Fat Elvis has left the building.
It was a nickname well-earned, but well-hated by the All-Star outfielder, who preferred the one he gave himself. The Puma. That it stuck, more out of irony than resemblance, was a testament to how fans felt about him throughout his 15 year career which came to an end on Wednesday.
Lance Berkman was as close as anything the Astros had to the hometown hero. The Texas native went to high school in New Braunfels before joining Wayne Graham at Rice to help transform that program into a national powerhouse. The Astros made the Owl their top pick in the 1997, and two years later he was back in Houston in an Astros uniform.
He was the anti- Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, lacking the physical presence of the other two Astros icons led to the unfortunate nickname at the top of the article. But his self-deprecating nature, down-home charm and Texas roots made him a fan favorite quickly.
So did his talent.
Berkman never looked graceful, but he was a great baseball player. From 2000-2009, the switch-hitter averaged 31 home runs, 102 RBIs and 96 runs scored. He never hit lower than .274 in any of those seasons, was an All-Star five times and finished in the top five of MVP voting four times in that stretch.
It was Berkman’s bat, along with Morgan Ensberg, in the middle of the lineup that helped Biggio and Bagwell reach the World Series for the only time in their career in 2005.
Injuries slowed him down in his final seasons with the Astors, and Berkman’s decline in Houston mirrored the team’s descent from contention into its current abyss.
Through his time in Houston Berkman never lost his sense of humor, but he did lose a lot of his soft edges with a rigorous exercise program in the offseason after he was traded away from the Astros. That transformation, and an admission that he worked harder physically that offseason to prepare than he ever did when he played for Houston irked some Astros fans who always pointed to Berkman’s physique and complained about his dedication to the team and the game.
That Lance hit .301 with 31 home runs, 94 RBIs and 90 runs for St. Louis to help the Cardinals capture the World Series only fueled their resentment.
But time heals all wounds and Berkman’s contributions to the Astros should eventually place his No. 17 up in the rafters above the jumbotron as one of the team’s all-time greats. The Astros said they wanted to honor him in its release regarding the retirement. It would be a fitting place for Houston’s prodigal puma to land.