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Next Stop Porterville
2004-08-18 22:10
by Jon Weisman

Dodger announcer Ross Porter discusses an L.A. team in contention, the July trades, and the day, however far off, that change might come in the broadcast booth

Presidents come and go, both in the Oval Office in Washington D.C. and the Dodger office in Los Angeles, but Dodger announcers are like Supreme Court justices. The broadcast booth is the high court, a hallowed place that offers a lifelong vocation.

That doesn’t mean that it immediately occurred to Ross Porter back in 1976, when the Dodgers introduced him to the media as their newest announcer, that he would be still be broadcasting Dodger games nearly three decades later.

"The day that they announced that I was joining the broadcasting team, Walter Alston had just announced he was retiring after 23 years,” Porter told Dodger Thoughts in an interview Wednesday. “The 1976 season had just ended, and they had a little thing to introduce me to the media. Walter O’ Malley, bless his heart, was still alive ... and Walter got up to introduce me, and I’ll never forget he made this statement: ‘We’re happy to have Ross with us’ and something to the effect of Walter Alston just retired after 23 years, and we’ll come back here in 23 years and Ross will still be going.

“And I’ve thought about that often, and I’ve gotten to 28 now.”

Twenty-eight years is as long as any U.S. Supreme Court Justice has ever served, save John Marshall (1801-1835). Of course, Porter works alongside a man who puts Marshall’s tenure to shame: Vin Scully is in his 55th year in the high-backed chairs.

Inevitably, when the opportunity to discuss Dodger broadcasting appears, the elephant in the interview room is how long Scully will remain a Dodger broadcaster. But the question also applies to Porter, often considered the heir to Scully’s Chief Justice seat - yet someone who is 65 years old himself.

Porter emphasized that neither he nor Scully have any plans to leave the Dodgers, and that their departures, while inevitable someday, aren’t currently being discussed with the Dodger executive branch. However, that doesn’t mean that Porter and Scully don’t address the subject in chambers.

“Vin and I will talk about what’s coming up,” Porter said, “what he sees ahead, and we both realize that neither one of us has too many years left. He has not put any year on the end of his career; neither have I. And I’ve always said I never wanted to be the one to step into those shoes. I think the person who replaces Vin Scully has got a major problem. Like Gene Bartow replacing John Wooden.”

Those words would shock no one. But then Porter went on to share a less obvious scenario, yet one that would be remarkably poetic. It’s just a thought, lightly etched, but nonetheless a dramatic one for longtime fans of the Dodgers.

“I think in the back of my mind,” Porter said, “it would suit me wonderfully if Vin and I went out at the same time.”

The possibility would leave Rick Monday along in the booth and put the Dodgers in position of needing to replace not just their iconic voice - the face on their $1 bill - but the $5 as well.

But as Porter reiterated, at least that day isn’t right around the corner.

“Vin once told me, ‘I learned one thing in 1994 when we had the long strike, and that was, I couldn’t play golf every day. It’s just not within me to do that. I’ve got to be busy.’ So that keeps you going. The drive just keeps you going. The love of the game - I think it’s that simple.”

While Scully will continue with the reduced travel schedule he adopted years ago, Porter will remain a virtual full-timer. He pointed out that unlike Scully, it’s not really an option for him to cut back, explaining that it would require the Dodgers paying a fourth announcer in a cost-cutting era.

“The reaction would probably be, ‘Have a nice retirement,’ ” Porter said. “Vin can call his shots because he was the best that ever was, but I don’t know that many of us could do it.”

That being said, Porter doesn’t really seem to want to cut back. He doesn’t find life on the road any more difficult now than in years past.

“I think what happens is that you get into a routine,” Porter said. “You’re so used to this - this is the bus that’s gonna take you from the stadium to the tarmac to the plane ... I’ve done this so much that I’m used to it. Do I miss not being with my wife every day? Yes, but she’s been a jewel, and she’s glad to see me happy.

“I think that when I get ready to hang 'em up, it would be because I want to have more time with my family. We have a lot of grandchildren; most of them live in this area. We have a place in the desert; I like to play a lot of golf. It's been sensational (broadcasting), but I want to have a lot of time with my family before I can't do anything."

Like a Player, Hungry for the Postseason

Porter is certainly not thinking about leaving the Dodgers today. While heartbreaking losses like Wednesday's against Florida prove plenty can go wrong for the Dodgers in the season’s final 6 1/2 weeks, the fact is that they have their best look at the playoffs since their last appearance in 1996.

And Porter is no different from anyone else - he wants to see postseason action, even if it’s limited to a few innings a game on radio (with the possibility of no local telecasts, even Scully might be consigned to AM).

“Eight years is a long time (without reaching the playoffs),” Porter said, “and especially because when I broke in, it was unrealistic but the first two years I was with the team in ’77 and ’78 they won the pennant both years, then a two-year lapse, then in ’81 they won the whole thing.”

“I was on a plane once going back from New York with Dick Enberg. He had already left the Angels, but he said, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are. In nine years with the Angels I was never once involved in a playoff race in September.’

“It’s frustrating to me, just like everyone else, that the Dodgers have gone 16 years (without winning a World Series),” Porter added. “We all get spoiled.”

The fact that the 2004 Dodgers have found the hitting to contend has surprised Porter more than anything else this year. From the acquisition of Milton Bradley at the outset of the season to the difference Steve Finley has made since arriving at the end of July, with dramatically improved seasons from Adrian Beltre, Cesar Izturis, Alex Cora and solid contributions from departed Dodgers Paul Lo Duca and Dave Roberts, Porter really became struck by how much the team improved on offense.

