June/July 2009 Going Deep Lance Berkman Chad Bonham
The face of the Houston Astros has changed.
Lance Berkman — #17
|Born: Feb. 10, 1976|
Birthplace: Waco, Texas
Weight: 220 lbs.
Position: First Base
College: Rice University
MLB Debut: July 16, 1999
All-Star Seasons (5): 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008
Jeff Bagwell has been retired for nearly four years. Craig Biggio bid farewell to Minute Maid Park after the 2007 season. And last year, fan favorite Brad Ausmus packed up his catcher's gear and opted to close out his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Houston is officially Lance Berkman's team. And he's OK with that.
For his entire tenure with the club, Berkman had been content to let those other legendary ballplayers take the lead. But now perhaps more than ever, the All-Star first baseman affectionately known as "Big Puma" (and not so affectionately as "Fat Elvis") appreciates the weighty responsibility of being a high-profile Christian athlete in a tight-knit clubhouse.
"One thing I enjoy as a guy who's been around for a while is seeing young guys come in and being able to help them if I can by giving them advice," Berkman said. "Breaking into this sport is difficult. Having been through it, I can reach out to those younger guys."
As far as the game goes, Berkman has a lot to offer anyone who is wise enough to listen. He's arguably one of the best switch hitters in baseball and has the numbers to back it up. Berkman is a five-time All-Star and is among the top 12 active players in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He entered the 2009 season just 12 home runs shy of 300, a mark that, at that point, had only been reached by 118 players in the history of the game.
But when it comes to making an impact on his teammates, stats aren't really what Berkman is talking about. He's much more interested in being the spiritual leader of the clubhouse, not just the emotional or competitive leader. Berkman takes his responsibility as the team's resident man of faith very seriously.
"It's extremely important," Berkman said. "I don't think you can overstate the importance of using your platform or using the position that you've been given to effect good in every circumstance. Obviously, the only reason I'm where I am is because God has gifted me and has seen fit to put me here. I have to honor that by using my influence and status on the team and in the game of baseball for good and for His purpose."
It doesn't take long to figure out why Berkman is one of the most likable players in Houston. He never takes himself too seriously.
During spring training just prior to the 2004 season — and just as the performance-enhancing drug scandal was on the verge of exploding — Berkman broke the tension by joking that people would be crazy to link his husky physique to steroid use.
More recently, he has started a preseason ritual of growing sideburns that would make even the King himself envious.
But when he hits the field, he's all business and always ready to give his best. Even though he is calm and collected at the plate, opposing pitchers know better. They're not fooled by Berkman's laid-back approach and know that he has a deep intensity below the surface.
It's that deceptively passionate fervor for the game that earns him respect and keeps him in good standing with teammates. And when the opportunities to share God's love present themselves, Berkman makes sure he has built up a sizable reserve of working capital.
"The key to dealing with people in general is that they have to know that you care about them," he explained. "You have to deal with people in gentleness. You have to come alongside them. You can't push them or pull them; you have to walk with them. I want my teammates to know that I care about them personally. When you are in that position, you earn the right to speak into their lives."
When Berkman was playing baseball for Rice University, a college teammate named Jake Baker reached out to him using this same principle. Baker came alongside the young Berkman and helped him understand what it meant to have a relationship with Christ. Even though Berkman had been raised by Christian parents and baptized at age 11, his spiritual growth didn't take hold until he moved away from home.
"That's when my faith really became my own," Berkman said.
"I don't think you can overstate the importance of using your platform or using the position that you've been given to effect good in every circumstance."
Baker's influence on Berkman also led to a pair of important introductions: first, to Berkman's wife, Sara (Baker's sister) and, second, to FCA.
Then, as a student, and now as a member of the Greater Houston FCA Board of Directors, Baker has inspired Berkman to become active in the ministry.
Berkman has been known to make at least one guest appearance at a Rice Huddle meeting each year. In January, he spoke at a dinner function and extolled the virtues of having a full-time chaplain to the Rice athletic department in an effort to help raise funds for the position.
Greater Houston FCA Area Director Wade Hopkins greatly appreciates having such a prominent voice speaking on behalf of the ministry.
"Lance is an integral part of FCA's baseball Bible study at Rice," he said. "That study is one of the most dynamic ministries in the country. Lance is passionate about working with young people, and these are just some of the many ways he is able to do that."
When Berkman makes appearances on behalf of FCA, he brings with him more than just name recognition and Major League credentials. He packs an unsuspected punch of biblical knowledge and theological understanding.
