Pull up a seat next to J.W. Porter, and you’re liable to hear any number of stories about the characters he’s crossed paths with over seven decades in baseball.
Like the time he challenged the world’s egg-eating champion to a contest. Or the day he pinch-hit for slugger Roger Maris and hit a home run. Or the time he shined Satchel Paige’s shoes.
One day last month at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez fell under Porter’s spell. On his way to the mound at spring training, the 21-year-old ace thought he’d pay his respects to the old man in the Detroit Tigers jacket leaning on a cane made from a baseball bat.
Fernandez, in full uniform and cleats, sat down on the bleachers next to Porter, who proceeded to ask a most unexpected question: “Do you know who Metallica is?’’
Porter, 81, pointed at a guy a few feet away wearing glasses and a Metallica T shirt and said in a soft voice, “His brother is a famous rocker.’’
Tim Newsted grinned, shook Fernandez’s hand and promptly pointed out that that’s his little brother Jason banging the opening bass lines on the song “Enter Sandman,’’ the anthem that played when pitcher Mariano Rivera would jog in from the bullpen.
By the time Fernandez’s visit ends about 10 minutes later, he has signed baseballs for Newsted, learned about the heavy metal band Metallica and gotten advice from Porter to “stay away from the ladies.’’
They make quite a team, Porter and Newsted – the old ballplayer luring Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals players over with his charm so Newsted, a self-proclaimed “baseball nerd” who once partied with the world’s biggest heavy metal band, can add to his bounty of autographs and ballplayer selfies.
“There’s a method to my madness,’’ Newsted, a 57-year-old retired teacher, said with a laugh. “I appreciate being in his presence when those players come swinging by.’’
Spend a few minutes with the pair – they’re fixtures at spring training workouts — and it’s clear that Newsted genuinely adores Porter and cherishes their unexpected friendship, which sprouted eight years ago on the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium.
Newsted was watching players practice one morning in 2006. Porter, who was working as an usher at the time, walked up and introduced himself.
They started talking baseball. As Newsted remembers, Porter eventually “claimed” that he played for the St. Louis Browns, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and St. Louis Cardinals.
“Really?’’ Newsted said, recalling his skepticism. “I had never heard of him.’’
Later that night, he got on the computer and learned that J.W. Porter – the initials don’t stand for anything — really did play baseball, 229 games at catcher, first base, third base, and outfield from 1952 to 1959 for the teams he had mentioned alongside the likes of Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson and Willie Mays.
It didn’t matter that Porter was a backup player, a career .228 hitter who batted .250 in his best season, 1957, in 58 games for the Tigers. Newsted was smitten.
After returning home to Michigan, he exchanged addresses with Porter. A few weeks later, he starting purchasing J.W. Porter baseball cards on the auction website eBay. He mailed them to Porter’s home in Palm Beach Gardens.
“Less than a week later, I had the cards back in my possession, signed and accompanied by a five-page handwritten letter from J.W,’’ Newsted said.
The two became pen-pals during the summer of 2006. The following spring they started an annual rite of hanging out together for at least a week every February or March – Newsted collecting autographs from players while Porter, a baseball Forrest Gump, spun his yarns, many repeated and some never heard before.
“Jay-dub is an absolute treasure,’’ Newsted says. “I challenge him with baseball trivia. In exchange, I get to listen to him weave old baseball tales.’’
Like the daily habit he had in his playing days of eating a dozen eggs over light for breakfast. When his Tigers teammates talked him into challenging the world’s egg-eating champion to a contest, Porter says, the champ got wind of Porter’s appetite and never showed up. “I brought the world’s egg-eating champion to his knees,’’ he says.
Or the time Porter got a standing ovation at old West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium for killing a rattlesnake with a baseball bat. The reptile had chased an opposing player across the outfield in the middle of a Florida State League game in 1970 when Porter managed the old West Palm Beach Expos.
His hitting coach that year was his former Cleveland teammate, Larry Doby, who in 1947 became the first black player in the American League and the second to follow Jackie Robinson across the color barrier.
