HOUSTON -- Longtime fan favorite Lance Berkman is set to make his first return to Minute Maid Park on Tuesday when his Cardinals open a three-game set against the team for which he played the first 12 seasons of his career.
Puma, as he was affectionately known, will no doubt be warmly received by Astros fans and former teammates. After all, he was the team MVP five times and was part of the Killer B's -- along with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio -- that led the franchise to its only World Series appearance in 2005.
Berkman, who waived his no-trade clause and was dealt to the Yankees at the Trade Deadline last season, is off to a terrific start for his new club -- the rival Cardinals. He's hitting .377 with six homers and 15 RBIs with a 1.173 OPS, and there is little doubt that for most, it's nice just to see him playing well again.
But his early surge, combined with his offseason comments about hiring a trainer to get into better shape, are leaving some wondering, "What if?" What if he'd have had that same commitment during his final years in Houston, when various health problems sapped his production in 2009 and '10? His home run totals fell from 45 in 2006 to 34 to 29 to 25 to 13, with a career-low .248 average, in 85 games for the Astros prior to his trade to the Yankees last year.
On Monday, Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton gave voice to that regret during his weekly Monday morning radio appearance on KBME (790 AM) in Houston.
"He got in excellent shape by hiring a trainer, and if he had done that the last couple of years he was here, guys, he could have finished out a really fine career in Houston -- if he'd had given that same dedication," Hamilton said during an interview with host Matt Jackson. "I just want a simple answer: Why did you think it wasn't necessary to get in shape your last couple of years as an Astro, and now to a team you didn't even know, a manager you didn't play for, you felt it was your responsibility to get in great shape? And it's paying off. Look what's he's doing. He was Player of the Week last week, and I don't remember when he was Player of the Week as an Astro."
Berkman won NL Player of the Week four times with the Astros, most-recently May 5-11, 2008.
"When he left here, there wasn't a hue and cry for the older players because they felt that he let them down by not getting there early and doing his rehab work," Hamilton continued. "[But] the younger players said, 'If he's getting away with that, how are we supposed to learn anything?'"
Hamilton, in his 27th season with the Astros and 66th year on the air, has maintained a special relationship with Berkman through the years.
"Lance, I love you," he said. "[You] have a great family. ... But wouldn't it have been great to have given that same dedication to the Astros and your owner here that you did in two short months to the Cardinals? Wouldn't it have been nice to have finished your career here?"
After his comments gained traction on the Houston airwaves Monday afternoon, Hamilton told MLB.com on Monday he simply wished Berkman would have stayed with the Astros forever.
"I didn't really call him out, but I told everybody what a great guy he was," Hamilton said. "My big thought was if he thought it was important enough to get in shape for the Cardinals ... if he would have done that two years ago, he could have played his whole career with the Astros and ended up here as an ambassador like Bagwell and Biggio. He's got no future here now."
Berkman battled knee and calf injuries his final two years in Houston, and began last year on the disabled list after injuring his knee running the bases in Spring Training. He told reporters on Sunday he was finally healthy.
"I just feel healthier than I have in a while," he said. "My legs feel good, my knees aren't bothering me. I think that has a lot to do with having a good base to hit from. Other than that, my swing feels really good. I hope I can keep it going."
For Astros fans, that's a sentiment they wish he'd have had two years ago.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.