Bo Porter a perfect fit for Houston
From the day I met Bo Porter, he was a thinker. He played hard, he played the game with respect, but what stood out was his cerebral style and his ability to quickly gain understanding of everything that was around him. Maybe his M.O. was a function of his history. He grew up in the inner city, a rough neighborhood in Newark, N.J., where Porter explained that he "had to be extremely focused to avoid the many distractions that a community like Newark had to offer."
After Newark came Bo Porter the two-sport athlete at the University of Iowa. He learned from head football coach Hayden Fry, who taught him how to constructively develop his "toughness and get-after-it mentality."
We crossed paths in the Chicago Cubs system, from time spent during spring trainings and instructional leagues in the Arizona desert. It was a time when none of us knew exactly where the game of baseball would take us, but one thing was for sure: Wherever it took us, Bo Porter could lead us there.
Sure, Porter could play. I remember his having a good plan at the plate and his compact approach, but whenever he took the field, he had a presence about him. He exuded a certainty that made people feel like following him into the bricks of a Wrigley Field wall.
Like myself, those who know him best know that Porter's ascension to manager of the 2013 Houston Astros is not a surprise. He has always embodied the traits of the ideal candidate: a high-energy mesh of passion and compassion, fortitude and motivation, determination and leadership.
Porter had already climbed to the major leagues as a player. He then reset, regrouped, and went back at it as a coach. Methodical was his way, patiently planning and plotting his next move -- one that usually put him ahead of everyone else. By the time he accepted the Astros job, he had managed in the minor leagues. But he had also coached hitting, baserunning, outfield, third base, first base and had been pretty much every kind of coach you can imagine. As a 40 year old, his coaching résumé was more complete than most people who had coached their entire lives.
In part, it is because Porter is not a complacent man. He's always trying to improve and, more importantly for the Astros, improve everyone around him. Porter can also remain remarkably focused on the task at hand, even as he is firm on his priorities. Step by step he encouraged and moved his wife of 16 years, Stacey, and his 4-year-old son to Houston, Stacey's hometown. And with the stars now aligned, Porter can drive his son to school while spending more time with his wife, who has "been with me on this entire baseball journey."
Porter was making these moves long before he was even considered a candidate for Houston's managerial opening. It was as if he knew that one day he would get this Astros job. And part of what makes Porter a special catch for the Astros is that, in the end, despite the nearly 50 candidates who had applied for the job, it ended up Porter's choice, even when the Astros were choosing him. He has a great knack for shaping his future no matter the odds.
Porter clearly saw the writing on the wall that the Houston job could be a real option. The Astros had a lot of change both on the field and in the front office. Teams had already been knocking on his door with interest in his services for some time. He had interviewed with the Miami Marlins before Ozzie Guillen eventually became their man. Sure, he was also African-American and may have been granted interviews as the game tries to maintain fairness and diversity, but he was well beyond being qualified by only race or pedigree; he was flat-out good. And there is no doubt Bo Porter wanted to be more than a symbolic and "also-ran" interviewee.
When you look at the Washington Nationals from last season, it is remarkable what they were able to accomplish. They took a team from near-invisibility and made themselves into world-beaters. It would appear that the Nationals came out of nowhere. The Philadelphia Phillies were still loaded with aces, the Atlanta Braves were just getting better, the Marlins broke the bank to compete. Yet the Nationals were an afterthought in the predictions. Porter has now seen the cycle of a turnaround; in fact, he helped drive it in Washington D.C., and in partnering with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, he will have the opportunity to do the same for Houston.
Last season, after Jim Riggleman moved on, longtime manager Davey Johnson stepped in. In the 1980s, Johnson was sometimes looked at sideways for his use of a computer to consider his player options. Johnson's openness to the "new" allowed Bo to truly shine. Johnson gave Porter a lot of latitude to make game-day decisions, recognizing that he had a second manager on his staff. With the Nationals' inconsistency in 2013, maybe Washington's biggest loss is Porter's absence.
I always remember Porter leading with an upbeat and positive tone. He seemed sure that he was in the right place at the right time. He was where he was supposed to be.
In talking to him recently, Porter remarked how good a fit this will be for him on so many levels. He has the ability to bring in his trusted circle; he can grow with a young team and under a GM who has built champions (see 2011 St. Louis Cardinals); and he can do this from home. You don't usually get to check off all of those boxes as a first-time manager unless you are patient, ready and sure.
Today, Houston sits at 8-20 with the usual struggles of young players learning the nuances of the major leagues. Porter did not waste any time communicating to his players that this was an unusual situation. "I told the players in spring training, 'You may never see this much major league opportunity than what you will be part of with the 2013 Houston Astros.'"
Porter is the leader of what has unfolded as a land of opportunity. The Astros' ability to decide on a lineup, a call-up, a changeup, is not polluted by long-term contracts that they need to look good on. They can play who is the best for that day, that week, that month. They are free of the conventional constructs that can destroy a team's ability to be nimble and open.
When all is said and done, Porter will have rosters from Double-A on up that have tasted major league time. The hope is that this experience will grow and generate healthy competition, that the consistent opportunity to earn a major league invitation will fuel a resurgence over time. Everyone is an option, and this is music to a player's ears. To walk into an environment that rewards you for playing well, that values giving you the experience over being burdened by it, is a gold mine when you are trying to break into the majors. No other organization can make such a claim. Houston is offering pure competition for a major league job, and those who relish this challenge will earn the right to be part of the core team. But time is ticking.
Porter has always been a force of nature, working and scrapping his way to fulfill his purpose, his goals. As Porter dismisses the questions about Houston being the first of many stops, he emphasized the point that "Houston is not a stepping stone for me." And now that Houston does not have a problem any more, I get the sense that Bo Porter will make the most of any parts he is given -- and land the ship no matter what it takes.