Lance Berkman returns to New Orleans on 25th anniversary of Zephyrs Triple A World Series heroics
On so many occasions in life, things come full circle. The symmetry is sometimes amazing, even awe-inspiring. That has certainly been the case on a few occasions in my blessed life.
In 1993, the New Orleans Zephyrs were born, moving from Denver, displaced by the Major League Rockies, moving to the New Orleans market.
The Triple-A team had to play its home games at Privateer Park, with a nice playing surface but far below Triple-A ballpark standards. Players had to walk all the way from the ballpark to Lakefront Arena to dress and for locker facilities.
The promise of a new stadium was on the horizon and a large part of the lure for primary owner John Dikeou.
Fortunately, there was a group of local owners as well, led by a friend in Rob Couhig, who had a vested interest in the team and in the market. Lawyer Walter Leger Sr., another friend, played a large role in helping build the brand and making it a success as well.
It took four years but the new stadium promise was finally realized in 1997 and simultaneously, the Zephyrs switched from the Milwaukee Brewers affiliation to the most friendly, fan favorite and geographically correct Houston Astros.
The marriage was near perfect.
By that time, local ownership had taken the majority interest in the club and utilized its vast business, personal and political connections to foster an incredibly successful first few seasons in Metairie at Zephyr Field, which widely became known as The Shrine on Airline.
Matt Galante was called up on to manage the team after Steve Swisher suddenly resigned.
Matt did a great job and became a great friend.
The Astros were a talent-rich organization with many outstanding young minor league prospects. The fans responded as the Zephyrs drew 519,584 fans, an average of 7,530 per game, in their first season in Metairie.
After posting a winning record in 1997 and making the American Association playoffs, the Zephyrs, spearheaded by Couhig, moved into the Pacific Coast League as Triple-A shrunk from three leagues to just two leagues.
Couhig was also at the forefront of helping create a new Triple-A World Series.
The 1998 Zephyrs were managed by John Tamargo after Galante was summoned to return to the Astros as an assistant coach, where he had been previously. Jim Hickey was his pitching coach and would remain in New Orleans in that role for seven years and became a great friend.
That team featured an amazing number of 37 players who either had seen or would see time in Major League Baseball.
One of those players was Lance Berkman.
A switch-hitter with power, Berkman rose through the Astros system quickly, from Class A to 1997 to Triple-A with the Zephyrs in 1998.
I was blessed to serve as the original play-by-play announcer for the Zephyrs on radio and worked the television broadcasts as well for the first eight seasons in franchise history. I was also blessed to have my friend Ron Swoboda work with me and those were some of the best days of my professional career.
As a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, I became a Houston Astros fan as well with the affiliation and the outstanding players and people I got to know and respect with the franchise, including General Manager Gerry Hunsicker and Assistant General Manager Tim Purpura, among others.
Berkman was promoted late in the 1998 season from Double-A El Paso.
Though adjustments had to be made, Berkman did so, hitting .271 in 17 games with six homers and 13 RBI as the Z’s won the PCL Eastern Division, reached the playoffs, and defeated Iowa two games to one before downing Calgary three games to two to win the league championship.
The Zephyrs advanced to the Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas against International League champion Buffalo at Cashman Field.
The Zephyrs took game one, the Bisons won game two and New Orleans took game three.
Game four was set for Friday night.
The significance was personal.
If the series had gone to game five games, I would have missed it as my job duties for WWL Radio and the New Orleans Saints radio network involved me serving as a producer and third wheel on the broadcasts of the New Orleans Saints games with Jim Henderson and Archie Manning and that took precedence and I had to get there Saturday for a noon game Sunday at Indianapolis against the Colts.
I prayed that it would work out.
Lance Berkman worked it out for me, taking precedence in game four and assured that I could fulfill my assignment to the Zephyrs and Saints.
In one of the best individual performances I have witnessed in my broadcast career, Berkman blasted a home run. Then, he hit another. For good measure, he mashed a third home run, singled and drove in six runs in a 12-6 victory as the Zephyrs were crowned champion of the event. Berkman was named the series Most Valuable Player, batting 467.
That was a quarter century ago. It is a bit of a landmark 25 years down the road. It does not seem that long ago.
I made it to Indianapolis. The Saints defeated the Colts 19-13 in overtime to improve to 3-0 under Mike Ditka. The euphoria of that start would quickly turn to despair. Iron Mike was not the answer.
The Colts were coached by Jim Mora, who spent 11 seasons as head coach of the Saints. Mora was the answer to ending 21 years of losing football here but left in despair, quitting in the middle of a disappointing 1996 season.
