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Berkman enjoying fruits of labor

Berkman enjoying fruits of labor

HOUSTON -- Big Puma fever has swept through Houston, leaving Lance Berkman wondering if he's created a monster.

Puma this, Puma that. Puma on the backs of jerseys. Young fans dressed in lions costumes, calling themselves Little Pumas. A growling Puma sound effect when Berkman gets a hit. A song dedicated to all things Puma, played from time to time at Minute Maid Park (much to Puma's -- er, Berkman's chagrin).

It was Berkman who came up with the name. He was tired of being called "Fat Elvis," and during a semi-regular appearance on a local radio show two years ago, Berkman told the hosts he wanted to change things up.

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"I'm like a Puma," Berkman said. At that moment, a cult hero was born. He's Lance Berkman, the Big Puma.

Nowadays, his manager refers to him as Big Puma. It's catching on with his teammates, too. And all because of Berkman's desire to replace the Fat Elvis label with a brand new image -- even if it's tongue-in-cheek.

Asked nearly two years ago why Big Puma, Berkman reacted as if the answer could not be more obvious.

"Agile, athletic, sleek ... all the things that describe my game," Berkman said.

Well ... not really. While there is no question he's one of the strongest and most feared hitters in the league, Berkman isn't exactly known for his fluidity on the basepaths. Sometimes, he loses track of the number of outs made, by both his team and the opponent. He's fast, but not graceful.

Berkman understands why he's not considered truly "Puma-like," but at the same time, he affably takes issue with being labeled as the stereotypical non-athletic first baseman. He takes pride in his defense, steals bases and cares deeply about winning.

"Everyone wants to be considered a good athlete," Berkman said. "I know I'm not the most graceful person when I run, but I still feel like I'm a good athlete, that I make plays on the field that you have to be a good athlete to make. You want people to recognize the fact that even though you might not look the prettiest, you can move a little bit and you're not just a big, old, fat first baseman."

Berkman is, in fact, not fat at all. But he knows why he looks that way, especially on TV, where the camera adds 10 pounds. It's all in his face -- he simply has, in his words, "Big jowls."

"I have more of a round face," Berkman said. "So people immediately assume when they see me on TV, 'Oh, he must be fat.'"

And sometimes that is followed with other assumptions: He's slow. He's not a good athlete. He's a one-dimensional player. And in truth, that bothers him.

"It's definitely mostly in jest," Berkman said. "But it's also an attempt to bring to attention the fact that hey, you just may not be this big, stereotypical fat guy that people sometimes think you are. Or that I don't lift weights or do anything. That's just not the case."

Berkman is, in fact, quite regimented when it comes to keeping in shape. He does most of his intense conditioning during the winter, but he fits in several short workouts during the season in the form of 10- or 15-minute weight-lifting sessions after games, four times a week.

"It's not a big deal," Berkman said. "I've never been a guy that's like, 'Oh, come watch me work out,' so people will say, 'What a hard worker.' I feel like I'm a professional baseball player, I know what I need to do to get ready for the season. It's my job. I'm going to be prepared."

Clearly, Berkman was prepared for the 2008 season. He's plowing through opposing pitchers at a frenetic and possibly historic pace, leading the league in most offensive categories -- with the exception of batting average. His .385 clip is second to Atlanta's Chipper Jones, who's hitting a mind-boggling .417 over 46 games.

Berkman is hitting .488 in May, thanks in part to a 17-game hitting streak during which he hit .545. Moreover, his defense has never been better.

"He's playing first base better than anyone in the league," manager Cecil Cooper said.

And Berkman is stealing bases. He has 10 this year -- a new career high -- set before June.

"I didn't know he was the greatest hitter in the history of baseball until this guy showed up for the last month or so," general manager Ed Wade said after Berkman's hitting streak reached 17 games. "It's like watching a guy play big league baseball, only he's playing tee ball. That's how easy he's making it. You know how difficult this game is, and he's simplified it to the 'nth degree."

In many ways, Berkman is the anti-ballplayer. He doesn't drink. He doesn't swear. He hates boring cliches. Ask him a question, he'll give you an honest answer. Often, his answers aren't appreciated by management. He has created controversy in the past with his no holds-barred approach to somewhat generic questions by reporters.

Berkman makes no apologies for any of it.

"As a baseball player, you can certainly hide behind cliches," Berkman said. "You can say a cliche to answer just about every question. I've always been a guy that has held strong opinions, has not been afraid to tell you exactly what I think.

"I'm not saying I have a chip on my shoulder and everyone wants to know my opinion or has to know it. I think there's a time and a place. But I do believe if someone asks me an honest and direct question, I'll do the best I can to give them an honest and direct answer."

And when he's wrong, he'll say so. His candidness created a stir in the offseason when he was critical of the Astros' roster overhaul, questioning if Wade's moves would have a negative effect on the team's harmony.

And now?

"I was clearly mistaken in my early assessment," Berkman said. "This is a tremendous group of guys and our chemistry is as good as we've ever had on a team since I've been here."

Four-letter words are considered the norm in baseball, but Berkman keeps his language family-friendly. If he strikes out or doesn't like a call from an umpire, he'll usually drop at "dadgummit," or an occasional "dang." He notices his teammates sometimes watch what they say when they're around him, a gesture he appreciates but feels is somewhat unnecessary.

Berkman isn't trying to change anyone. He is simply comfortable with who he is, and as a professional, he'd like to be remembered as a good person and a good teammate.

"I certainly don't feel like I'm perfect and I have it all figured out," Berkman said. "I think my teammates know where I'm coming from. I think we have a mutual respect for each other. I love all my teammates and I think they like me. I'm not trying to be a holy roller or a holier-than-thou person, but I do want people to look at me and say that I'm doing it the right way."

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

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