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Darrell Porter

December 15, 2009

During my four years of little league, I played every position on the field. In my first year I logged most of my innings in right or left field, then in my second year I played a lot of center, which was probably my favorite position, in part because I got to stand directly behind and cheer for our pitching ace, my big brother. In my third year I started bouncing around the infield, and in my final year while mostly playing third base I also pitched a few innings and, in one game, donned the tools of ignorance.

I understood that it was unusual for me to be a catcher—I wore glasses. No catchers wore glasses that I knew of, except for a couple major leaguers who sported glasses on top of heads that had superhero contours, their jaws seemingly chiseled from granite: Brian Downing and Darrell Porter.

I knew I wasn’t muscular and hard as granite. In fact, I even understood that I was kind of a sissy. In this as in all things I defined myself against my brother, and unlike him I shied from fistfights and other pursuits that seemed dangerous to me, such as skateboarding or downhill skiing or even sledding down really steep icy hills. Also, unlike me, he didn’t burst into tears every couple seconds. Even in baseball, my main defense against sissification, I had occasionally allowed a my true self to shine through, such as when I was in my first season and began weeping as I limped to first after being hit in the shins by a fastball from a 12-year-old with 5 o’clock shadow.

But I liked how it felt to wear the catching equipment. I liked how the mask fit over my glasses, canceling their customary vulnerability. The rest of the catching armor performed similar magic, making me feel unusually protected against the world. I remember being happy behind the plate, or happy and a little disoriented, or maybe happily disoriented. The equipment restricted my vision and my movements, but I also had a full view of the field, and this vision, coupled with the invulnerability from the armor, gave me a fleeting feeling of ownership over the game. Cutting against this feeling was my unfamiliarity with the demands of the position. But I was happy nonetheless, like a youthful invincible ruler stumbling through an inspection of his kingdom while just a little drunk.

Speaking of being drunk, I drank too much this past Friday night and wasted the whole next day as a groaning invalid. You’d think I’d know better by this point, now that I’ve put in 28 years of recreational inebriation since I acquired my first hangover when I was fifteen by getting drunk with a couple buddies on rum and coke, in a dark little league dugout a few feet away from where I’d had my brief moment as a bespectacled catcher. But Friday I got a chance to see a punk legend, Grant Hart, perform at a place right around the corner from my house, and it was fun to be blasted by the great loud heartbreaking melodies and the whiskey. Drinking, loud music: it’s a little like being a little league catcher to me. For a while, you’re wrapped in armor, surveying your kingdom, able to withstand anything.

During the winter of 1979, as I was waiting to play my final season of little league (and as a teenaged Grant Hart was beginning to play with Bob Mould and Greg Norton as Husker Du), Darrell Porter’s means of feeling invulnerable off the field was showing its grim limitations. Porter, who by then had established himself as one of the best catchers in the game, became paranoid due to increasingly heavy use of cocaine, and he began sitting by his front window with a shotgun, waiting for the arrival of the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, whom Porter was convinced would arrive at any minute and ban him from baseball.

Porter checked into rehab that spring. How do you replace the feeling of fake invulnerability? Porter became a born-again Christian. It’s unclear how long this allowed him to withstand the deep pull of addiction, but he seems to have led an admirably charitable and giving life throughout the rest of his baseball career and beyond. His good deeds seem even more impressive when considered against his enduring affliction, which ultimately claimed him in 2002, when an autopsy on his body found that he had cocaine in his system at the time of his death. High, he’d driven his car into a tree, then he’d stumbled from his car and down to a river where he soaked his leg, and he was struggling back toward his car when his heart stopped.

I knew even as I was enjoying myself behind the plate that I wasn’t really a ruler. I was no catcher. I understood enough about baseball to know that catchers were the toughest players in the game, and I understood enough about myself to know that I wasn’t tough. Bench, Fisk, Munson: those guys were tough. Even the rare catchers with glasses were tough. You could tell just from looking at their cards. Look at Darrell Porter in this 1977 card. Invulnerable. Tough. Like he didn’t even need any armor at all.

17 comments

  1. When Porter was on KC, and later St. Louis, I always wondered why he wore the goofiest looking glasses. He was a big guy, but those nerdy frames and his occasional silly-looking mustaches always made him look kind of silly to me as a kid. Then I recall during the 1982 World Series, the announcers discussed his alcohol and coke problems and I was thinking, “Really? Darrell Porter? That nerdy catcher?”

    Also, Grant Hart’s “Intolerance” album is one of the great lost albums of the last 25 years. I never hear it talked about, and it’s fantastic and to my ears, better than Mould’s post-Huskers material.

    Speaking of 80s punk legends, when Porter went to KC, he replaced a catcher named Bob Stinson, who of course, shared a name with the Replacements’ lead guitarist. That always led to some college-era Strat-o-Matic hilarity when playing the ’76 Royals.


  2. The 1st baseball game I ever watched, was game 7 of the 1982 World Series. I always have fond memories of Porter….he wasn’t great in that particular game, but he was World Series MVP that year.


  3. Porter’s one of the most underrated players of the last 40 years IMO. Often looked at as a good player he’s easily one of the top 20 catchers in baseball history.

    The Royals made a fantastic trade to get Porter and he was a big part of those late 70′s-1980 Royals teams. Porter may have been the MVP of the 1979 season, at worst he was the 3rd or 4th best player in the league. He had something like 121 walks with a .421 on base percentage and had an ops+140 while playing great defense behind the plate.

