Bo Porter is not from Houston. He grew up in Newark, N.J. and played college football and baseball at Iowa. But the Nationals’ third base coach lives in that area in the offseason, his wife is from the city and he has run a select baseball program there. He is part of that community. Now, he is also its manager.
Porter was hired as the new manager of the Houston Astros on Wednesday, though he will not start his new duties until after the Nats’ 2012 season ends. The team is on the verge of clinching the National League East title with seven games left in the regular season and will participate in the playoffs, which start next week.
“We’re trying to be as courteous as possible and answer as many questions and speak to as many people as possible,” Porter said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “But at the same time I don’t want to lose sight of a major goal in which this organization that I’m currently working with, the Washington Nationals, we set out in spring training. And that goal is basically right in front of us, it’s attainable. We have a chance.”
Once Washington’s season concludes, however, Porter won’t be in for an easy job. The Astros have by far the worst record in the majors this season at 51-105 entering play on Thursday. The 29th best team is the Chicago Cubs (59-96). Houston has been outscored by 220 runs in 2012 and is in a full-scale rebuilding mode under new owner Jim Crane, who took over the team last summer and was approved by Major League Baseball in November, and new general manager Jeff Luhnow, who was hired Dec. 8. Still, Houston is home and now so is Porter.
“This is very special for her because my wife is from Houston. She grew up on the Southwest side of Houston. She’s a Westbury High School graduate, so it’s a little bit of a chill down her spine because I get to come home,” Porter said. “We get to be at home and at the same time she understands the dynamic of baseball and all that comes with the job because she’s been on this journey with me the entire time. But I guess just hearing her response and the joy in her voice really hit home of just how exciting this time is.”
Porter has a pretty good idea of what will work in a rebuilding situation. He’s seen it up close with the Nats, who endured back-to-back miserable 59-win campaigns and then won 69 games in 2010 the season before Porter was hired. Asked about his experience in Washington, Porter ticked off one player after another: Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Bryce Harper, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen.
“All those guys are home grown,” Porter said. “When you are able to grow your own talent and they get to the big leagues and they become your core players, their level of commitment to the overall level of excellence of the organization runs a little bit deeper than players that may come from the outside or may come from different avenues into your organization.”
Houston is just a little further behind in that process than the Nats were when Porter arrived. He missed the worst days in Washington as the club had already made the leap to 69 wins in 2010 and won 80 in Porter’s first year on the staff. He certainly wasn’t taking the bait on a wins-losses prediction for Houston in 2013.
“When you start talking about number of games you’re going to win, you’re going to lose, I tend to focus more on the process,” Porter said. “And if you take care of the process the desired result you’ll get it much more often.”
That’s exactly what the Astros are looking for in a manager. Luhnow is known to embrace statistical analysis, but reportedly created waves in the St. Louis Cardinals organization with his unique approach to finding talent for the farm system. For his part, Luhnow says Porter is smart and open and willing to adapt, if necessary.
But he’s had plenty of old-school training, too. Porter played under Jim Riggleman with the Cubs in the late 1990s and coached under him in Washington for the first three months of 2011. Davey Johnson, who has now managed four teams to the playoffs, took over after Riggleman resigned and Porter had plenty to learn from him, too. Porter also credited legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry for showing him the level of detail necessary to coach at a high level in any sport.
“Riggleman, he runs a great ballgame and I had the fortune to spend some time with him. As a player he was my manager in Chicago, had some time to spend with him as the third base coach here in Washington when he was the manager,” Porter said. “Davey Johnson has done a great job here. The way he communicates with players is something that basically lends to the player feeling the connection that you need to have from a [manager]…to play at a high level.”
Porter is an affable presence in the Nats’ clubhouse, willing to chat with any and all. He is relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. But don’t mistake that. He has an edge, too, as we saw during a Sept. 6 game against the Cubs in Washington when Porter had heard enough chirping from Chicago bench coach Jamie Quirk and made his way to the opposing dugout for a confrontation. A brawl later ensured after rookie Bryce Harper was hit by a pitch. Porter’s level of fire has, let’s simply say, been missing from the Astros in recent years.
“It’s a contagious enthusiasm balanced by realism and so it’s not phony, it’s genuine,” Luhnow said. “And a real desire to win and he’s not going to stop until he achieves his goal. And that’s something that we feel we need.”
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