list of financial priorities.

Berkman has partnered with Methodist Hospital in Houston to create “Berkman’s Bunch,” an organization that gives financially and physically disadvantaged children the chance to attend Astros games. “As a Christian, I feel very blessed to be in the position that I’m in,” Berkman explains. “That helps with humility.”


Chad Bonham is a freelance writer who has been an Astro’s fan since the age of 8. His book, Spiritual Journeys is out this month (www.relevant-books.com).New Man Magazine — Jul/Aug, 2003

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