    Herzog was smart and made sure to get Porter when he became a free agent in 1980.

    It really doesn’t make sense why he’s been underrated. He played in the post season, he played on high profile teams. Maybe it was glasses that made him underrated. Maybe the batting average had something to do with it. Maybe the baseball world couldn’t get past the fact that a great catcher playing such a demanding position had to wear eye glasses.


  4. Grant Hart, who has also battled drug demons over the years, has a great pop sensibility and has written some amazing songs, but in my opinion his best days were in Husker Du, before the drugs began taking their toll. His songs on their last album (Warehouse: Songs and Stories) were very uneven and considering that it has been over 30 years since its release, he really hasn’t put out much worthwhile material since then. Mould, despite some missteps, definitely has the better post-Husker body of work.


  5. thunderfan, there’s no doubt Hart’s post-Huskers output has been erratic at best, but for one album, he got it all together. Seriously – I think I picked it up because I liked Marshall Crenshaw’s cover of “2541″ and then found myself loving the whole album and spreading it around to friends who were similarly happily stunned. Of course, that album came out 20 years ago.

    I’m not sure what happened with Porter. I do recall him being a “star” at the end of his run in KC.


  6. I enjoyed this post, Josh. I had an obsession with catchers myself as a kid.

    I also enjoyed Darrell Porter when he played. His ’79 season was incredible, and that was a great time for catchers if you think about it: Bench was still around, Fisk, Gary Carter, Munson, the incredibly underrated Ted Simmons and Porter. Bob Boone and Sundberg were pretty good, too as was Gene Tenace.


  7. Hart’s new songs sounded good. (He’s got a new album out.) I bought his second- latest album off of him after the show (“Good News for Modern Man”; I haven’t listened to it yet). He was a very nice, approachable guy.


  8. Oddly enough, a good buddy of mine just interviewed Hart. There’s some great stuff in there about the Mould-Hart dynamic. Here it is:

    http://www.blurt-online.com/features/view/520/


  9. Porter never got credit because he made the mistake of playing at the same time as Fisk, Munson, Bench, Simmons, and a couple of others.

    I wouldn’t rate him as good as any of them (and I’m a Royals fan from 1972), so he got lost in the shuffle.


  10. Put Gary Carter and Lance Parish into that mix of catchers as well. Those two plus Bench, Fisk, Simmons and Munson are 6 of the top 15 catchers in baseball history and they all basically played from 1969-1989.

    I wouldn’t say it was a mistake on Porter’s part but rather a misfortune of playing at the same time players of that caliber. So like you said he got lost in the shuffle.


  11. Mistake was meant ‘tounge in cheek’. I forgot about Carter and Parrish. Good call.


  12. A couple other underrated catchers from that era are proto-Moneyballers Gene Tenace and Joe Ferguson. Also Steve Yeager offered a pretty good combo of stellar D and some power.

    Thanks for passing along that Grant Hart interview, blankemon. I was surprised to read the quote at the top, about how the odd man out of any reunion would be Greg Norton. I always pictured him as the blameless bass player who got along with everybody, then quietly sidled away to work as chef.


  13. I figured you’d dig that, Josh. Cool timing that my friend posted the link on facebook this morning.

    I love the mid to late 70s cards with spring training photos. They always give me a sunny, upbeat feeling and make me nostalgic for my youth. I want to toss aside my wiffle bat, run to the ice cream truck and buy a pack of cards along with my bomb pop, then retreat to a neighbor’s basement just in time to catch This Week In Baseball.


  14. Blnkemon,

    That’s a good point about the ’77 set, I think it’s mostly spring training photos if my memory serves. I think Topps would go back forth with that idea. I think the ’73 set has a lot of spring training photo’s as well.


  15. I love the ’77 set–every blunt, frank and unadorned with the capital letters at the top of the card. I remember I came home from school one day in ’77 and my dad had hidden a bunch of packs of cards all over the house and I ran around looking for them. It was one of the best memories I have of my childhood. I think that was the day I switched from hockey to baseball forever.

    And how about that plain “M” on the Brewers hat and the softball pull-over jersey? Hard to believe Aaron finished his career wearing that.


  16. “…In fact, I even understood that I was kind of a sissy…”

    You said it.

    I didn’t.


  17. The afros of Bake McBride and Oscar Gamble are probably the only iconic images from the Cardboard Gods era that will stay with me longer than Darrell’s glasses. I was too young to collect cards first hand in the 70s, garnering all my Topps of this era by trading with kids who had inherited cards from older brothers. By the time the early 80s rolled around and I was buying wax packs with every spare chunk of thirty cents I stumbled across… the big beautiful afros were gone… but Darrell’s glasses remained.

    As far as player catcher… it was my ticket to making my high school freshmen team… few really wanted to play the position and I could somewhat consistently make the throw down to 2B. I never much cared for the position… especially after being forced to play it after our starter broke his arm jumping his skateboard off his garage roof or some such stupid shit that 14 year old boys do in their free time… Even with all the armor… it seemed inevitable that in every third game… a foul tip would find that gloriously exposed and armor-free chunk of my inner thigh. Worst pain I have ever experienced in my relatively soft and cushy life was getting drilled in the same exact inner thigh spot two games in a row. I crumbled over like somebody who had been shot in some old 1950s western… and screamed like a girl. The school made my parents spring for new baseball pants, as the second impact caused the original bruise to bleed, quite profusely I might add, through the skin and ruined the pants. I had a grapefruit sized bruise / welt / nasty purple monstrosity on my leg well into summer vacation.



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