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INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Anti-Stat Fans Squawk, but Porter Still Talks the Talk

August 17, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

The Numbers Man lugs a dusty black suitcase into a room the size of a walk-in closet, stone walls on three sides, a thick blue curtain covering the fourth, the loneliest spot in Dodger Stadium.

The only decoration is a framed poster advertising a videocassette narrated by the great Vin Scully. The Numbers Man doesn't notice. He is alone, and he has a radio show to do.

The Numbers Man opens a suitcase that looks like the inside of a roadside wastebasket. Papers are stuffed everywhere. They bulge out the sides, falling to the floor.

He has been up since 4 a.m. collecting these papers, filling them with notes on a manual typewriter, underlining with a yellow marker.

He shuffles a bunch on a desk, pushes a button, speaks into a microphone.

"Good afternoon everyone, this is Ross Porter on 'Dodger Talk.' . . . "

He smiles. This is his chance. Once or twice a day, five days a week during the baseball season, this KABC talk show is his opportunity to fight back.

This is the time the oft-criticized Dodger announcer can rip the fans who rip him for using too many statistics. Ridicule those who blame him for not being Scully. Attack those who . . .

Porter takes off his headset and shrugs.

"Now why would I do something like that?" he says.

So he doesn't, darn it.

They wound him with needles, he kills them with kindness.

His first caller on the hourlong postgame "Dodger Talk" wonders about the identity of the fifth pitcher in the San Francisco Giants' 1978 rotation.

It is totally off the subject. The man should be totally off the air.

Porter thanks him for calling and promises to find that name.

The second caller wants to know where the Dodgers hang their retired numbers. In one sentence, Porter does two things some announcers have never done in their lives.

He apologizes and admits he doesn't know.

Next up, an incoming fax from a woman obviously too embarrassed to call with this question:

"What is meant by the phrases, 'Pulling the ball' and 'Going the other way?' "

C'mon, Numbers Man. This is a sophisticated baseball town. That is a sophomoric question. How can you read that on the air?

Porter thanks the woman for the fax, and spends the next minute calmly answering it.

An hour later, the Numbers Man is still smiling, and now you know why.

This is his chance to show people he is not one of those stereotypical defensive announcers who rips critics and rationalizes mistakes.

This is a chance for people to see that the Numbers Man is not just another number.

"My ego doesn't need to do that sort of thing," Porter says. "A lot of people who call here are scared or nervous or think their question is dumb. I know what that feels like. Why be mean? What purpose does it serve?"

But, he is asked, don't you hear all the mumbling about your constant use of statistics during games? Doesn't that bother you?

It would, he says, except sometimes the criticism is warranted.

Yes, that's what he says.

"I do so much preparation and research, I want to share that with the listener," he says. "But I'll admit, sometimes it's to the point where I use too much."

He is asked, does he try to change?

"Sure I do," he says. "I'll cut back. Then I receive faxes from people who say they liked me the way I was.

"Somebody once said, 'Statistics are the soul of baseball.' I guess I agree with that. But I try to cut back, I do."

Isn't it difficult being teamed with, and compared to, Scully?

"Absolutely not," he says. "Vinny is the best announcer, ever. Night after night, it is my privilege to work with him, sit with him, listen to him."

After 30 minutes of these questions, it is obvious that there will be no flames here, no spice, no scoop.

Ross Porter is who he is.

He is a 58-year-old grandfather from a small town in Oklahoma who loved baseball so much he was broadcasting Class-D games when he was 14.

He studies and reads and takes notes as if he were still that kid, and excitedly reads the stuff over the air, and maybe it's too much, and maybe he knows it, but to do anything else would be dishonest.

He will never captivate like Scully, who is indeed the best ever. But he will never embarrass, will always inform, and his four grandchildren love their middle-aged playmate so much they kiss the screen when he is on TV.

The bottom line on the Numbers Man is this: He is easy to criticize, but impossible to dislike.

The Dodgers, correctly figuring that sort of thing evens out, recently added three years to his contract.

Some of you out there are screaming. As soon as you calm down, Ross Porter will tell you how long you screamed, where you rank among other screamers, and to have a great day.

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