For the last several years, Berkman has sporadically taken Bible classes through Moody Bible Institute. The birth of his first child slowed the process, but now, in an effort to use his time on the road more productively, Berkman is eyeing the completion of his degree.
"The thing about the Bible that's amazing to me and still brings me a sense of awe is how well the principles work when applied to your daily walk," Berkman said. "People say faith is blind, but, when you put your faith into practice, you start to understand that it's not. God doesn't expect you to abandon reason. There's so much good, practical advice for living. It's not just for the afterlife, but it's for how you can live properly now. Every time I read it, it just blows me away how accurate and how well the Bible handles the human experience."
For Berkman, that includes the complex nature of love and forgiveness that — strange as it may sound — are issues that regularly impact clubhouse chemistry. At any given moment, relationships among teammates can be stretched by seemingly petty things (e.g., off-the-cuff remarks made to the press) or more serious issues such as clashing personalities and head-butting egos.
That's where Berkman says true godly character must be implemented.
"The difficult principle for me is that love is an act of will; it's not always an emotion," he said. "Certainly you can have a loving feeling toward someone. But even when we don't feel the emotion of love, we're still obligated to love."
"People say faith is blind, but when you put your faith into practice, you start to understand that it's not. God doesn't expect you to abandon reason." — Berkman
While Berkman can attest to that principle as a professional athlete, it's even more applicable in his role as a husband.
"It's very rare, but, every once in a while, my wife and I are at odds with each other and don't necessarily feel loving toward each other," Berkman said. "But the love I have for her is a lot deeper than that. It comes from my will; it's not born of emotion. I think your Christian walk has to be the same way."
Berkman's favorite Bible verse, ironically, isn't about love, but it still tackles an equally challenging topic: man's dependency on Christ for affirmation and purpose. It is John 15:5 (NIV), which says, "I (Jesus) am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."
Berkman is aware that Jesus' words fly in the face of humanistic philosophy and even the beliefs of a growing number of Christians.
Above: Berkman is now affectionately looked to as the Astros' clubhouse leader.
Below: Baker (L) and Berkman at the 2006 MLB All-Star Game
"There's a theology that says if the good you do outweighs the bad, that means you're in good standing with God," he said. "[John 15:5] really hits home for me because anything we do that's good apart from the power and the name of Jesus Christ — not that it doesn't count — but from a spiritual standpoint, it's not edifying. When we do good works outside of the power of Christ, we end up getting the glory when the whole point is for God to get the glory."
Some might think that an athlete who seeks to please God above all might lack the edge that drives them to pursue excellence. It's the oft-perpetuated notion that traditionally accuses Christian ballplayers of a moral conflict of interest. After all, how can someone claim to be a disciple of Jesus and still maintain a strong desire to come out on top?
For Berkman, it's not that complicated. He's out to win.
"People respect determination and desire and those who want to be excellent in all areas of life," he said. "If you're claiming to be a Christian but are not working as hard as you could or competing to win, people aren't going to take you seriously in other areas. I've always thought Christians should work harder than anybody else."
Strangely enough, because there are a growing number of outspoken Christian athletes, the chances of facing off against a fellow believer are greatly increased. According to Berkman, there is a "loose fraternity" among Christian baseball players who share the same values and beliefs. It's common to find these men of faith gravitating toward one another during pre-game warm-ups and batting practice.
Of course, once the first pitch is thrown, cross-team alliances take a backseat.
"Every time I'm up there against Jake Peavy, I know he's trying to strike me out just as hard as I'm trying to take him deep," Berkman said. "The good thing about being a Christian is that you have perspective and can really have fun. It's a fun competition. After it's over with, it's over. That's actually a benefit because you understand that there's more than just the outcome to the confrontation that's important."
Inevitably, that means someone is going to lose. It's just one of baseball's harsh realities that Berkman finds himself dealing with for at least six months out of every year. All the proper perspective in the world can't always shield an athlete — even a veteran and newly anointed leader like Berkman — from disappointment.
"With the failure that comes with the game, there are times when, based on my emotions, I can't stand this sport," he admitted. "But you have to push through that. And it's the same way in your Christian walk. There are times when you're sorely tempted to abandon your principles, but that's where that act of will comes in, and it can be trained in the sanctification process. That's when your life is no longer an emotional rollercoaster. Your faith gets steadier, stronger and a lot deeper."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of the Houston Astros; John Baker.