“I was never prouder in my life,’’ Porter said about rooming with Doby in 1958 while playing with the Indians. “We used to talk all night long. He caught all kinds of hell just like Jackie did.’’
At the dawn of his baseball career, 19-year-old J.W. Porter once shined the shoes of Satchel Paige, who was pitching for the Browns in the twilight of his career. When Porter finished the shoeshine, Paige looked down at the freckled-face teen with red hair and said, “Thank you, firefly.’’
Porter still returns to St. Louis once a year to attend reunion conventions for the old Browns, a team that played its final game in 1953 before the franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.
In September, he attended a banquet in St. Louis on the 60th anniversary of the last game the Browns ever played. “There were only six of us there,’’ he quipped. “Everybody else was either dead or incapacitated.’’
Tim Newsted never played major-league baseball. But Porter is proud to have a friend who was named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year in 1994-95, retired in 2011 with 31 winning seasons as a track coach and has marched with his trumpet for the last 36 years with the Albion College alumni band in homecoming parades.
“I love this guy,’’ Porter says, “even if he is a Cubs fan.’’
And of course there are the occasional Metallica stories, which usually make Porter shake his head and snicker.
Newsted’s younger brother Jason was Metallica’s bassist from 1986 to 2001.Tim Newsted said that in his younger days, he used to follow his brother’s band around, partying backstage before and after the shows with characters like Axl Rose of Guns ‘N Roses and Sebastian Bach of Skid Row.
“That’s the cool thing about attending those concerts, I had a chance to meet all those people,’’ he says. “One of the great things about life, anyway, is getting to meet new people.’’
Porter once had dinner with Jason Newsted. But — nothing personal – Jay-dub isn’t much into that kind of music. He prefers Hank Williams.
“I was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma. They wouldn’t have allowed Metallica within 10 miles of the city limit,’’ Porter says with a laugh.
Newsted says, “My friend Jay-dub values his hearing too much!”
A procession of Marlins players – past and present – pay their respects as they walk past the bleachers where Porter is sitting. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia shakes Porter’s hand and talks a few moments, one catcher to another.
Wayne Rosenthal, a minor-league coach, calls Porter “sir.’’ Marlins television broadcaster Tommy Hutton, a retired player, remarks that he and Porter once played against each other in the Texas League in 1966.
As Porter talks to the players and coaches, Newsted politely interrupts to collect a quick autograph.
Then, along comes Fernandez, the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year. He talks briefly with Porter then announces he has “to go back to work.’’
“Not only is he the best young pitcher in the game,’’ Porter says, “he might be the best pitcher.’’
Fernandez, who has started to walk away, spins around. “You think so?’’
He sits back down next to Porter, who talks to the Marlins pitcher for nearly 10 minutes about topics ranging from Tigers ace Justin Verlander to the old Philadelphia singer Kate Smith to the rock band Metallica.
At one point, Newsted interrupts and hands the pitcher a yellow bass guitar pick with “Jason” on one side and “Newsted” on the other.
Porter tells Fernandez, who escaped from Cuba on a small boat a few years ago before the Marlins signed him, “They’re going to make a movie about you.’’
“You think?’’ Fernandez replies.
“If you win 30 games a couple of times. Denny McLain did it.’’
Fernandez throws his head back and laughs. “I don’t know if they’ll let me make 30 starts.’’
Before Fernandez leaves, Porter offers one last piece of advice. “You have a lot of fans, so take care yourself, on and off the field.’’
“All right, sir. Nice talking to you,’’ Fernandez says.
“Oh, you’ve got to watch out for the young ladies,’’ Porter says. “That was one of my big troubles. I’m probably not in the Hall of Fame today because of’’ – a brief but dramatic pause – “pretty ladies.’’
As Fernandez finally turns to leave, he is stopped again by a fan.
“Jose,’’ Newsted says, handing his camera to someone, “’Do you mind if I get our picture together?’”