Evan Porter Brings Perspective Of Baseball Nomad To Nebraska-Omaha
It’s July 11, 2016, and Evan Porter has just been named the interim head coach at Nebraska-Omaha, where he played and had spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach.
Porter was excited for the opportunity and wanted to hit the ground running, but first, he had business to take care of in Europe, where he was in the middle of his third stint playing professionally for a team based in Sweden.
“I was in Solvesborg again that summer, and about halfway through that season is when I got the call from Trev Alberts, our athletic director,” Porter said. “He said he was making a change with our coach at UNO and asked if I’d take over the helm. So, I had to take that opportunity, and I think about a month later, I was back on a plane back to Omaha.”
That stop was the last in Porter’s long, winding professional baseball journey that started in a place where baseball is very much a part of the local culture, Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series, and ended in a place where baseball is a mere curiosity in the sporting landscape.
In between, it took him from emerging baseball nations, like Germany, to places like Australia and the Netherlands, where there is ample history of the game being played at a high level.
With baseball in America shut down for the time being due to the coronavirus pandemic, fans across the country are turning their attention to overseas leagues, most notably Taiwan’s CPBL and South Korea’s KBO, like never before. To many baseball fans, this might seem like an exploration of baseball far away from the traditional limelight. Porter’s experience, however, took him even deeper into the baseball wilderness.
In one sense, Porter began his baseball walkabout because he had no choice. After one season playing for short-season Williamsport in the Phillies organization, he was released during spring training in 2010. For any player released out of the low minors, options are limited.
An agent can make calls to try to get you placed with another MLB organization, but more likely, you’re going to have to find somewhere else to play to prove yourself, and that’s what Porter was doing.
In another sense, Porter made the decision to take his talents abroad less out of a lack of options and more because it was the right choice for his situation. He weighed his options on home soil, measured that against his goals for his playing career, and decided to take the route that allowed him to continue playing and provided life experiences he wouldn’t be able to get staying home.
“Basically, the decision came down to, ‘Do I want to try to keep competing at the highest level and get back into affiliated baseball or do I want to move on from that route and go see the world?’” Porter said. “I just wanted to go travel at that point, had some avenues that some teams were willing to pay for flights, lodging, meals, all that, so once I knew I was going to be okay financially at least, for some of the basic necessities, I was all in on going to Europe, Australia and all those places.”
It helped Porter’s prospects overseas that he could play shortstop. Typically, domestic leagues in other nations limit the number of “imports,” as non-native players are known, a team can have in order to maintain competitive balance and increase opportunities for local players. Teams have to use that handful of roster spots wisely, and that often means using them for high-impact positions like shortstop and pitcher.
As it turns out, right as he was looking for a landing spot, a team in Germany happened to be looking for a shortstop. So Porter took off for Solingen, Germany, located in the Northwest region of the country between Dusseldorf and Cologne.
It was during this particular stop that Porter got a lesson in just how different things could be on this journey, and it had nothing to do with baseball.
“Right when I got there, within the first week, our practice got canceled because they were constructing a building right next to our ballpark and the construction crew found a bomb from World War II that they didn’t know if it was active or not, so they had to send in a bomb squad there,” Porter said. “I was kind of freaking out about it, and all my German teammates were like, ‘Nah, that’s pretty common, it happens whenever there’s construction.’ ”
Porter’s performance in Germany gave him the opportunity to be a little bit picky with his next stop, to the point that he was able to shop himself around as a package deal along with friend Brian Strawn, who was a college teammate and now serves as the pitching coach at Nebraska-Omaha.
They found a taker in the Gothenburg Sharks of the Swedish Eliteserien, and that summer, Porter set the league on fire, hitting .561 with just three strikeouts in 147 at-bats. After coming home to Omaha for a week, he was off to his next stop in Australia, where the flipped meteorological seasons meant that they were just about to get their season underway.
In Perth, which was Porter’s favorite stop in his journey, he lived more like a native Australian and less like a pro baseball player, but that was largely the point.
