KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The second day of workouts was nearly over for the Astros pitchers and catchers when manager Bo Porter gathered them around the diamond on a back field at Osceola County Stadium on Wednesday for a quick lesson.
Porter was neither a pitcher nor a catcher, but as the manager of one of the youngest teams in baseball, the skipper wasn't about to let a teachable moment go by the wayside. With about three dozen players watching his every move, Porter demonstratively told them to keep their cool if they fumble a grounder.
"Once you boot the ball, don't panic. Pick it up, make eye contact and make a good throw," Porter said. "Do not panic!"
Watching the first few days of Porter's first Spring Training camp as manager, there's no question about the passion and determination of the man in charge. He strolls the back fields with authority, sometimes playing the role of drill instructor, while keeping things loose.
Following Tuesday's workout, the former University of Iowa football defensive back got down in a crouch and challenged pitcher Lucas Harrell to try to get separation from him. Harrell laughed off the challenge, but you get the idea Porter wasn't completely joking.
It's all part of changing the atmosphere around an Astros team that has lost 213 games in the past two years as it prepares to make the move to the American League West -- baseball's toughest division. The Astros might not have as much talent as many other clubs, but Porter wants them to be more disciplined and better prepared than anyone.
"We're going to put an emphasis on fundamentals and doing things the right way," he said. "When you talk about the game of baseball, the best chance you have of winning each and every night is to execute the fundamentals properly. If we're going to get beat, we'll get beat because the other team is just better than us that day. You don't want to beat yourself."
Just stepping into the clubhouse on the first day of camp was enough to see the changes. The clubhouse had been painted in the Astros' new blue and orange color scheme, and motivational messages were placed on nearly every wall. The players who have been around for back-to-back last-place finishes are completely on board with the culture change.
|"We're going to put an emphasis on fundamentals and doing things the right way. When you talk about the game of baseball, the best chance you have of winning each and every night is to execute the fundamentals properly. If we're going to get beat, we'll get beat because the other team is just better than us that day. You don't want to beat yourself."|
|-- Astros manager Bo Porter|
"I think it's great," catcher Jason Castro said. "I think his energy and enthusiasm at this stage in camp is exactly what we need. He has all the qualities of a great leader, and it makes everyone want to follow and kind of try to take pieces of that and apply it to themselves. He's someone that will be a huge part of this rebuilding process, and I'm excited to be a part of it."
Relief pitcher Wesley Wright, currently the longest-tenured member of the team, is a big sports fan who keeps up with football. He can already sense Porter's football background seeping through the walls of the baseball clubhouse when it comes to aggression and energy.
"His football background has been a big influence on how he goes about baseball, which is different," Wright said. "He's very prepared, and he likes to be prepared to the point nothing surprises him. He brings a passion and an aggression that you don't see a lot in baseball, and I think that's good. We're a young team, and I think we can handle all types of aggression. It's been fun so far."
One of the biggest myths about baseball, Porter said, is that it's a laid-back game. It's more about nine guys standing around for three hours, waiting for a fly ball in the outfield or standing on base and waiting for a hit.
"There are certain times when your energy level, your enthusiasm, your focus will play a major factor in your ability to accomplish the task at hand," Porter said. "When you talk about the laid-back side of baseball, I think it's because a lot of that has to do with the mental preparation before you actually get into the act. It's controlled aggression. I know that my passion, my desire, it helps along the lines of attention to detail, understanding the sense of urgency. You learn that in football."
Former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry is one of Porter's biggest mentors, a list that includes current and former baseball managers Frank Robinson, Dusty Baker, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Fredi Gonzalez, Davey Johnson and Jim Riggleman. Porter has prepared himself to be a manager for his entire career, soaking up as much knowledge as he could from everyone who crossed his path.
"I was always curious to know the ins and outs of the game," Porter said. "That led to several question-and-answer sessions with the manager that was managing my ballclub, with the coaches who I had relationships with. ... If you open your mind and pay attention to what's going on, you're able to put yourself in that position and say to yourself, 'This is what I could do in a given situation.'"
And it always comes back to fundamentals -- throwing to the proper base, hitting the cutoff man, going from first to third when the outfielder is playing deep. Porter bristles at calling those "the little things," wondering how they can be considered little if they can cost your team a game.
Astros players walk around wearing undershirts that say, "27 outs. No more." It's a statement that stresses the importance of making every play and not giving the opposition extra outs.
"When it happens in a ballgame and it causes you to run out of innings, they say that was the biggest play of the game," Porter said. "How can it be little in the preparation but major or big when it doesn't go well? Everything matters. All the fine details. It all matters."
Still, there are going to be growing pains. There are going to be failed hit-and-run attempts and players who get picked off first base when they can't read a pitcher's pickoff move. It's all part of a young team learning from its mistakes and growing up. It's all part of learning how to win.
"With young players, a lot of times comes growing pains," he said. "These guys have played at a high level in high school and college and the Minor Leagues, and you get to the big leagues and obviously this is the highest level of baseball you're going to play. Some of these guys may be dealing with failure for the first time.
"One of the biggest challenges for us as a staff is to be able to give them confidence that's needed to go out each and every day and continue to fight, even though there may be some adversity in their way."
In other words, he never wants his players to panic.
"You're never caught guessing or looking around with Porter," Wright said. "I like the vision he has and where we're headed."