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Books | Sports

October 2, 2012

Cardinals Worth Caring About

Will Leitch loves his baseball team and its former players—including Darrell Porter—so much that he may think about some Cardinals alums more than they think about themselves.

Patrick Burns

If you've followed Will Leitch and read his work over the years from Black Table and Deadspin to New York Magazine and Sports on Earth (and, heck, even on Twitter), it's impossible you've missed his love of the St. Louis Cardinals. His entry for catcher Darrell Porter—a former Cardinal, of course—for the new baseball-profile collection The Hall of Nearly Great opens with a sizable chunk dedicated to Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, 24 years after Porter last played a major-league game. Even nearly a year later, Leitch's prose creates the feeling of experiencing for the first time the incredible moments of David Freese's game-tying triple and game-winning walk-off homer.

Will Leitch
"Every player somewhere means something to somebody. I love that."

Will Leitch

That Cardinals passion carries through the entire essay, an examination of the impact Porter had on Leitch's life, along with a summation of Porter's life and career, one cut short by drug abuse. Gelf spoke to Leitch about how he wrote such a personal essay, how Porter would have been received in today's climate of sabermetric stats, and Leitch's reasons for joining the new sports website Sports on Earth. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. (Disclosure: I contribute to Deadspin, the sports site Leitch founded.)

Gelf Magazine: While there's some background about Porter's career and accomplishments in baseball in your essay, a lot of the focus is on the connection you formed with Porter, and how someone you didn't know on a personal level impacted your life, and the ensuing sadness when you learned of his untimely death. In Porter's own book, he was surprisingly frank in discussing his own battles with drug abuse and what turned his life around. Was that openness an inspiration for you to weave your own narrative into Darrell Porter's story? Will Leitch: Well, I did go back and re-read parts of his book before I wrote the essay, but frankly, the main takeaway was just how poorly written it was. Porter really should have hired a better ghostwriter. (It was actually a Christian author he met through the church.) I weaved my own narrative in because that's what self-indulgent writers of my generation, and the one after it, do. It's not really a story unless we're a part of it!

Gelf Magazine: Some of the ways you (and others) describe Porter conjure up the image of a guy who got the full potential out of his talent, someone who had to work harder than everyone else because he didn't have the ability of some of the superstars. You also mention clutch hitting and his leadership abilities. There's been a tendency, especially with the new way we look at statistics in the game, to move away from those terms when describing a player, and to look only at the numbers we can truly quantify. Do you think a guy like Porter, had he come around in today's game, would garner the same sort of appreciation he received in the '80s, or would he become a whipping boy of the sabermetrics crowd?

Will Leitch: Actually, the sabermetric crowd would have loved Porter: He walked like crazy—he led the league in walks in 1979—and had a 113 OPS+ for his career. (His worst seasons as a hitter were in St. Louis, all told.) I think he would have been more popular now than he was then; his early-career drug problems and his low batting averages made many fans skeptical of him, even post-conversion. Even Cardinals fans were skeptical of him because he took over for Ted Simmons, a player St. Louis fans loved so much they tolerated his hippie hair. I also think today Porter would hang around as a backup catcher into his 40s; he had an .810 slugging percentage in his final season.

Gelf Magazine: What are the criteria for inclusion in the Hall of Nearly Great?

Will Leitch: You're asking the wrong guy. I know the whole name was inspired by Ray Lankford, a player I've always loved so much that I think he should be in the Hall of Super People Who Are The Best.

Gelf Magazine: You received permission to include a thank-you letter sent from Pat Porter, Darrel's sister, who was grateful for a column you wrote earlier in your career about him. Did you get a chance to speak with her when writing this, or did you think the profile would be better off without it?

Will Leitch: I didn't talk to her. I was so touched by her note that I didn't want to push it.

Gelf Magazine: Is there something about baseball that lends itself to a Hall of Nearly Great more than other sports?

Will Leitch: Every player somewhere means something to somebody. I love that. I have spent hours upon hours upon hours of my life thinking about Kerry Robinson. I'm not even sure Kerry Robinson has done that.

Gelf Magazine: I also wanted to talk to you about Sports on Earth, the new venture headed by Joe Posnanski that you're a part of now. You've obviously done your share of blogging about sports. What brought you back, and where do you see SoE fitting into the landscape with things like Deadspin, Grantland, SB Nation, and, heck, even Bleacher Report?

Will Leitch: Well, it's not a blog—or at least what I do isn't a blog—so I'm not back "blogging" about sports. (Though I do contribute daily to New York Magazine's sports blog, "The Sports Section.") But they asked if I'd be interested in writing a regular column about sports consumer culture, and I said yes because there's a bunch of excellent writers there and I thought maybe I could hide among them. I don't know anything about a landscape, but I know that if you ever put Bleacher Report in with Deadspin, Grantland, and SB Nation again, I'm gonna cry.

Patrick Burns

Patrick Burns is a blogger and contributing writer for Deadspin, and a graduate of Texas Christian University.

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Article by Patrick Burns

Patrick Burns is a blogger and contributing writer for Deadspin, and a graduate of Texas Christian University.

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