“That was my favorite place, just an unbelievable experience,” Porter said. “I got my work visa, so I was working in a locomotive manufacturing warehouse pretty much every day. Then off to practice after work, then catch a sunset on the beach, then play once in the midweek and then a couple of times on the weekend.”
From there, a connection helped land Porter with SV ADO in the Dutch Hoofdklasse, perhaps the most competitive league on the European continent. That time in the Netherlands helped Porter accomplish a big picture goal for his career in baseball.
Playing in affiliated baseball in the U.S. would have given Porter the opportunity to work toward breaking into the big leagues, but his time playing in the Netherlands, home to talented players, particularly from the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curacao, and plenty of baseball history, scratched the competitive itch in a way not unlike what he might have experienced playing in the minor leagues stateside.
“Holland and Italy are kind of the top destinations for level of play in Europe, so I really wanted to try to do that,” Porter said. “Thankfully I had a connection to get into Holland, and I played in a city called The Hague.
“Holland had more depth to it, and there are a lot more guys from the Dutch colonies that were affiliated (with an MLB club) at one point or had a pretty good career, whether it be in America or somewhere else. A lot of those guys have gone to America to play in junior college or four-year (college), so there’s much more consistent talent in Holland than the other places.”
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After his season in the Netherlands, Porter joined the coaching staff at his alma mater, and that set him on the course to receive the call to become the program’s head coach in 2016, while spending the summer in Sweden on what turned out to be one final tour of leagues overseas.
Today, he serves as something of an advocate for following the path that he did, pushing his players to consider it a viable option for continuing to play the game beyond college.
Some have already taken him up on that. Outfielders Thomas DeBonville and Ben Palensky, both key pieces of the Mavericks’ 2019 regional team, spent this past winter playing in Australia with Perth and Melbourne, respectively. Catcher Collin Leif and lefthander Sam Murphy, who played for Porter earlier in his time with the program, also played in Perth last season after spending two previous summers playing in Austria.
Porter also thinks there is a benefit to being a young coach who goes back overseas to play during the summer early in his coaching career, just like he did, although his situation was admittedly unique.
His predecessor and former coach during his college playing days, Bob Herold, allowed him to go back to Sweden for the summer twice during his time as an assistant in the program. Porter didn’t leave until the spring season was over and was back in time for fall practice, but not every coach in the country would allow an assistant to miss out on recruiting in the summer to play baseball overseas.
Porter understands that limitation and that his circumstances were fortuitous, but he sees the big-picture benefit for the coaches outweighing the short-term inconvenience for the program. He looks at it as a great way for one to develop as a coach, and perhaps more importantly, as a person. And those aren’t just empty words. Recently, he helped a member of his staff pursue a playing opportunity overseas, even if it ended up falling through in the end.
“I’d much prefer a coach go be able to do that and have the opportunity I had over a summer if that’s possible,” Porter said.
Logistics will always be an issue for those individuals who want to pursue an overseas opportunity while on staff, but Porter was able to make it work with Swedish clubs who were playing condensed schedules over just a few months and suggests others try to find chances to do the same.
“If there’s one thing I can encourage any player or guy that’s still playing that’s coaching now (to do), it’s go do that, because it’s really an incomparable experience,” he said.
College baseball coaches often talk about wanting to help provide experiences and guidance for their players and their younger coaches, as much in life as in baseball. They want the individual to see the bigger picture and focus on what’s really important in life, including making connections that playing sports uniquely provides.
Porter is no different, and he understands the value more than most because he’s lived it.
“There was a lot of cultural shock to me that (first) year, but I loved it and I’m so glad that I chose to do that, and I think it was one of the best decisions I have made professionally in my career, just because it allowed me to meet different people from around the world and be in different cultures,” Porter said. “That’s what we tell our current team. The best part about baseball is the relationships you make, and I’m fortunate enough to have relationships all around the world.”