VIERA, FLA. — Bo Porter arrives on a back field at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex at 7:30 every morning. Dew still clings to the grass when his daily session with Nyjer Morgan begins. He is always on time — “organized” is usually one of the first words people use to describe Porter. He carries with him the laminated sheet of instructions, keys and codes he created in order to make Morgan a better base stealer.
Porter played major college football and major league baseball, but he has always wanted to coach. “I think I knew in Little League,” he said. Someday, he wants to manage. For now, since they hired him this winter to replace Pat Listach, Porter is the Nationals’ third base coach. He may make his biggest impact coaching outfield defense and base running, the role that has him up early every morning, out on a back field with Morgan.
As part of the daily base running seminar, Porter shows Morgan techniques for a more explosive, efficient first step for stealing bases. Mostly, though, Porter drills into Morgan the mental side of base stealing, the side of sports that always has appealed most to Porter, the reason he wanted to coach.
“I’ve known,” Porter said, “for a long time.”
Porter, 38, brings with him an unusual athletic background, one he shaped with the aim of coaching. His mother played softball, and ever since she introduced Porter to T-ball at 4, he became hooked on sports. Growing up in Newark, he gathered friends in his community to play baseball, basketball and football.
As an athlete, Porter possessed staggering ability. By his senior year at Weequahic High School in Newark, he was an all-state quarterback, point guard and outfielder. Even as he dominated, Porter became engrossed with the comprehensive nature of a specific sport. He tried to see beyond his own role, to see the game like a coach.
“As I played, I never just played my position,” Porter said. “I always was in tune to everything that was going on on the field. You pretty much need to know what everybody is doing.”
Dozens of schools across the country recruited Porter, for both football and baseball. He chose Iowa because of the school’s presentation. It outlined every detail of his college career, academic and athletic. “It was more than just the sport side to them,” Porter said.
Porter played safety for Hayden Fry, making the audibles and checks for the defense. He was named a captain before his senior season and made the all-Big Ten team. He loved the program and what it taught him. “If you spend five minutes around Hayden Fry,” Porter said, “preparation and attention to detail is something that is just instilled in you.”
But baseball was his first love, and so when the Chicago Cubs drafted him after his junior year, he knew he would choose baseball as his career. He first reached the majors with the Cubs in 1999, a team managed by current Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman. He played in the majors for parts of two more seasons and immediately began his coaching career.
By last season, he had become the third base coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he became available this offseason because of the team’s managerial switch in the middle of last season. Porter interviewed for two vacant manager positions, with the Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates.
After neither team chose him, the Nationals stepped in. Porter felt comfortable with Riggleman, and he knew General Manager Mike Rizzo from when Rizzo interviewed him for the Nationals’ managerial position after the 2009 season. Rizzo ultimately decided to keep Riggleman, then the interim manager. In the future, Porter hopes to have another chance to manage.
“If the right opportunity comes about, I would welcome the challenge,” Porter said. “But right now, I’m completely happy with the situation that we have here, being the third base coach and being a part of Jim Riggleman’s staff. I’m just excited about the season.”
For now that means working with Morgan. Last year, Morgan stole 34 bases but was caught 17 times and made more outs on the bases than any player in the majors. Porter began with a goal. He doesn’t care how many bases Morgan steals. He just wants him to steal at an 80 percent success rate.
Porter told Morgan, “It’s not running 75 or 80 times. It’s knowing when to run.” He drilled into Morgan the importance of knowing counts and game situations. They have studied film of different pitchers’ moves, Porter showing Morgan which kinds of pitchers to run against and which to exercise caution against.
“It’s basically me going out there and relaxing,” Morgan said. “I have a better understanding what I’m capable of doing, when is the right situation to run. I’m turning more into a student of the game instead of relying on my God-given ability. Last year at times, I was just running to run. I’ve got to be able pick my spots.
“He’s been great. We didn’t have that last year, that base running guy.”
When the Nationals hired Porter, he watched video of Morgan stealing bases last year and told a Nationals employee, “I’ll fix him.” Porter had spent his life studying to be a coach, and that gave him at least one secret he can share.
“Base stealing has a lot to do with everything you do prior to getting on base,” he said. “That’s what gives you the confidence.”