Coming off the worst full season of his Major League career, the longtime Astros icon signed a one-year deal to join a team he once loved to hate. He'll play right field for the Cardinals in 2011, returning to the outfield after a layoff of nearly four years. And though knee troubles plagued him in 2010, Berkman insists that covering ground won't be a problem.
In fact, he sees it as potentially beneficial.
"First base is harder on your knees than the outfield is," Berkman said Saturday at the Cardinals' annual Winter Warm-Up. "And the reason is because, at first base, there's a tremendous amount of direction change, there's stopping and starting. You're holding guys on. You're bouncing off. You're having to get back. ... The actual, hey, run from A to B and either catch the ball or don't get there, that's easy if your legs are in good shape."
Berkman underwent left knee surgery last March and missed the Astros' first 12 regular-season games. After that, he was never quite himself at the plate, finishing the year far off of his career norms. Berkman ended 2010, which he split between the Astros and Yankees due to a July trade, with a .248 batting average, .368 on-base percentage and a .436 slugging percentage.
He's choosing to think that with a full spring and his knees mended, he's in for a better season in '11.
"I hope that was the whole reason," he said. "I'm just going to blame it on that anyway. But I don't know. Obviously it got me off on the wrong foot, no pun intended. I missed Spring Training, and when I came back, I just didn't have enough strength, I don't think. On my left side particularly, that's my back leg. You hear people say, 'Sit back, you've got to stay back,' and I just wasn't able to do that.
"I'm hopeful that that was the case. But if it wasn't, and I'm really just not any good anymore, I can live with that. I worked hard this offseason and I don't think that's the case, but we'll see."
Berkman said that he's down approximately 15-20 pounds from the weight at which he ended last season, and he certainly looked trim in street clothes. After finishing last season at 230 pounds, he'd like to come to camp at about 215. That should help ease the load on his knees and aid him in covering ground in the outfield.
Of course, Berkman was signed for two things: to hit, and to bring some personality and fun into the Cardinals' clubhouse. If he does those two things, it's unlikely that defense will be much of a hangup for anyone.
"I'm just glad I don't have to pitch against him," said new teammate Kyle Lohse. "I know he had a down year last year, but the guy can hit. I've been seeing everything where you guys are talking about how he's working out and getting ready, and I'm definitely excited."
Berkman, a five-time All-Star, views his detour to St. Louis as a make-good opportunity. Reports circled over the winter of the possibility of a multi-year offer for Berkman somewhere, but he said Saturday that he actually had little interest in signing for more than one year.
"Even if I had been offered a two-year deal for the same money, I probably wouldn't have taken it," Berkman said. "Just because, honestly, I feel like last year was a fluke. I think I'm going to have a great year this year. And if I do, then statistically I'm going to be in a great spot. And if I don't, I'll want to retire. But if I had locked into a two-year deal, then I would feel like I had to honor the second year of that. So from a flexibility standpoint, and from just a financial standpoint, I feel like if I can go out and regain form, I'll be sitting pretty as a free agent next year."
Thus, the Cardinals' desire to stand firm on a one-year deal actually suited him. That was one of a few reasons that St. Louis represented such a good fit for Berkman.
He told reporters on Saturday that he instructed his agent to check on opportunities with five teams: Houston, Texas, Atlanta, St. Louis and Colorado. If none of those clubs had been interested, he said, he might have hung it up entirely. Fortunately, the Redbirds were interested in bringing him in to play right field and bat fifth.
"It's weird," he said. "For most of my career, I couldn't stand the Cardinals. I basically hated the organization's guts -- in a good way. In a fun way. It's more just a healthy respect, I should say. But that was part of what drove me here, too. I think so much of this organization and so much of the people, from [manager Tony La Russa] to his coaching staff to the players that have been around and I've competed against for so many years. I couldn't think of a better place to be."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.