If not for the splendid premature gray locks of Eli Whiteside, Lance Berkman would qualify as the oldest-looking player in Texas Rangers spring camp due to his salt-and-pepper scruff.
It won’t be too much longer until the pepper surrenders.
Yet, Berkman isn’t even the graybeard on the Rangers’ roster. Adrian Beltre has the most service time, and Joe Nathan is some 21 months older.
Berkman, though, has taken to using his veteran status around the batting cages or in the dugout. He isn’t afraid to offer a fellow hitter a pointer or two that he has gathered over the years.
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It doesn’t happen awkwardly or with hesitation, much like the way Berkman holds court in the clubhouse or the way he chats up the media. His tips come so naturally that some believe he will be an extension of new hitting coach Dave Magadan.
No one, including Magadan, is complaining.
“You don’t need an official title, if I see something, to have the freedom to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m seeing,’ ” Berkman said. “It has to do with personality. The experience helps. You know what works and what doesn’t from having done it, but it gives you the authority with the young players. Being old and gray is helpful at times.”
He also serves as the poster boy for the approach Magadan wants the Rangers hitters to have. Berkman has a plan and has executed it since breaking into the majors leagues with Houston in 1999.
Berkman has compiled six 30-homer seasons, which fits the mold of past Rangers power hitters, but he also has eight seasons with a .400 on-base percentage and another at .399.
The approach that produces those numbers isn’t something many past Rangers hitters have had and is something that not many currently have. But that’s the goal.
“I’m a firm believer in the way he hits and his approach to hitting and his approach to at-bats,” Magadan said. “We talked this off-season, and I told him that I was going to lean on him, especially with the younger hitters, about having a good, professional at-bat. He epitomizes that.”
Berkman objected to the point that the Rangers haven’t had a hitter like him for some time. David Murphy, Berkman said, grinds out at-bats in a similar fashion. Milton Bradley did the same in 2008.
The bottom line is production, Berkman said, and the Rangers have plenty of that. They led baseball in runs scored last season, after all, and he and Magadan aren’t looking to reinvent the hitting wheel.
“I’m not some sort of newfangled thing that’s come along,” Berkman said. “But I do feel like, as a team, if we can get back to the idea of we’re going to grind out at-bats collectively, that’s the key to success. Everybody knows how to hit. A good hitting coach is just there to observe and tweak. That’s what I do.”
Berkman, coming off knee surgery and slowed so far this spring by calf inflammation, might jump into the coaching role someday, but he isn’t quite ready to let go of his playing career.
The Rangers helped him hang on, giving him a one-year deal worth $11 million with a club option to play close to family in his native Texas. But even after establishing himself as one of the best hitters of the past decade and winning a world title in 2011, Berkman still has personal goals.
He sits at 360 career homers, and would like to have 400 on his ledger. The Rangers are giving him a chance to win another championship, and he believes this team is a contender.
If speaking up during batting practices makes the team better, Berkman won’t hesitate. His new teammates don’t mind, and they’ll be watching and listening all season.
“I’ve kind of picked his brain a little bit, and just listened to his approach and tried to learn from him a little bit,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “He’s done it so long and been so successful at it that’s a great guy to learn from. He’s pretty complete at the plate. Every hitter wants to be that way.”