The Year of the Card–Darrell Porter, 1979

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No accounting of Darrell Porter’s life and career can be complete without addressing his drug and alcohol addictions, and how he seemingly conquered that demon only to have it come back and ultimately take his life. So I will just say up front I find it hard to condemn any player’s drug or alcohol abuse. Not that I’ve had those problems myself, but I’m no angel. And especially for players of Porter’s generation, the situation was perfect for drug problems to thrive. For a variety of reasons, cocaine use had a surge in popularity in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, baseball players for the first time (thanks to the advent of free agency) were making real money, the kind that meant they didn’t need a second job in the offseason. Add in the natural rhythms of a ballplayer’s life (night games mean staying up late, plus constant travel means lots of time away from the wife and kids), then throw in the stress of being a major leaguer, and you have a recipe for addiction. Of course, baseball players were hardly the only young, rich, beautiful people enjoying the drug—stockbrokers, musicians, actors…really anybody with disposable cash and no fear of the future was probably partaking. But baseball players are the ones held up as role models for the impressionable youths of America, and while there is some truth to the idea that they are, it has always seemed silly to me to single them out. That’s not to condone these actions, but to say I understand why these guys did it.

That was a long preamble. Let’s get to the main story.

Darrell Ray Porter was born on January 17, 1952, in Joplin, Missouri. However, he grew up in Oklahoma City, becoming a baseball and football star at Southeast High School. Five days after he signed a letter of intent to play football for the University of Oklahoma, the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him in the first round (fourth overall pick) of the 1970 June draft. Porter chose baseball. He made his major league debut in September 1971, spent most of 1972 in the minors, but made the majors for good in 1973. That year, he finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. However, his batting average declined every year for the next three seasons, going from .254 in 1973 to .241, .232, and finally .208 in 1976. He was showing power (46 home runs in 1973-1975) and a good eye (89 walks in 1975), but in those days, batting average was the main way to judge players.

Porter went from untouchable to trade bait with his poor 1976 season, and the Royals came calling. On December 6, Milwaukee traded Porter and pitcher Jim Colborn to the Royals for catcher Jamie Quirk, outfielder Jim Wohlford, and pitcher Bob McClure. It was a classic case of buying low.

“He was one of the three best catching prospects in the league. I think he can come back and be a good left-handed hitter for us.”—Royals manager Whitey Herzog, quoted by the Associated Press, December 7, 1976

Herzog, as usual in baseball matters, was right. Porter bounced back with a .275/.353/.452 line in 1977, helping the Royals to a division title. Milwaukee management had spent a lot of time complaining about Porter’s inability to throw out baserunners in 1976; in 1977, he rebounded from a 28% caught stealing rate to 42%, more in line with his previous marks. When he had an almost identical 1978 season (.265/.358/.444, 37% caught stealing), it was apparent the Brewers had let one bad season cloud their judgment, and the Royals had made yet another shrewd trade (to top things off, Colborn threw a no-hitter and won 18 games in 1977, his only full season in Kansas City). Porter made the All-Star team and finished 10th in MVP voting in 1978, leading into a 1979 season where the only thing the Royals had in mind was doing whatever it took to get past the Yankees and to the World Series.

“I really feel pretty good about my hitting. I’d like to hit a few more homers. But that’s difficult. For me, homers just happen. I want to be more consistent with everything, especially with my defense. Each season, I’ve learned more about the game, and I’m still learning. I know I can improve my defense.”—Porter, quoted by Sid Bordman, The Sporting News, January 6, 1979

Porter then proceeded to have one of the best offensive seasons in Royals history, and one of the best ever by a catcher. He started off hot, picking up hits in 11 of the first 12 games and 16 of the first 18. By the end of April, he was hitting .366/.483/.563. Even when he didn’t get a hit, he would pick up a walk or two; he had an on-base streak of 32 games to start the campaign. He was also playing every day; the first game he didn’t reach base came the day after his first off-day of the season.