It was the rookie season for Peyton Manning, a New Orleans native. The Saints picked off Manning three times, including one by Tyronne Drakeford in overtime to set up a 33-yard touchdown pass to Cam Cleeland to win the game.
Symmetry was again evident.
Thanks to the anticipated impact of Hurricane Georges on south Louisiana, our entire Saints team and traveling party was stuck in Indianapolis for two more days, waiting for the effects to pass so we could travel home.
We finally got home.
Couhig and his partners were then gracious enough to bless players, coaches, and employees with a Triple-A World Series ring, which I cherish and wore today.
By 1999, Berkman would make it to the Majors with the Astros, though he went up and down, on the shuttle between New Orleans and Houston.
In that season, I was fortunate to broadcast my 1,000th Zephyrs game.
The team honored me by allowing me to throw out a first pitch, presenting me with a plaque and roses.
Berkman insisted on catching that first pitch from me.
The memory may not be what it used to be but I insisted on throwing from the mound.
The memory may not be what it used to be but I vaguely remember throwing a borderline strike.
That Lance caught that pitch meant a great deal to me.
Though it was obvious to most that Berkman had a prosperous big-league career ahead of him, he was a modest, down to earth, easy going, unassuming young man of faith, all traits which drew me to him on a personal level.
After starting the 2000 season with New Orleans, Berkman returned to the Astros and he would stick permanently, becoming a star for his team and a star in the National League.
In 15 Major League seasons, Berkman hit .300 or better five times.
Berkman led the National League in doubles in 2002 and in 2008. He led the league in RBI in 2002 with 128.
Berkman was a National League All-Star six times and finished in the top seven in the Most Valuable Player voting six times.
With Berkman as one of the “Killer B’s” (Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, Craig Biggio, Berkman), the Astros reached the National League Championship Series in 2004, falling in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals before beating the Cardinals in six games in the 2005 National League Championship Series to land the Astros in the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
Though the Astros fell to the White Sox in the World Series, it was a special time and accomplishment.
After part of 12 seasons with the Astros, Berkman’s time came to an end in Houston as the Astros traded him to the New York Yankees.
After spending half a season in New York, Berkman signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.
Things, once again, had come full circle. The team Berkman had squared off against twice in National League championships was his new team. The team that he had joined was my favorite team and franchise, bringing about the full circle thought yet again as symmetry struck once more.
Berkman got himself into the best shape in many years and being in perhaps the best baseball city in the United States, his bat and career were revitalized.
“The Big Puma,” as he was referred to by many, had a big season for what turned out to be a big team having a big year.
Berkman hit .301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBI and earned All-Star honors in his 13th season.
The Cardinals won the Central Division, won the National League and, in one of the best World Series matchups in recent years, outlasted the Texas Rangers in seven games to win the 11th title in the rich history of the St. Louis franchise, second only to the New York Yankees, who have won 27 World Series titles.
While David Freese had the memorable hits of the World Series and was named the Most Valuable Player, Berkman led the Cardinals and both teams in hitting, batting .423 (11 for 26) with a double, a homer and five RBI.
With the Cardinals season on the brink, trailing the Rangers three games to two, Berkman had the huge two-out, two-strike RBI single in the bottom of the 10th inning to tie the game 9-9.
Freese, who had tied the game in the ninth inning with an RBI triple, then won it with the walk-off home run in the 11th inning. With huge momentum and playing at home at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals won game seven 6-2.
Once again, things were coming full circle as Berkman had played for the Yankees.
After a year of dealing with injuries in 2012 with St. Louis, Berkman, ironically, would sign to conclude his career with the Rangers, the team he had beaten in 2011.
Once again, things had come full circle, the symmetry striking.
Today, I had the good fortune of having rare spare time to venture to Maestri Field at Privateer Park after church service.
I was blessed to do my first broadcast of University of New Orleans baseball in 1982 for Ron Maestri’s terrific Privateer program and would do UNO games through 1994 for either radio or television. It was a blessing to visit with Ron at the UNO game today.
In 2001, I left the Zephyrs after leaving WWL to become an assistant athletic director at UNO, once again calling Privateer games.
It was tough for me as I absolutely loved doing the Zephyrs games, which changed my life through my association with the team’s original manager, Chris Bando, a great man of faith, and with my lasting friendships with general managers Jay Cicero, Jay Miller and Dan Hanrahan.