And while the Dodger pitching does not quite match the 2003 version, it is more than holding its own considering that last year’s team was, according to Porter, as good as he had ever seen from top to bottom. Jeff Weaver epitomizes the surprises on the mound, Porter indicated.

“The reports were not good on Weaver out of Spring Training,” Porter said, “and when he starts 3-7, it doesn’t look good. But start after start, Jeff Weaver has probably had as many quality starts as anyone on the staff. ... (The pitching) is not as good as it was last year but not as bad as I thought it would be.”

With those pieces in place, according to Porter, the Dodgers could then ride two underrated team strengths into contender status - their defense and their manager - with a tip of the cap to the relative weakness of their division.

“I’ve said all year long, this is the best defense I’ve ever seen in Los Angeles,” Porter said. “And I’ve talked about it and Vinny agrees with me.

“And I don’t think (Dodger manager Jim) Tracy has gotten enough credit. I think he’s done a good job, and I think (general manager) Paul DePodesta has done a good job. When you think of Finley, Werth, Bradley and hopefully Brad Penny, he’s made some good moves.”

Perspective on Change

Porter stood in the visiting clubhouse in San Diego on the afternoon of July 30. Behind closed doors, Tracy, DePodesta and assistant general manager Kim Ng were meeting with Lo Duca.

“He comes out and immediately goes to his teammates and they start hugging and crying,” Porter recalled, adding that the same scene soon followed with Guillermo Mota and Juan Encarnacion. “It was clearly a shaken clubhouse. You could see there was this ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ sort of thing.

“Two hours later, they go out and beat the Padres, 12-3. They couldn’t have been too shaken.”

Few in Los Angeles had the privilege of seeing how much Lo Duca contributed to the Dodgers the way Porter did. But Porter had little trouble understanding the trade that sent him and several teammates away from their first-place team.

“I always thought in April and May and June and July that they were one pitcher short,” Porter said. “So I was delighted that they got Penny. I was sorry to see Lo Duca go, sorry to see Mota go. But we all know in this business, if you want to get something good, you’ve got to give something good.

“I think after they got Finley and (Hee Seop) Choi and Penny on that Saturday, and they started coming in and started immediately contributing, I didn’t see any letup at all as far as the team was concerned and as far as the morale of the team was concerned: ‘Okay, we liked these guys but we’ve got the new guys now.' ”

Porter added that the groundwork for accepting all the change was laid when Finley contacted Bradley to see if he would move to left field so that Finley, a four-time Gold Glove winner, could remain in center. “I want to win,” according to Porter, was Bradley’s main reply.

“If Bradley had said ‘no,’ Finley would have rejected the trade and ended up in San Diego. The next day, (Padres manager) Bruce Bochy told me on the field, ‘Boy, we wanted Finley back in the worst way.’ ”

Interestingly, despite the negative reaction from many in Los Angeles and on national outlets like ESPN, Porter said that many broadcasters for other teams felt that the trading deadline moves made the Dodgers into a better team. Porter suspected that more and more people may “come around to that view,” though it may take a little longer with the current angst over the Dodger bullpen.

“I’m already wrong on one front,” Porter conceded. “I thought (Darren) Dreifort could step into Mota’s role and do a good job. Now he’s out.”

Humbled but Proud

Porter has been humbled before. At the start of his career, he relied so much on statistics that he drew significant criticism. While to some extent Porter is still the distaff brother in an Everyone Loves Vinny world, that criticism has softened for a number of reasons.

“I’ll give you my view on it,” Porter offered. “Somebody once said, ‘Statistics are the soul of baseball.’ I think that’s true. I think when I got started, that I leaned on them too much. ... I overdid it, I admit that. I think over the years I’ve cut back on that. I think over the years, I haven’t heard too much of that criticism. Yeah, occasionally somebody writes a letter to the editor. But the style has changed in baseball - you turn on a telecast and you’re gonna get a lot of numbers.”

Porter is intrigued by the more advanced statistics now available - he is a reader of this site and others that use them - but admitted he is not in a comfort zone with them. In any event, even in a climate more willing to embrace statistics, Porter remains wary of going overboard.

“I think I really believe now that it’s more prevalent than it ever has been,” Porter said, “but I’ve gone out of my way to cut back on (statistics) as much as I can. Some people e-mail or say to me, I sure appreciate you put the numbers out there. But I’ve also worked hard of late to try to tell more stories, and get a more personal view of the players in. It’s been an interesting 28-year ride, let me put it that way.”

The ride never got more interesting than just a few years ago, when nearly yearlong attempts to explain a persistent throat irritation Porter was experiencing culminated in an unimaginable diagnosis.

“First I had a four-hour sinus operation, to go up in there and clear some things out,” Porter said. “They found a quarter-sized hole over my brain, then I had a 10-hour brain surgery.

“I was in the hospital eight days. When I got out of the hospital, the Dodgers had been nice enough to put up a message that you can send Ross e-mail. The message was up for 13 days, and I got 1,300 e-mails from people, and that really kind of staggered me. And I think that gave me a greater appreciation of what I do and how many people love the Dodgers and want to see them do well, and kind of look to me as a member of the family. I think it makes me more grateful.”

So yes, like Vin Scully - if not with Vin Scully - someday Ross Porter will leave the Supreme Court of the Dodgers. But the job still has more than enough to offer him, and he still has more than enough to offer to the people.

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