“Darrell plays when he’s hurt and he plays when he’s tired. He’s the kind of player you call a ‘winner.’”—Herzog, quoted by Sid Bordman, The Sporting News, April 28, 1979

That game started a mini-slump, but Porter would have an eight-game hitting streak at the end of May, finishing the month with a .306/.408/.482 line for the season.

For the team, things weren’t exactly going poorly (they were 28-21 at the end of May, two games out of first place) but there were some cracks in the armor. Al Cowens and Frank White both missed significant time after being hit by pitches, which hurt both the defense and the lineup. The bullpen was ineffective, and seemingly everyone in the rotation had lost their control. The Royals ended June about where they started: 42-35, two games out. But Porter kept hitting, ending June with a .307/.433/.498 line.

He was deservedly selected by the fans to start the All-Star Game in July, and went 1-3 with a double in the game. But the rest of July was unkind to Porter and the Royals. He suffered his first slump of the year, hitting .261/.367/.386 for the month. The Royals went 10-17 for the month and were outscored by 36 runs as the pitching staff was shelled. They ended the month at 52-52, 7.5 games out of first.

“Darrell was getting frustrated. He was blaming himself for what the pitchers were doing. What he didn’t realize was that he was putting the same signs down this season as he did the last two, when all those earned-run averages were some of the best in the league. He wasn’t the guy who was hanging the curves and sliders or not putting the ball where it should have been when most of the staff was struggling. I could see how upset he was making himself. So I used him as the DH a couple of times, and showed him the pitching didn’t get any better with him not behind the plate.”—Herzog, quoted by Del Black, The Sporting News, October 6, 1979

But August was a much better month. Porter hit .315/.448/.598 and the Royals went 19-11. He also hit the 100th home run of his career on August 3rd. With a month to go, it appeared Porter could hit .300 and the Royals could win their fourth straight AL West title.

It wasn’t to be. Beset by a parade of minor injuries and bad pitching, the Royals limped home with a 14-14 record for the month, finishing the year at 85-77. Almost everything that could have gone wrong did, and they still finished just three games out of first. Porter started the month at .300, dropped to .286, got back up to .296, then went 1 for 27. His final line: .291/.421/.484, with 20 home runs, 112 RBI, 101 runs, and a league-leading 121 walks. That was one short of the Royals’ single-season record (set by John Mayberry in 1973); no Royal has drawn that many walks in a season since. By bWAR, Porter had the fifth-best single season by a position player in team history at 7.6. And at the time, Porter did something that had only been accomplished by Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane: a catcher had reached 100 walks, RBI, and runs scored in a season. Somehow, he only finished ninth in the AL MVP voting.

To an outsider, everything probably seemed rosy in Porter’s world. He was at the peak of his profession, presumably making good money, and popular with the fans. However, he had been using drugs and alcohol for years, even before he made the majors. It was all coming to a head; Porter would later say that he spent the entire 1979-80 offseason in the grip of a paranoid delusion that MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn would be coming to his house to ban him from baseball for life. Porter would stay awake all night, watching out the window, armed with a shotgun and billiard balls.

In spring training before the 1980 season, former major leaguer Don Newcombe, himself a recovering alcoholic, was making the rounds of training camps, trying to urge players to stay away from drugs and alcohol or get help if they needed it. When Newcombe gave his speech to the Royals, Porter realized he needed help. With the Royals’ blessing, he left the team and headed to Arizona for a six-week rehab stint. He returned to the team in late April, and after a week of workouts made his way back into the lineup; his first at-bat of the season was a pinch-hitting appearance on May 2. After a Royals Stadium crowd of 25,965 gave him a long standing ovation, with many fans waving yellow ribbons after a KC disc jockey had urged listeners to do so as a welcome back, Porter flied out to center field. For three months, his offense held up, but he hit just .181/.296/.275 after August 1. His final line of .249/.354/.342 might seem disappointing, but he was unlikely to duplicate that 1979 season (his previous best batting average was .275), he was catching in a legendarily hot Kansas City summer, and he was also dealing with a lot more media attention while trying to adjust to a new lifestyle, although he said he didn’t mind the increased attention he was getting.

