Darrell Porter went out to get a newspaper, and he never came home.
That night, it rained in St. Louis. It was as if the earth was weeping. As it should. Now a catcher has gone home to play baseball with late Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile. But when this world lost Darrell Porter, it lost more than a former MVP and three-time All-Star. It lost one of the finest examples of a human being who ever played the game. Porter overcame drug and alcohol addiction in 1980. Today, people hold your hand when you’re famous and addicted. In 1980, they just looked down on you.
Darrell Porter didn’t let that stop him. In spring training in 1980, former Dodgers pitcher and recovered alcoholic Don Newcombe paid the team a visit. He asked 10 questions, and said if you answered yes to three of them, you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Porter answered yes to all 10 questions. So he checked himself into a rehab center. He cleaned up. He started going to church and got right with God. And he dedicated his life to trying to keep others from making the same mistakes he made. He figured he became famous for a reason, and he ought to use his fame and name recognition for something.
So he quietly went out helping people. In 1984, he wrote a book. We’re not talking a tell-all book like Jose Canseco plans to write. Don’t get me wrong, Porter told all. But he told about the person he knew best: himself. With brutal honesty. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember him talking frankly about getting together with his buddies and snorting cocaine through rolled-up $100 bills and drinking like tomorrow would never come. He talked about checking into rehab in 1980, and he talked about lapsing once, stopping at a gas station on the way home one day, and buying a beer. He left the empty bottle in his car. Part of him wanted his wife to find it. She did.
He was candid about what drugs and alcohol did to his career. In 1979, he had the finest year a Royals catcher ever had, batting .291 with 20 home runs and driving in 112. Those aren’t just good numbers for a catcher, those are good numbers for Johnny Bench. But that was the end of the road. He peaked at age 27. He played another 8 years, but his career numbers were much more pedestrian. For the rest of his career, he was an average defensive catcher and an average hitter who could occasionally pop one out of the park. His old self only surfaced when the game was on the line. He often told people his drug and alcohol abuse destroyed his career. That’s a bit harsh–he played for 16 years, eight on drugs and eight off–but it’s easy to see that something kept him from being everything he could be.
Porter spoke to one of the Christian groups on campus at the University of Missouri while I was a student there. I’d thought about going, because Porter had been one of my heroes growing up. For some reason I didn’t, and I don’t remember the reason. It might have been that I had a test, or a story deadline. Or it might have been something stupid. Like a story deadline.
That was what Porter’s life after baseball was like. He quietly volunteered his time wherever he was needed. He didn’t go looking for more fame.
A fan recounted meeting Porter recently at a game on a St. Louis Post-Dispatch discussion board. He asked Porter to sign an old poster. He signed it, and then the fan asked him to write “1982 World Series MVP” under his name. The fan recalled that Porter was very flattered to be asked to write that, maybe even flattered that the fan remembered that. Porter wasn’t one to advertise his three All-Star appearances, or the two MVP awards he won in 1982.
Since Porter didn’t go running around, looking for chances to make appearances and introducing himself as “Darrell Porter, three-time All-Star catcher for the Kansas City Royals and 1982 National League Championship Series and 1982 World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals,” not a lot of people remember him. But the people who do remember him will miss him.
Porter showed up at the Royals’ spring training this year, some 22 years after he left the team and 15 years after he retired from baseball. He wanted to learn broadcasting. Broadcasters Denny Matthews and Ryan Lefebvre spent some time with him and he impressed them. He worked hard, bought his own equipment, brought it with him, and learned as much as he could from the professionals. If he was going to go into broadcasting, it was going to be because he was a good sportscaster, not because he was Darrell Porter, three-time All-Star catcher for the Kansas City Royals and 1982 National League Championship Series MVP and 1982 World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals. Matthews and Lefebvre wanted to put him on the air this year.
Nobody knows exactly what happened. Porter told his wife he was going to get a newspaper and go to a park to read it. That I understand. If you’re interested in broadcasting, you keep up on the news. I use the Internet to do that, but if you’re a 50-year-old retired baseball player, you might not want to use the Internet. Besides, it’s hard to get Internet access in a park. Why would someone go to a park to read a newspaper in 97-degree heat? Remember, Darrell Porter was a catcher, and he spent most of his career on Astroturf. At Royals Stadium and Busch Stadium in the early 1980s, it could reach 110 degrees or more on the playing surface in the summer. Porter was bearing that heat with all that padding.
And once a baseball player, always a baseball player. He probably just wanted to be outside, away from telephones, away from everything else. If you’re not a baseball player, you don’t understand. I understand.
What I don’t understand is which park he chose to visit. He lived in Lee’s Summit, but he drove to a park half an hour away. Maybe he just couldn’t make up his mind. I remember driving around for half an hour one night back in March looking for someplace to run sprints. But I ended up at a park about five miles from home. I guess it sort of makes sense. But only sort of.
Porter got to the park, but he ran his car off the road. There was a tree stump alongside that wasn’t visible in the grass, and his car got stuck. At 5:26 pm, someone drove past, saw the car on the side of the road, and saw a man lying next to it. The driver alerted police. Police arrived soon afterward and found Darrell Porter, dead. The coroner speculates he was trying to free his car and was overcome by the heat.
He left behind a wife and three kids: a 20-year-old daughter and two teenaged sons. They’re going to have a hard time dealing with this. Their dad was just 50. He was supposed to have 25 years left in him. Now he’s gone, and no one knows why, and although they might not want to admit it, they’re at the ages when they probably need him most. I was 19 when my dad died at 51.
There are a few people out there like Darrell Porter. Genuinely nice people, real people, honest, down-to-earth people. People who want more than anything else just to make a difference, who come in and take charge of a bad situation and leave it a better place when they move on. You have to look for those kinds of people, but they’re out there.
It’s a shame to lose people like that, especially at such a cruelly young age. You can never have too many of those.
Darrell, I’m sorry I didn’t hit that home run for you tonight. I was trying too hard. I’m sure you understand. But I’m going to pay you the highest compliment I know, and when I say this, I mean it, with everything I’ve got.
We’ll miss you.