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Better than you remembered: Darrell Porter

@williamfleitch
March 21, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered and why we should hang on

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered and why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Player: Darrell Porter, Catcher
Career: MIL 1971-76, KC 1977-80, STL 1981-85, TEX 1986-87
Accolades: All-Star 1974, 1978-80; NLCS MVP 1982, World Series MVP 1982

The first baseball team I ever loved was the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. I was six years old, and my father took me to Busch Stadium -- a two-hour drive from Illinois -- on the back of his motorcycle, with neither of us wearing helmets and with my “seat belt” being me holding onto the back of his jacket the whole ride. Ozzie Smith did a backflip and Willie McGee hit a triple, and I was hooked for life.

But I still kept my eye on the catcher.

His name was Darrell Porter, and while Cardinals fans hadn’t embraced him because he had replaced their beloved Ted Simmons, I was too young to know any of that and therefore loved him unconditionally. He wasn’t fast, or flashy, or even particularly strong. You know what he was? He was sturdy. Porter was a squat little man, with huge thighs, tiny arms and a wide rear, a catcher straight from central casting. He wore those late ’70s style of eyeglasses, with the enormous lenses and black frames as thick as copper tubing. His batting stance looked like a man leaning backwards after being slowly startled by something; he arched his back and crouched to the point where his left ear was almost parallel with the ground. I loved the way that Porter looked like a regular guy, like someone in my family, really, and battled his heart out every game. When the nine innings were over, you could always count on Porter to look like he’d just been beaten repeatedly with something blunt and heavy. You could see the way his brain worked, too: He thought like a catcher.

Porter had struggled since coming over from Kansas City, where he had made four All-Star teams with his old manager Whitey Herzog. But Porter was a better hitter than anyone appreciated back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, mostly because of his batting eye; can you imagine how much a catcher who led the Majors in walks (like Porter did in 1979, when he caught a whopping 157 games) would be valued today? In 1981, he hit .234 for St. Louis, which looks bad, but he had a .364 OBP, which no one was looking at back then but absolutely made a difference in helping the Cardinals win.

But I didn’t know any of that about Porter at the time, either. I just liked that he left every game like he had just finished fighting some medieval battle, and that he looked like one of my uncles.

Still, to many Cards fans, he just wasn’t Ted Simmons. But that changed in the postseason. Come October, the Cardinals slashed through the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, thanks in large part to a rainout of a game that Phil Niekro had been dominating up to that point, but also mostly due to Porter’s brilliance. Over those three games, Porter had a .556/.714/.889 slash line and threw out Claudell Washington stealing with a 1-0 lead late in Game 1 that many considered a turning point in the game, and the series. But it was in the World Series against the Brewers that Porter secured his legend. After losing Game 1 by a score of 10-0, St. Louis fell behind 4-2 in Game 2 before Porter tied it with a two-run double in the sixth inning of a game the Cardinals ended up winning. They were in even more trouble in Game 6, down 3-2 in the Series, before Porter hit a two-run homer to put the Cards up for good. He had another big hit in Game 7, and the player Cardinals fans had rejected became their hero. He ended up with another trophy for his case, the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

Porter had his best year in St. Louis in 1983, with a .363 OBP in 145 games, and he would play in the World Series again, with less success, against his old mates in Kansas City in 1985. He’d also written a book at the time called “Snap Me Perfect!” which my parents bought for me because it was written by their son’s favorite player, who their son loved so much that he insisted on playing catcher for his Little League team. The book, however, may have been more than they bargained for. It told the story of how Porter had converted to Christianity to turn his life around after struggling with a serious drug problem when he was in Kansas City. (At one point, he was so paranoid that he thought the Royals' play-by-play announcer was spreading rumors about him on the air and went after him with a shotgun.) He got help in 1980, spent six weeks in rehab and then joined the Cardinals.

I learned that all the trouble Cards fans gave him for not being Ted Simmons happened right when he had first gotten clean and was battling his worst demons. But through God -- who, in the book’s title, he asked to “snap him perfect,” and when that didn’t work, he realized he had to fight back himself -- he got his life back on track and then achieved his greatest triumphs. I even met him at a young Christian event in rural Illinois, and he signed his book for me: “JESUS SAVES -- DP.” I still have it.

Porter played for a few more years, eventually finishing out his career in Texas, but his greatest work came in the years after he retired, when he was active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a group called “Enjoy the Game.” There, he focused on the noble goal of removing over-competitive, damaging adults from youth sports. He spoke about his addictions and how he owed his baseball success to cleaning up, finding God and getting his mind right with his family.

When I became an adult, still always playing catcher in softball leagues, still imitating Porter’s stance as my own, I would occasionally pull out my copy of “Snap Me Perfect!” The writing wasn’t great as it turned out, but it reminded me of how much he, and Cardinals baseball, meant to me as a child -- how baseball could work as your salvation. When Porter was elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, I called my Dad. “Good for him,” he said. “You used to make us write ‘DP’ on your shin guards.”

In 2002, Porter told his family he was heading out to get a newspaper on an absurdly hot day in Independence, Mo. He pulled into a park in Sugar Creek and got his car stuck on a tree stump. He walked to the water to cool off, tried to free up his car and then collapsed. He died next to his car while it was still running. After an autopsy, authorities found cocaine in his system. His teammate and friend Jerry Terrell said at the time, “for 22 years, Darrell remained sober. The fact that he failed shows the evil of drugs and the power of the disease.” Porter was 50 years old.

A few years later, I wrote a piece for an online publication about Porter and how much he meant to me as a kid. No one read it, or really, the online publication. About four years later, I received an email from Porter’s sister. She told me that she had shared the piece with the family and that they were moved by how much he had meant to me as a kid. She added, “He wouldn’t have wanted you to be a catcher, though. It’s a tough job.” In 2014, when Porter was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, his widow said Porter was always happy his children were all left-handed: “He said he felt like God had made his boys both firing left-handed throwers so [they] would not have to follow in his footsteps as a catcher. That was God’s way of protecting him.” And she said he would be so proud of his children: “I know he would be so proud of his kids. They are wonderful people. They’ve done very well, given the adversity of his death. They became better people, not bitter people, and I know he would be extremely proud of them.”

Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Bruce Sutter, Keith Hernandez … there are so many players from that 1982 World Series team that were more famous. But Darrell Porter was the MVP. He was, more than anything else, one of us: a regular guy, with all the peaks and valleys that come with that. I’ll mimic his batting stance for the rest of my life. And I’ll always think like a catcher. Because of Darrell Porter.