Some day in 2045 baseball fans will be done gawking at Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds—both sides of their baseball cards—and they will go out looking for something new to convince themselves that the past is weird but they are not weird, only the new and permanent status quo. I hope our pagerank will be high enough by then that they see my suggestion: Lance Berkman. Lance Berkman's whole career, but mostly his defense, and mostly the things teams were willing to do to Lance Berkman.
Lance Berkman played a year-and-a-half in center field. That's the first part. It was 2001 and 2002, the height of Slow Fat Guy Moneyball, and it's an illuminating window into Late Steroidism as practiced in the pages of that Baseball Prospectus with Josh Phelps on it.
Much, much later, though—nestled safely within the present day—the Cardinals gave Lance Berkman 107 starts in right field. To them this will look equally ridiculous, especially if video footage of 2011 Lance Berkman survives The Terrifying Cataclysm.
But the Cardinals did it, and it worked. For Lance Berkman's story, though, the point is simply that the Cardinals did it—like the Astros had before that—and Berkman nodded, ran out there, and embarrassed himself.
Major league baseball players have every financial incentive to embarrass themselves, and a lot of them still won't do it. I probably wouldn't appear on Fear Factor—I'm not sure I would play center field on TV, for that matter—so I understand the impulse. It's just this: For most sluggers I have no defensive memories at all. I accept that they must have played left field or first base, and I must have watched it, but that's as far as I can get. For Lance Berkman I remember a lot of possibly misguided effort, which is something.
It's not impossible to make a Hall of Fame case for Lance Berkman, but the one you end up with isn't very satisfying. At 52 (B-R) or 55 (FanGraphs) wins above replacement, and without a memorable peak, you're basically left to sit in the back and pick off moldering Veterans Committee picks and weird sportswriter fashions. He's better than High-Pockets Kelly and Omar Vizquel! You can include Lance Berkman, but you'll have a hard time arguing against a bunch of other guys you don't want to include.
But the Hall of Fame isn't the only place to remember baseball players anymore, and their value isn't the only reason.
Everybody wants to be great at something and nobody particularly wants to be crazy, but as you get close to people who are great at things you start to recognize a lot of them as particularly successful crazy people.
That's uncomfortable, which is why people started saying "driven." To get better at something than literally billions of other people you have to start excluding other things. You have to start reorienting the world (and your idea of being fulfilled in it) not just around you but around one tiny part of you. I'm glad Steve Jobs existed, but I'd hate to work for him; I'd like to write the Great American Novel, but I wouldn't want a biography like the usual contestant ends up producing: inferiority complex, two divorces, estranged kids, dark secret, decade where nobody reads his work, posthumous respect.
But I've been burned before by people who seem to hold out the possibility that singular achievements don't have to turn you into Albert Pujols demanding more respect than anybody can ever give you. The line that separates Adam Dunn, Irreverent Star from Adam Dunn, Guy Who Can't Play Defense is not extremely bright.
What I like about Lance Berkman—my experience of Lance Berkman, the Lance Berkman I knew—is how he got his stupid nickname. Lance Berkman is human enough, and competitive enough, to hate being called "Fat Elvis." But he was never so world-shunningly intense that he'd propose something serious as its replacement.
The Big Puma was serious enough to ruin a winter getting back into shape to win a World Series, and he's sensible enough to accept when it's over. Lots of us think we would be that kind of star, but most of us are sensible enough to recognize how rare it is in other people.