The buzz around baseball last season was that Lance Berkman was done. His bat was a shade slower and so was he. He had been discarded by the only team he ever played for, dumped by Houston in a trade deadline deal with the Yankees.
Here was one of the premier hitters of his time, one of just seven switch hitters in baseball history with 300 home runs, becoming an afterthought. With the Astros and Yankees in 2011, he batted just .248 with 14 home runs and 58 RBIs, well below his usual numbers.
"My skills were declining as I got older?" he said, smiling. "Wow, what a revelation that is."
Still, he believed he had something left. So the challenge last winter for Berkman was to first find a team that would take a chance on him and then prove that the risk was worthwhile.
Enter the Cardinals.
"I had eight or 10 teams I talked to," Berkman said. "I had a choice. I knew a lot of guys on this team. I felt it was a great team with a chance to win. It's not far from Houston, where I live. It was a good fit. I love these guys. They make it easy to enjoy the game."
The Cardinals believed that Berkman's bad year was an anomaly.
"He was hitting off one leg last year and survived," manager Tony La Russa said. "He had an off year. What I think was surprising is that based on the career that he had, that he didn't get more of the benefit of the doubt. He deserved the benefit of the doubt."
Berkman's credentials are substantial. He came into this season with a .296 career batting average and 1,099 RBIs. His .545 slugging percentage was second highest among switch hitters, trailing only Mickey Mantle's .557. His 327 career home runs were fifth all time among switch-hitters. No switch-hitter since 2000 had more home runs (323) and RBIs (1064). He is one of just four switch-hitters in baseball history to post eight seasons of 25 or more home runs. Eddie Murray (12), Mantle (10) and Chipper Jones (10) are the others.
The Cardinals gave him a chance, and Berkman has responded brilliantly, leading the National League in home runs and on a pace to once again crack 100 RBIs, a number he reached six times with Houston when he was one of the NL's most consistent and dangerous hitters.
Berkman said he wasn't on a crusade against his detractors.
"I'm 35 years old," he said. "You can't do this forever. I'm taking this as an opportunity to play as well as I can, not to prove anything. It's certainly satisfying to come back from a down year. I'm enjoying it as much as I can. You never know when it's the last run."
As bad as last season was for him, Berkman did have a productive postseason with a double, triple, home run and four RBIs in 16 at-bats.
"My bat speed was good. I felt good. For me, it was a springboard into the offseason," he said. "You ask yourself, `Can I still do this at the level I used to?' In my heart, I felt I could."
There was one problem in St, Louis, though -- Albert Pujols.
With Pujols a fixture at first base for the Cardinals, Berkman had to return to the outfield, a position more suited for younger, more spry players. He had not played there at all last season, but he seized the challenge, working hard in the offseason to prepare for the job. He has not missed a beat.
"Hey," he said, "if you can do it at 30, you can do it at 35."
And the way he's played this season, maybe at 36, too.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.