Berkman makes emotional return to Houston

Berkman makes emotional return to Houston

ST. LOUIS -- A smiling Lance Berkman was back in familiar surroundings on Tuesday afternoon, even if he was wearing a different shade of red and across the field in a different dugout.

Berkman returned to Minute Maid Park for the first time in an opposing uniform for the opener of a three-game series between the Cardinals, Berkman's current team, and the Astros, Berkman's team for 12 years. He even got a chance to patrol his old stomping grounds at first base, where he got the start in place of the hobbled Albert Pujols.

"It's hard to verbalize the wide range of emotions you feel when you come back to a place you were for a long time," said Berkman, who still lives in Houston with his family. "I've had a lot of good memories here, and there were a lot of good people I interacted with over the years, so it's certainly different seeing it from this side."

Berkman got a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd of 25,526 when he was introduced before his first at-bat, and he tipped his helmet to both sides of the ballpark.

"That was nice," Berkman said of the ovation. "I knew it was either going to be way one way or way the other, either standing 'O' or octopus on the field."

The all-time hits leader at Minute Maid Park, Berkman went 2-for-5 and drove in what would have been the game-winning run in the ninth had the Astros not rallied for a 6-5 win.

"There's many times you're up there with the nerves just racing," he said. "Despite being jumpy, you've got to be able to execute a swing. All the anxiety happens beforehand. I definitely felt jittery before I stepped into the box."

A large media contingent greeted Berkman prior to the game, and it didn't take long before the slugger was asked to respond to the comments that Astros Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton made on a Houston radio station Monday morning, when he questioned Berkman's workout routine during the slugger's final two years with the Astros.

Hamilton, during his weekly appearance on KBME (790 AM), expressed regret that Berkman wasn't able to finish his career with the Astros and said that if Berkman had the same workout commitment during his final two years in Houston that he appears to have now, he'd still be here. Berkman battled knee problems last year after undergoing surgery last March and was having the worst offensive season of his career when he waived his no-trade clause and approved a deal to the Yankees last July.

Berkman signed with the Cardinals in the winter and entered Monday hitting a sizzling .377 with six homers and 15 RBIs. Berkman said he had no hard feelings for Hamilton, but he took exception to the comments.

"I want to be careful with my words, but first of all, there were some things that were said [that were] simply not true," Berkman said. "I think the comment was made that I didn't rehab my knee. That's a blatant falsehood. You can go confirm with the training staff. I came every day and did exactly what I was supposed to do. I do take exception to the questioning of the effort.

"I feel like I've done the best that I can, and did the best I could, over the time I had here in Houston to represent the organization well on and off the field. That includes effort level and playing hurt and maybe playing some games when I shouldn't have been out there. In trying to do the best I could do and maintain the feel that both Craig [Biggio] and Jeff [Bagwell] were able to create, I felt a responsibility, in that regard, to pass that along.

"One thing that can't be denied -- and that responsibility is on me -- that if I had played better, we wouldn't be having this press conference."

Berkman said he's maintained the same the playing weight for most of his career, and the only reason he hired a trainer to work at his home this winter is because he wasn't going to be spending the regular season in Houston and wanted to spend as much time at home with his family as he could. Berkman made use of a Houston workout facility each offseason with the Astros and says the regimen stayed strong.

"I think it's easy when things don't go well, for one reason or another, to say it's that I didn't work hard enough to get in enough shape," Berkman said. "I think that's a misrepresentation of the situation. I've made light of, or joked, over the years of different things and [it] may have given me a public persona that's different than what actually takes place.

"I think it's ludicrous to think that you could compete at a high level without an incredible amount of hard work. It's one of those things where I'm not a guy that is 'rah-rah' about it or says, 'I went to the gym and did this or did that.' I think you can go back and talk to people [who have worked him out in past offseasons] that I've never been scared to do what it takes to be successful."

Berkman took some time Monday to catch up with former teammates, including Hunter Pence and Chris Johnson, at the batting cage, but the Astros have had a drastic roster upheaval in the last year and there aren't as many familiar faces as in years past.

"I feel like almost -- from the final out of the '05 World Series, it started," he said. "It's hard to picture the Astros where they are, personnel-wise, coming form where we were at that point. It's hard to believe there could be that much turnover, but that's the nature of the game. Players get older and return and move out, and whatever happens to them, they just kind of fall by the wayside."

Berkman hasn't been shy about saying he wishes he could have played his entire career in Houston, but he's happy in St. Louis and has great memories of playing in Houston.

"Obviously, the two years that we had back to back in '04 and '05 and finally broke through won a playoff series for the first time ever and went to the World Series for the first time ever, those things are special," he said. "I'm proud to have been a part of helping the Astros' organization in what probably would have been considered their most successful couple of seasons. I think more than something on the field, just the great guys that I got to play with here -- Bagwell and Biggio and Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte, Chris Burke, Jason Lane, Adam Everett, and all those guys -- that made it just a great place."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.