VIERA, Fla. - Bo Porter spent much of the late morning walking around the field inside Space Coast Stadium, giving friendly handshakes and dishing out big hugs.
The Astros’ new manager, who spent the last two years with the Nationals as the team’s third base coach, is back in Viera today to play his former team. As the Nats took batting practice, Porter weaved his way behind the batting cage, having lengthy chats with Nationals owner Mark Lerner, manager Davey Johnson and many of his former players.
It was a homecoming of sorts for a guy who leaves a team that finished 2012 with the best record in baseball and now manages a squad that posted just 55 wins last season, the fewest in the majors.
“It’s great. I have a lot of friends over here,” Porter said. “Lot of friends, lot of great relationships. It’s not like we’re being reunited because we all keep in contact constantly throughout the offseason and even leading up to today. But it’s good to be back. It’s good to see a lot of these guys and they got a good thing going on. It’s a good ball club and they’ve got a chance to do something special.”
Porter said he’s kept up with Johnson fairly frequently throughout the offseason and into the spring, exchanging calls and talking about players on both sides. He’s also stayed in contact with a number of players - Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen among them - through a book club that they’re all a part of.
Members of the club all read a spiritual, devotional book (last year, it was former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy’s “Uncommon Life”) and exchange emails on a daily basis.
A popular guy within the Nationals clubhouse, Porter will be missed, but when Porter interviewed for the Astros job last season, Johnson knew the 40-year-old was ready for the jump to the managerial level.
“He’s the perfect man for the job,” Johnson said. “I know that he’s a big loss here, but I think he’s fully prepared to be an outstanding manager in the major leagues, in a rebuilding program, obviously. He’s very fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game, and he’s a great judge of talent. So I look for him to be there a long time. It’s great, I told him, ‘You can be in your home town. It doesn’t get any better than that.’ I wish him nothing but the best.”
It’s funny Johnson used the word “rebuilding” when describing the Astros, because that’s a term Porter is staying away from. Asked by a reporter how he’s approaching the idea that this will be a rebuilding year for his team, the ever-positive Porter delivered a typical Bo Porter response.
“What’s that word you just said? I didn’t even know that word was in the dictionary,” Porter said. “I haven’t used that word, not one time, since Sept. 27 last year. And I’m not planning on using it.”
Porter is obviously aware, however, that the Astros have a long way to go. Over the last year, they lost a handful of veterans off (including Carlos Lee, Jed Lowrie, Brian Bogusevic, Jordan Schafer and starter Wandy Rodriguez) off a team that won just 55 gameas, leaving this year’s squad packed with unproven younger players and an uphill climb, especially now that they’ve moved to the incredibly competitive American League West.
That’s why Porter has employed a few original tactics to try and inspire his young bunch.
“One of the things we set out, and (this) was a huge thing as an organization, was we needed to change the culture,” Porter said. “How do you help someone change? You change by the things that go into their mind. You change by the things which they see and experience every day, and the things which are communicated to them on a daily basis. So we went to great lengths throughout the organization. There are motivational things throughout the clubhouse to give them an appreciation for where you’re at and what it means to be a Houston Astro, and a standard in which we all come to the park every day and hang our hat on. From that standpoint, I think that message has been loud and clear to the players. ...
“I said this in my interview: What we had here was a blank canvas. We’re able to basically draw it up to what we want it to be, and that’s why we’re going about it systematically. The way we’re going about it is so when we look 10, 15 years down the road, this is where we started and this is what we were able to do.”
And Porter knows that if he needs a hand with something or some advice along the way, he can turn to Johnson.
“He has extended his hand with the notion of: You guys are in the American League, we’re in the National League,” Porter said. “He is completely there to help me. We talk about our roster, we talk about players, we talk about their players, because he knows that I know their guys. He’s very interested in what’s going on in our camp. There are a lot of times I may call him with a question and he’s been there.
“It’s not an everyday thing, it’s not something that’s just for spring training. We’ve talked throughout the offseason, we’ve talked during spring training, and we will continue to talk. When you have someone of Davey’s accomplishments and he’s readily available to help you, I’d be foolish not to take advantage of that.”