All the attention has helped me a lot. The fact that I can talk about what happened is very important in my therapy. There is a magic in words. I was a very dishonest person before—with my feelings and my attitudes. I was a phony. I was trying to be what people expected a ballplayer to be. I was not being Darrell Porter. I ran away from reality and hid in drugs and alcohol. I was incapable of handling emotional pain. It started when I first began playing professionally. I was lonely, and for the first time in my life, I was failing in athletics. I found a way to escape. I went out and got drunk. It’s such a subtle disease.”-Porter, quoted by Ron Fimrite, Sports Illustrated, June 9, 1980

Porter had a miserable postseason, unfortunately, hitting .100 in the ALCS and .143 in the World Series. Once the season ended, Porter was a free agent. He was on a honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean when Herzog, now managing the St. Louis Cardinals, called and offered a five-year contract for $3.5 million. Porter wanted to stay in Kansas City, but the Royals, perhaps spooked by that poor end to the season, refused to match the offer.

Herzog had once again made a smart move to acquire Porter. His new catcher helped the Cardinals to a World Series title in 1982; Porter earned some redemption from his rough 1980 Series by hitting .286 with a home run and two doubles in the seven games, and was named Series MVP. He had two more solid seasons with the Cardinals but his final year in St. Louis was beset by injuries. After the Royals beat the Cardinals in the World Series, Porter was a free agent again. He spent two years in Texas, backing up another former Royal, Don Slaught, and then retired.

Porter and his young family stayed in the Kansas City area, where he became involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, youth sports, and inspirational speaking. It was a quiet life, dedicated to helping people.

On August 5, 2002, Porter left his home in Lee’s Summit, leaving behind a note that he was going to go buy a newspaper and head to a park. That afternoon, someone called the police to report a man lying next to a car in LaBenite Park in Sugar Creek. It was Porter, who was dead when the police arrived. An autopsy revealed the sad news that he had cocaine in his system in “quantities consistent with recreational use.” It wasn’t an overdose; rather, it was a condition called “excited delirium,” which can cause elevated body temperature and irrational behavior. The summer heat and an enlarged heart had contributed to his death.

It’s a cliché, but it is also true. Any Christian will tell you, “we’re not perfect, just forgiven.” Becoming a Christian means actively turning away from one’s previous lifestyle, but the sinful nature is always there, the temptations are always there, and they can be hard to resist. We’re only human.

“If this drug can kill someone as tough as Darrell Porter, it’s too powerful to mess around with. Let’s hope that is how people remember the circumstances of his death, because you don’t want kids questioning what he was trying to tell them. You don’t want that lost just because it was too powerful for even Darrell to resist. That should be the message: Don’t even start.”—former Royals pitcher Paul Splittorff, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan, Kansas City Star, August 13, 2002

“Darrell is a living, walking miracle of God. I watched him go from a person struggling, to figuring out who he really was – to a person, through Christ, who became a wonderful husband, a wonderful father, a wonderful friend who had a heart as big as the ocean when it came time to help somebody. He did these things that would never make headlines in the newspapers but they are indelibly etched in every person’s heart that he helped.”—former Royals infielder and Porter’s close friend Jerry Terrell, giving Porter’s eulogy, quoted by Dick Kaegel, Kansas City Star, August 10, 2002

Darrell Porter’s best games of 1979:
4/25 vs. CHI: Went 3-4, scored two runs and drove in four in 7-6 victory.
6/12 vs. BOS: Had three hits, including two doubles, and walked twice in 7-6 win.
9/17 vs. CAL: Homered, scored three runs, and had four RBIs in 16-4 romp.
8/17 @ BAL: Had homer, triple, scored two runs and picked up three RBIs in 7-1 win.
5/17 vs. CAL: Collected four hits, including two doubles and game-winning RBI single in 2-1 win.

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