ST. PETERSBURG — Ron Porterfield grew up wanting to be on the field. The football field, actually.
But once he got to college it didn't take much of the medical expertise he would soon accrue to realize that with his size (something less than his current 5 feet 9, 185 pounds), speed and ability, he wasn't going to last long.
"My skills ran out," said Porterfield, now the Rays' head athletic trainer "Everybody else passed me. I reached my peak. I said, 'Hey, I'm not going to make a living doing that, so what am I going to do?' "
While he earned his way into a few football games as a walk-on his first two years at New Mexico State, and then did the same with the baseball team, Porterfield was planning to get a master's degree and be a high school teacher and coach like his dad. Or maybe a physical therapist.
But in 1988 he got an internship with the Houston Astros' entry-level minor-league team in Auburn, N.Y., working as the athletic trainer — plus traveling secretary, bus driver and whatever else was needed for $1,000 a month — and he figured out exactly what he was going to do.
"It was the closest I could get to the game," said Porterfield, 48. "I never looked back."
He worked his way up with the Astros, came to Tampa Bay in December 1996, took over as head athletic trainer in 2006.
On Tuesday, Porterfield, along with pitcher Matt Moore and infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, will represent the Rays in the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York. Players and team officials are excited for him, raving regularly that Porterfield, with assistants Paul Harker and Mark Vinson (plus massage therapist Nate Leet), comprise the majors' top athletic training staff.
Though Porterfield is often seen on TV and manager Joe Maddon mentions him regularly, much of what he does is out of view: emphasizing injury prevention, demanding diligence to exercise regimens, researching new techniques and treatments.
"I've never seen anybody so dedicated to the day like Ronnie is," Maddon said. "His work ethic really exceeds most everybody I've met in this game."
"He's the best in the game," said third baseman Evan Longoria, who has reason to know. "To my career, I wish he would have meant a lot less … but he's meant a tremendous amount."
Porterfield is honored to be chosen an All-Star by his colleagues and thrilled to bring along his wife, Barbara, and teenagers Alec and Abbey on what he said is their first true family trip.
The athletic trainer's life is a hectic one, even at the big-league level: 12-plus-hour days, 24/7 availability for players and staff, extensive paperwork, offseason consultations and reviews of potential acquisitions. And all for a fraction of the salary the players make.
"If you ask my wife, there are no off days," Porterfield said.
The medical part of the job can be challenging, whether deciphering mysterious symptoms, such as with former Ray Rocco Baldelli, or racing onto the field after traumatic injuries, such as when pitcher Alex Cobb was struck by a line drive.
But the people part can be tougher.
He is working with players who always have some kind of issue, often many. Having their trust is imperative, though he also has to stand up to them at times. "You're almost like their mom sometimes," Porterfield said. "They come to you for everything from their own problems to their wife or girlfriend's problems, and some pretty private issues."
And he is working for team officials who always want answers beyond the obvious, sometimes testing his allegiances.
"You get put between a rock and a hard place, and it can get frustrating," he said. "It is a Catch-22. But my loyalty is No. 1 that I want to win."