KISSIMMEE, Fla. — One afternoon this spring, long after the fans had cleared out of Osceola County Stadium, Houston Astros manager Bo Porter made his way into his office. Sitting in the desk chair was his 4-year-old son, Bryce. He was troubled.
“Daddy,” he said to his father, puzzled by the fact that their team had just lost two spring training games in a row. “Am I going to have to come in and talk to the guys? We lost again.”
Porter chuckled. He told his son he thought they’d be all right. It’s a long spring, followed by a long season.
“No, but, Daddy, we lost again,” Bryce said.
“Yeah,” Porter said. “But it’s part of the progression.’”
The truth is, the 2013 Astros may lose a lot. Some are predicting for them to be historically bad. At the very least, most pundits can see them losing 100 games for the third year in a row.
Their roster isn’t filled with stars. Their payroll has drawn criticism at $25 million for the entire team. They have talent, but it’s young. There are few places on the field where they’ll put established major leaguers Opening Day.
Porter refuses to call it rebuilding, but whatever it is, they’re at the ground floor.
They are building toward something, though. And as the sun splashed over the field in Kissimmee on Monday afternoon, Porter looked out from an empty dugout at a group of young men he’s gotten to believe in him.
“It’s one of those things where you have to start the way you want to finish,” he said. “That’s why when people use the words like ‘rebuild’ and ‘patience’ and all that, there’s no higher level of baseball than the big leagues. Only place you go from here is to the Hall of Fame — and they don’t play games there, it’s just an honor.
“This is the highest level you can play. If you put any expectation that’s lower than, ‘This is the big leagues,’ I think you’re setting your players up for failure. That’s why you have to set the standard to where we’re setting it. Make them get to that standard or get out of the way and allow somebody else to get to that standard. It’s really that simple.”
At age 40, Porter, the Washington Nationals’ third base coach the past two season, is the youngest manager in the major leagues. Rick Ankiel, the Nationals’ onetime center fielder, is only seven years younger than Porter. He’s one of a handful of Astros older than 30, and one of the most veteran players in the clubhouse.
He’s marveled at what Porter has done this spring.
“Bo’s been great,” Ankiel said Monday. “I’m really proud of him.”
A few days after the Nationals’ season ended in October, Porter got to work on remaking the Astros. He’d waited a while for his first shot at being a big league manager, and he started with the basics.
Porter has changed the layout of the team’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park in Houston. He helped them redesign their uniforms, going to a navy blue and orange combination that is sharply modern while also paying homage to the organization’s history. On the advice of his football coach at the University of Iowa, Hayden Fry, he brought all the Astros coaches to his home outside of Houston for a retreat in January.
None of the players’ lockers at spring training had their names, only numbers, and a small mirror on the front so if they’re struggling they can look into their own eyes to figure out how they can improve. Their spring jerseys are also without names on the back, to emphasize the team over the individual.
“The biggest thing he’s done overall with the guys is that they feel they can communicate with the manager,” Ankiel said. “The can be honest with him, and that’s huge.”
The Astros are close to finalizing their Opening Day roster and Ankiel, along with fellow former Nationals Brad Peacock and Justin Maxwell, will be on it.
They think they’ll surprise some people. “We’re the underdog,” Ankiel said. “That’ll be the fun part for us.”
“Most people don’t fail because they aim too high,” Porter said. “Most people fail because they aim too low and they actually hit their mark. They don’t realize they failed because there’s so much more in the tank. You’re afraid that you’re able to push yourself to that high level because its like a safe zone. I don’t want to wallow in safe zone.”