After starring at nationally-ranked Rice University, becoming the Astros’ #1 pick in the draft (16th overall), and then being voted playoff MVP for the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, Berkman became used to the spotlight. The young left fielder hit for both power and average, and complemented that plate prowess with competent outfield play and an above-average arm.
Berkman’s .297 average and 21 home runs in 2000 gave the Astros enough confidence in him that they traded Roger Cedeno to the Detroit Tigers during the off-season to make room for him in left field. The switch hitter from Texas starred among stars in 2001, batting in a lineup that included Craig Biggio and Moises Alou, and rewarded the Astros faithful with a .300+ batting average and over 100 RBIs.
At times Berkman displayed almost preternatural maturity, rarely becoming upset with a bad at-bat, in spite of all the expectations around him. After grounding into an inning-ending double-play in his first major league at-bat, he reflected, “I got a decent pitch to hit and was a little out in front of it. It really wasn’t what we needed right there, but it was one at-bat.”
Of course, being mature doesn’t mean he can’t have fun every now and again. Berkman’s record includes no less than three instances of impersonating a mascot. In 1998, while playing for the Zephyrs, Berkman was stuck on the DL while the team was in a slump. During one home game, manager Tony Pena looked up and saw an unusually large Zephyrs’ mascot dancing on the dugout. He quickly realized that his 6’1″, 205-pound star outfielder was risking a re-injury to his knee, and ordered him down, slapping him with a $25 fine. On another occasion, Berkman took batting practice while wearing a sumo-wrestler costume.
If there’s anything that will prevent Berkman’s career from soaring, it will be his fear of flying. While the rest of the Zephyrs boarded the playoff-bound plane jubilantly, a dour Berkman slowly dragged himself up the steps from the tarmac. Berkman has been known to drive hundreds of miles to avoid air travel.