By: Mark Vinson, MEd, ATC, CSCS, Assistant Athletic Trainer, Tampa Bay Rays
On Opening Day 2018, as players and coaches take the field for the first time in the new season, one notable face will be missing from the Tampa Bay Rays’ baseline. For the first time since 2003, Ron Porterfield will not take his place alongside the players he developed, trained and even helped lead to the 2008 World Series. This past fall, Porterfield was named as the new director of player health for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a newly created position to which he will bring more than 30 years of experience working with current and future Hall of Famers, and also molding and adapting to the ever-changing role of athletic trainers in Major League Baseball.
Porterfield began his career in baseball in 1987, just one semester shy of completing his undergraduate degree at New Mexico State University, when the Houston Astros offered him a summer position as an athletic trainer with its short-season affiliate in Albany, NY. “Back then, because teams did not require athletic trainers to be certified, I was able to join the team prior to graduating,” he said. “That first year, I had to petition my professors to allow me to take my spring exams early and also get their permission to start the fall semester late, after the minor-league season had finished.”
Porterfield graduated with his bachelor’s degree that December, and while he had planned to attend physical therapy or graduate school, another call from the Astros changed his course, starting him in a full-time position with the club—one that carried a $9,000 salary. Over the next 10 years, he worked his way up the Astros farm system to the AAA level. In 1997, he received a call from Jamie Reed and Ken Crenshaw with the newly formed expansion team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, asking him to join the franchise as minor league medical coordinator.
As would be expected, there were numerous growing pains in building a major league franchise with only minor league players, but the opportunity to help build a medical program from the ground up was tremendously rewarding for Porterfield. In 2003, he was promoted to the major leagues as the Rays’ assistant athletic trainer, and again in 2006 to head athletic trainer—a title he held for the remainder of his tenure with the team.
Perhaps the two greatest accolades Porterfield received during this time with the Rays were being named Baseball Operations Employee of the Year in recognition of his remarkable work to help transform the team from worst to first and earning them a World Series appearance in 2008. Prior to that year, the Rays had never even had a winning record. And, in 2013, Porterfield was named to the American League All-Star team as an athletic trainer.
Porterfield’s infectious energy and tireless work ethic are matched by his invaluable experiences and stories from his journeys throughout virtually every level of professional baseball. He is an important link to the days when athletic trainersd served a multitude of roles for the organization— even more than today. He vividly recalls the days in Auburn when he would be responsible for driving the team to away games in a school bus, in addition to handling team laundry and equipment duties.
He has also worked through the significant changes to the administrative roles of minor league athletic trainers, primarily in terms of record keeping. Today, all major and minor league player medical records are required to be kept in a league-wide, web-based database. While injury-tracking software has evolved within the last two decades, Porterfield came up in an age when access to computers was not a given. “When I first started, we would send in handwritten reports through the mail every two weeks, then it progressed to where we would fax in reports,” Porterfield remembers. Fast forward to today when cell phones are a primary mode of communication. “Athletic trainers are truly on call now 24/7.”
While he wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything, taking a step back from the everyday, intense player involvement will be a welcomed change in his new role with the Dodgers. “I will miss some parts about not being in the dugout, but at the same time, I will not miss the stress that comes with being a head athletic trainer—having to sit in the dugout and know every little ache and pain that each player is dealing with behind the scenes and holding your breath when a player has to try to beat out a close play at first, for example.”
For the Santa Fe, NM native, the new role is an opportunity to move back closer to home and family. Porterfield will be based out of the team’s Spring Training facility at Camelback Ranch in Arizona. His new responsibilities will be to oversee and provide support for the Dodgers’ major league and minor league athletic training staffs, as well as handle various administrative duties within the department.
And while the new role is a long way, literally and figuratively, from the days of driving buses or hauling laundry, the Dodgers should expect the same energy and work ethic that got Porterfield to where he is today. Can the Dodgers get back to the World Series in 2018? Let’s see what he has to say about it.