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Remembering Darrell Porter

The complicated life and times of one of the greats

Darrell Porter was born on January 17, 1952 in Joplin, Missouri. His family later moved to Oklahoma City where he became an all-state quarterback for Southeast High School in 1969 and the state’s baseball player of the year. Porter was recruited to play quarterback for the University of Oklahoma under coach Chuck Fairbanks and their offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer.

Those plans changed when Porter was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers with the fourth overall selection in the 1970 amateur draft. Porter made his major league debut with the Brewers on September 2, 1971, as a 19-year-old, against who else, the Kansas City Royals. Porter went hitless in three at bats that day against Mike Hedlund and Bruce Dal Canton in a game won by Brewers, one to nothing. In his next game, on September 5, Porter collected his first hit and RBI with a single off Angels pitcher Tom Murphy. Porter collected his first career home run on September 14, a solo shot off the Chicago White Sox’s Tom Bradley. Porter appeared in 22 games at the tail end of the 1971 season and had another cup of coffee in 1972, appearing in 18 more games, before finally sticking for good in 1973.

Having played in only a handful of games in ’71 and ’72, 1973 became Porter’s rookie season and he delivered, finishing with a .254/.363/.457 line with sixteen home runs and sixty-seven RBI which was good for a tie for third place (with Steve Busby and Doc Medich) in the American League Rookie of the Year race. He played for six seasons in Milwaukee, and made his first All-Star team in 1974, before the Brewers gave up on him and sent him to Kansas City with pitcher Jim Colborn on December 6, 1976, in a trade that remains one of the biggest heists in Royals history.

Porter rewarded Kansas City’s faith with a terrific season in 1977, batting .275/.353/.452 with sixteen home runs and sixty RBI. He followed that up by making his second All-Star team in 1978 before having one of the all-time great seasons by a catcher in 1979. During the 1979 campaign, Porter slashed .291/.421/.484 with 20 home runs, 112 RBI and a league-leading 121 walks, all good for a .905 OPS and 7.6 WAR. In the ’79 season, Porter became only the sixth catcher in major league history to score 100 runs with over 100 RBI. Porter and Mickey Cochrane are the only catchers to do that feat and walk more than 100 times. The 1979 season remains the greatest single season ever by a Kansas City catcher and one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a Kansas City hitter.

Porter could run like a greyhound and was well known for his defensive skills and rocket arm. During his four seasons in Kansas City, he complied a .984 fielding percentage. Herter was a feisty player, who was involved in his share of brawls over the years, most notably with the Rangers Bump Wills and Bart Johnson of the White Sox. George Brett said, “Darrell always played like it was the seventh game of the World Series.”

Joe McGuff, former Kansas City Star sports editor, wrote in 1978: “His approach to the game conveys the impression of a Marine hitting the beach or Willie Lanier playing middle linebacker in his prime. Porter’s teammates call him ‘Nerve’ because of his intensity. Whitey Herzog calls him the Royals’ most valuable player.”

Porter often credited Royals coach Charlie Lau for his improved hitting. For his career, Porter played in four All-Star games, collected MVP votes in two seasons and played in three World Series: 1980 with Kansas City and 1982 and 1985 with the St. Louis Cardinals. He also won the MVP award for his play in the 1982 National League Championship Series and the 1982 World Series where he helped lead the Cardinals to the championship against the Brewers. He was one of the few catchers to wear eyeglasses behind the plate and over a seventeen-year career hit .247 with 188 home runs and 826 RBI.

Porter was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 and into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2014. I could go on talking about the baseball life of Darrell Porter, but the road ultimately ends up taking a fork in the road. A successful baseball career was only part of the Darrell Porter story.

During 1980 spring training camp, former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher, and recovering alcoholic, Don Newcombe visited the Royals clubhouse. Newcombe asked the players ten questions and said that if you answered yes to three or more, you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Porter answered yes to all ten. Porter promptly left the team and checked into a rehab facility in Wickenburg, Arizona for six weeks. In doing so, Porter became one of the first high profile athletes to admit he battled substance abuse.