The same can be said of Couhig, Leger, Hickey, Galante, John Tamargo and Tony Pena. In prayer, I made the move for my family, to spend more time with our children and wife as I felt it was appropriate, though it was a step-back from a career perspective.
When I told the Zephyrs organization I was departing, I shed a tear or two with Hanrahan. Pena said to me, “Kenny, why are you leaving us, leaving me?” I appreciated it and it was a difficult move to make.
By departing, it virtually assured that the realization of my childhood dream of calling Major League games would vanish.
There are more important things in life.
Things had come full circle for me.
My very first initiative in my new role at UNO was to start the process of renaming the ballpark Maestri Field in honor of my friend who is, and always will be the face of University of New Orleans athletics. We were able to accomplish that goal and it remains one of the elements of my career which I value greatly.
Today’s game featured the Privateers taking on Houston Christian University in the rubber game of a Southland Conference series.
The Privateers won 10-6 as Caleb Seroski got the win and Jacob Mead picked up a strong three-inning save. Tristan Moore belted two home runs while Issac Williams added another for the victors.
Blake Dean has done a very solid job replacing Maestri as UNO’s head coach over the last seven years. His Privateers are now 28-20 overall and 9-9 in conference play.
The Huskies are coached by Berkman, who returned to New Orleans to play at the ballpark that served as the first home park of the Zephyrs. Berkman, a native of Waco, Texas and long-time resident of New Braunfels, Texas, starred on the college level in Houston at Rice University. He is “home” in Houston coaching.
It was symmetry in motion again.
With my duties broadcasting Delgado games, I was unable to visit Lance Friday or Saturday. Had the Dolphins lost to Baton Rouge Community College on Saturday night in Hammond, I would not have made it Sunday to Maestri Field.
Fortunately, Delgado got it done with a walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday night. It was another answered prayer, just as it was in 1998 in Las Vegas.
After going to church this morning, the familiar drive to the Lakefront ensued.
As I walked on the field from the UNO side, I approached the HCU dugout.
Within 50 feet or so, a familiar face emerged from the dugout to come greet me.
The smiles were genuine, as was the hug.
It was great to see my friend again.
Lance Berkman experienced success at the highest level and became famous and wealthy in the process.
Lance has never acted the part of famous and wealthy.
He is still the humble, easy-going, personable, faith-based man I met in 1998.
We reminisced about his time in New Orleans and the Las Vegas memories.
We talked about our families, including his wonderful wife, Cara, and their four daughters, along with my wonderful wife, Denise and our children Sabrina and Travis.
When Lance was a Zephyr, he quickly became Travis’ favorite player.
Travis would hang around the clubhouse early when I would arrive at Zephyr Field, particularly with Hickey’s son Austin.
Lance was great to Travis.
As Travis and I watched Lance have great success in Houston, we went to visit Houston each year to watch an Astros game and to see Lance shine.
In 2004, Lance returned to New Orleans on a rehab assignment.
I made contact with him, picked Travis up from his school at Christian Brothers and took him to Zephyr Field, not telling my son that Berkman would be there.
Travis waited outside for a minute or two while I summoned Lance from the clubhouse.
As Lance emerged, Travis had the biggest smile on his face. The picture took place. It was special.
Later that year, we made it to Houston to watch an Astros game again.
Lance arranged for us to visit the locker room among the many stars of the Astros. Lance got Travis a promotional bobblehead doll of himself.
Travis was star-struck by the star.
Now, Lance is back in Houston coaching future stars, giving back to the game and the town which he calls home. Maestri was at the game, seated in the bottom row near the UNO dugout.
Things have come full circle again.
Lance was back in New Orleans. The symmetry is amazing. I am a bit emotional.
“The Big Puma,” bigger than life for our son, was back in the Big Easy and our relationship was rekindled in easy fashion.
With this year marking the 25th anniversary of the Triple-A World Series championship and Berkman’s heroics, today was special.
The Zephyrs are gone but Les East and Rene Nadeau, who worked for the team, work with us at Crescent City Sports. Ed Daniels, who did some television games for the Z’s, also works with us, as does Lenny Vangilder, whose father. J.L., was the official scorer for the Zephyrs. The symmetry continues.
The Shrine on Airline is now a rugby facility.
Berkman was back and we were together again at a baseball park in New Orleans where I spent a large part of my career.
My love for the Zephyrs, the Privateers, and all my friends previously mentioned remains. I still have a closet full of Zephyrs shirts and some UNO shirts which I have not been bold enough to part with. Great memories linger.
While the circle is not complete, it most certainly had that symmetrical feeling Sunday. It was a true blessing.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…