By Brian T. Smith
Bo Porter sits on a wooden bench in the middle of the Astros’ dugout, which has been cleared of cameras, players and clubhouse personnel on a bright Sunday morning in early May.
Minute Maid Park is nearly empty when Porter begins running through his initial three months as Astros manager. He uses his normal clichés. He proudly employs self-help terms. He mentions being all-in, the approach and the process, defiantly staring through black sunglasses and sounding as much like a preacher or community youth coordinator as a first-year MLB manager.
By the time he gets through the first wave of Porter-speak, a long line of children in baseball uniforms walking along the exterior of the stadium are filing past the dugout.
“Astros!” they shout, as kids wave and adults smile at a man who’s become the most recognizable face for a team on pace for its third consecutive season of at least 100 losses.
Porter quickly looks up from the darkness of the dugout to the light of the field, waves back, smiles and continues talking. He mentions his unwavering religious faith and his devoted wife, Stacey. He acknowledges being a workaholic who’s rarely been overmatched in 40 years and now must stomach defeat five to seven days a week.
He discusses the detailed game lineup cards – on which he documents every break point the Astros win or lose – and the long nights when he forces himself to leave Minute Maid hours after the last fan has departed, so he doesn’t ignore the family he loves more than anything.
By the time Porter’s done, he reveals the one truth he’s privately held since spring training began in February but only says publicly when the moment is right: He has no idea if the Astros’ rebuilding plan will work.
If it doesn’t, it won’t be because he didn’t believe.
“I didn’t expect it to be easy,” he said. “Anyone that would’ve expected it to be easy, I think they would’ve been naïve to the facts of everything that’s going on. But I firmly believe that I’m up for the challenge. I firmly believe that our organization is up for the challenge.
“I believe in our vision. I believe in what it is we’ve all set out to do and time will only tell.”
Thirteen-year veteran Carlos Pena is midway through a Porter-like speech, referring to grace under fire and personal strength, when the flywheel starts spinning.
An Astro has walked out to the field, giving Porter’s biggest clubhouse prop a hard spin before another game – and another loss.
Words such as commitment, desire, trust and integrity fly around in an orange, blue and white circle, blurrily blending in with “Have fun!,” “ ’Stros win!” and two World Series trophies.
Pena’s a day away from losing trusted teammate Rick Ankiel to another Astros roster move and becoming the only vet left with a somewhat recognizable name on a team filled with Class AAA Oklahoma City call-ups and second-chance players in their early 20s.
Pena’s played for some of the most respected managers during the last two decades, including Joe Maddon at Tampa Bay and Terry Francona in Boston. What does Pena see in Porter nearly a quarter of the way through the 2013 season? How is the fiery, passionate first-year manager dealing with the reality of guiding a no-name club that has the worst record (10-27) in baseball?
“This has been a very hard test for him,” Pena says. “We have not played well, OK? And the times that we have, we haven’t been able to materialize them into wins.
“So that’s very tough for a manager to take. And I think he’s done so gracefully, with a lot of strength, because he hasn’t laid down.
“That is very hard to do because he’s human, he’s not a robot. He understands the inner strength that you must have to, despite the situation, come out with a positive outlook and attitude. It takes superhuman strength. The easy thing to do is to fold. But Bo doesn’t do that.”
What Porter does is communicate, motivate and inspire. As much as Porter must teach and evaluate major league talent in real time, he also must keep the Astros on target and believing.
The team’s roster, payroll ($21 million, the lowest in MLB) and historical precedent say the club has no chance of competing in 2013, let alone surviving the season intact. Just a few days ago, the Astros were on pace to break baseball’s all-time single-season loss record, set by the 1962 New York Mets, who had 120 defeats in their expansion season.
“He’s a really positive guy,” catcher Jason Castro said. “And with what we’re going through right now, that’s something that is definitely huge for us and it’s something that kind of keeps us going every day.”
There have been frustrating four-game series sweeps by the Tigers and Red Sox; a stretch from April 13 to May 5 when the Astros won only four of 21 games; and everything from a 19-6 home blowout loss to Cleveland on April 20 to a players-only team meeting the same day Porter and Pena were adamant the club is taking crucial steps forward.
The crazy thing? The Astros are. Entering Saturday, the team’s record was five games worse than it was in 2012, which ended with a franchise-record 107 defeats.
But the roster is also thinner and cheaper, which has left baseball insiders and trusted managers such as Detroit’s Jim Leyland and the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Scioscia praising Porter’s work.
“The first thing you notice – and we had it in our scouting reports – was the amount of energy that’s on the field and how guys are playing,” Scioscia said. “There’s a lot of young talent on that field and they’re playing with purpose. We found that out at home. If you’re going to beat them, you have to play well, and they played us tough out there.”
Porter is one of the most sincere and upbeat managers in baseball. He’s also one of the game’s grandest magicians. For all of his passion and fire, there’s also a charade.
As a light-hitting outfielder, Porter spent only 89 games in the majors.
As Astros manager, he insists he doesn’t know what the words “rebuilding” and “tryout” mean.
“I’ve never used the word ‘tryout.’ I don’t know where that word came from,” Porter said in late April. “Can you rephrase the question?”
The show began during spring training in Kissimmee, Fla., when Porter pasted a life-like image of the flywheel inside the team’s clubhouse and held daily postgame mound celebrations that saw the Astros high-fiving like a Little League squad.
It continued during the team’s March 31 season opener and American League debut against the Rangers at Minute Maid. Porter proudly displayed an orange “I’m all in” T-shirt for national TV cameras at the same time his players walked through a revamped clubhouse that bore their manager’s own quotes on the walls, despite the fact Porter had yet to win a single big league game.
Still, there’s so much losing.
For a man who quotes himself in his locker room and spent his team’s first road game this season doing pregame pushups along the dirt warning track at Seattle’s Safeco Field, learning how to live as a member of the 2013 Astros has become the biggest challenge of Porter’s career.
“The one thing that I can attest to is, Bo Porter won’t change,” he said. “Because when I look in the mirror, I see a winner.”
Porter wants so much more. He wants star players who don’t have to be taught how to play baseball. He wants a starting pitching staff that doesn’t undergo three rotation changes before the first quarter of a season is complete.
He wants intelligent, passionate athletes such as Detroit’s Torii Hunter, who told Astros infielders, “That’s where the money’s at,” after expertly lining a ball into the four hole to give the Tigers runners at first and third base during a four-game sweep.
Porter knows it will take years for the Astros to become the team he envisions, the type of highly efficient club managers such as Bobby Cox, Davey Johnson and Fredi Gonzalez have guided.
So Porter gets the most out of Robbie Grossman, Brandon Barnes and Jimmy Paredes. He makes it work with Philip Humber and Erik Bedard. He loves every inch of Jose Altuve and glows about Matt Dominguez like a father would a son.
“They haven’t changed,” Porter said. “They’ve come to the park each and every day and they have played their heart out and that’s part of the standard which we talked about long ago.”
Will the Astros’ rebuilding project work? Will the few children who cheer Porter’s name evolve into packed stands at Minute Maid and fans who again live and die with Houston’s baseball team?
Will Porter be around if the World Series trophies inside his flywheel finally materialize?
Check back in a few years. For now, Porter is just going to keep believing, preaching and teaching baseball.
“People may think they have the answer today,” he said. “But, realistically, the answers to the questions in which many people want an answer today, you’re not going to have a definitive answer until three or four years from now. The definitive answer will let you know whether or not the Houston Astros did the right thing. But what I will tell you, sitting here today, I firmly believe that we’re doing the right thing.”