Following his release, he related his personal experience with Jesus while sitting on the bed in a New York hotel: ”As if the ceiling opened, I was overwhelmed by the presence of God. I just knew right then that Jesus was who the Bible said He was. I knew there really was a God. Life doesn’t become perfect. But one thing I haven’t been since then is hopeless.”

To his credit, Porter never ducked questions about his drug abuse and he never shied away from talking about it. During his magnificent 1979 season, Porter said he was using about a gram of cocaine a day along with heavy drinking. The abuse got so bad during the winter after the 1979 season, Porter would sit up all night in his living room, looking out the window, armed with billiard balls and a shotgun, certain that baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn was going to discover his drug use, drive to Porter’s house, confront him and then ban him for life. I know you must be thinking, why billiard balls? He’s got a shotgun, right? Porter’s theory was he’d throw the balls at Kuhn when he entered the door. Like Rick James famously said, cocaine’s a helluva drug.

One night, on a car ride from Denver to Kansas City, Porter claims he snorted seven grams of coke. Seven grams!! That is an insane amount of coke for one person to ingest. It’s a wonder that not only he lived through it, but that he was able to perform at such a high level.

Porter said, “I hated drugs. Hated them! They had promised me happiness and ecstasy, but instead plunged me into a living hell. I didn’t even drink in high school, but when I got into baseball and I was suddenly batting .204, I found that four or five beers tasted terrific. I began using alcohol, uppers, downers, cocaine and smoking marijuana. It started as a social thing, but after a while, being high became the reality. After a while, baseball was the only thing left.”

He added, “I guess I was schizoid. Baseball was one world and partying was another.”

After leaving rehab, Porter returned to the Royals, who embraced their catcher with open arms. He was never quite the same player, leading some to make cruel comments that Porter should have stayed on drugs. In the 1980 season, his last with the Royals, Porter batted .249/.354/.342 with seven home runs and 51 RBI and made his final appearance in the All-Star game.

“I had been fairly successful the whole time I was doing drugs. When I stopped doing them, I just struggled. God humbled me. I fear him, and I know he loves me.”

Porter became a free agent after the 1980 season. Some teams, the Royals among them, were hesitant to sign Porter. One team that was not, was the St. Louis Cardinals, now managed by former Royal skipper, Whitey Herzog. In fact, Herzog had so much faith in Porter, that he traded fan favorite, and perennial All-Star, Ted Simmons and up and coming catcher Terry Kennedy, to make room for Porter. The moves infuriated the Cardinal fan base and put Porter in an unenviable position of trying to justify his manager’s decisions.

Porter played for five more season’s in St. Louis before ending his career with a two-year stint in Texas. In retirement, Porter was active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a program called, “Enjoy the Game,” which attempted to minimize the adult influence in youth sports.

”Organized sports have gotten out of hand and we realize that so much of the problem is from parents and coaches,” Porter said.

Porter remarried and fathered three children and by all accounts was a terrific husband and father to Lindsey, Jeff and Ryan.

On August 5, 2002, Porter told his family he was going to get a newspaper. He left his Lee’s Summit home and drove to La Benite Park, north of Independence off Highway 291, hard by the Missouri River. His car became high centered on a tree stump and Porter was unable to free the auto. He walked to the river, dipped his left leg into the water, then walked back to his car. He collapsed and was later found by a passerby. Temperatures were over 97 degrees and the day was humid.

The coroners report came back and said that Darrell Porter had died “from the toxic effects of cocaine” in what the coroner called a state of “excited delirium”. Former teammate and friend, Jerry Terrell, said “for twenty-two years, Darrell remained sober. The fact that he failed shows the evil of drugs and the power of the disease.” Darrell Porter was only fifty years old.

If you or someone you know, has a problem with drugs or alcohol, please get help. You’re not alone and it’s never too late. Call 1-877-978-2033 or 1-800-662-4357.