It's a beautiful October Tuesday afternoon in Houston, Texas. There's a high, blue sky. The humidity is nonexistent and the temperature's in the mid-70s. It's a great day for outdoor activities, and the Rice Owls baseball team is going to take full advantage of it for a day of afternoon practice.
Players slowly emerge from the clubhouse into the dugout and then onto the field. They come out first singly, then in pairs, then groups of players come out. Some put on gloves and grabs balls and start playing catch, while others go up to the batting cage and start taking swings. An older gentleman emerges from the clubhouse into the dugout, looking to be in his late thirties. He's wearing gray shorts, a white Rice T-shirt. There's a blue Rice cap on his head, sunglasses on top of the cap, and there's a touch of gray in his beard, but there's no mistaking Lance Berkman.
Rice coach Wayne Graham has long said that star pupil Lance Berkman was welcome to return as a coach whenever he desired. And Berkman, finishing up his first year of retirement from Major League Baseball, has taken Graham up on his offer, kind of. Berkman's not really a coach. His actual title is student assistant because Berkman's not officially on the coaching staff. Berkman's a student at Rice, 40 hours short of his degree, and he's decided to finish what he started back in the 1990s before he was drafted by the Houston Astros, so now he's working on his kinesiology degree while spending his free time with the baseball team.
"I like to finish what I start, and I think it would be a good example for my kids to finish and get a college degree," Berkman says. "And the main reason is I don't want to be limited with my post-career options by not having a degree. If there's something that I want to do that requires a college education, I want to be able to take advantage of that without having that something that holds me back."
It's hard to imagine Lance Berkman being limited in his post-career options. He was always one of the best interviews in baseball, a smart, articulate player with a great sense of humor. He's one of those guys who'd seem a natural fit for a broadcast booth or for one of the studio shows on ESPN or the MLB Network. But he says he has not yet decided on what he wants to do with his life, so why not get his degree while he's busy figuring things out. And who knows, there's always the option of being Coach Berkman.
"I definitely enjoy it, and it's certainly a possibility," Berkman says of coaching. "We'll see going forward. It'd have to be the right opportunity, and part of my strategy in life going forward was to get my degree and kind of stall for time and see what presented itself."
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As it is, he's just another normal student, backpack stuffed with books slung about his back. It's an adjustment going back to school, going from a life of just having to get to the ballpark on time to one where he worries about tests and exams and homework assignments. His fellow classmates include some of the players on the team.
But he's not student Lance Berkman now. Now he's coach Berkman, and coach Berkman has taken several players to the indoor batting cage, under the third-base bleachers. Graham calls this Berkman's kingdom, and walking in, one notes that Berkman's clearly at home. He sits on a stool, placing a ball on a tee and observing player swings and stances. He jokes about the music, but focuses on the action. He makes comments, noting that an elbow should be tucked in, the swing leveled. He stands next to one guy, places his hands on the guy's torso and adjusts his stance.
"He (Graham) wants me to focus on the hitters and see the things that they are doing right, and try to reinforce those, or some things that they're not doing right and correct those things," Berkman says. "And some general baseball, too, whether it be outfield defense or base running or playing first base. Just some of the things that I've seen and had the chance to be around. He's given me kind of free range when I'm out here to coach how I see fit."
Lance Berkman doesn't want his post-career options limited. The degree will allow him to get college coaching jobs if he desires, and there's nothing stopping him from grabbing a job with a major league team on a coaching staff or a front office. Who knows what Berkman has in mind for post-career options. But as of now, it just looks as if he's enjoying the whole student/coaching thing.