CLEARWATER, Fla. — Baseball sounds different these days.
Bats still crack and mitts still pop, but the language at Phillies spring training has undergone a change. A bold change.
This is Camp Catchphrase, where the mottos come at you in swarms, like mosquitoes. It’s as if a Dale Carnegie course and a Six Sigma course had a genetically engineered child.
This is the language of new-age rookie manager Gabe Kapler, who introduced his overarching “Be Bold” theme when camp opened last month. He issued T-shirts and everything. Honestly, hearing the slogans over and over isn’t a bad thing, just a little off-putting. After a few days you get used to them and you realize they’re probably harmless. They might even help.
The Be Bold collocation is the foundation, though it feels as though each buzz word is delivered with a capital letter.
You won’t work out anymore; you will Log Your Reps with Intensity and Conviction. You won’t try hard; you will be Fearless. You won’t eat, you’ll Refuel. You won’t sleep, you’ll Recover. You won’t talk about your mistakes and do the little things in the hope of getting better, you will be Engaged in Conversations concerning Teaching Moments to Optimize Your Performance and extract your Value at the Margins in the quest to be Awesome and Great and Excellent; or, at least, to be the Best Version of Yourself.
Kapler, 42, spent a dozen seasons in major-league clubhouses as a player. He knows the old lingo. He believes it can foster complacency.
“Be Bold and Value at the Margins – these are ways of encouraging everyone in our clubhouse to strive for excellence,” Kapler explained last week. “We encourage our players and staff to apply this concept to everything they do, whether it’s being excellent on the bases, at the plate, on the mound, or in a conversation.”
This is how Kapler talks to everyone all the time. Really. He enunciates perfectly in his basso profundo. His eyes never leave yours. It’s like a trimmer, tanner Tony Robbins found a Phillies No. 22 jersey, hijacked the manager’s office, and hired Axel Vervoordt to design something zen-themed. Four lighted candles burn at all hours of the day. A goose-neck lamp’s five little LED pods splash light onto a poster of a Phillies World Series ring and indirectly lights the room – a room dominated by an ergonomic standup-desk and stool in one corner and, one on wall, by nine wooden panels of famous quotations from the likes of Lincoln, Einstein, and Malcolm X.
Kapler draws from the past to push the Phillies into the future.
“True original ideas — true original ideas — I don’t know how much they exist. A lot of seeds are planted subconsciously,” Kapler said. “You’ve had seeds planted subconsciously, and I have, too, based on what we’ve read, and the people who have inspired us, and our parents.”
Kapler doesn’t just have a philosophy; he’s actually philosophical. After a few days, you become inured to it, and, to be honest, maybe a little inspired, too. Mock him at your peril. Change usually breeds derision.
Two years ago, when Jeffrey Lurie reinstated Howie Roseman as general manager and hired Doug Pederson as coach, Lurie said that personnel decisions would be the result of Collaboration and that Pederson and his staff needed to have a high Emotional Intelligence. Everybody snickered. Last month, they collaborated on a Super Bowl parade, where they were very emotional, if not particularly intelligent.
The concept of new buzz words isn’t unique in Philadelphia. Chip Kelly lived and died at a high Tempo, but Pederson succeeded when he laid accountability at his players’ feet. Sam Hinkie left his Assets behind for Brett Brown and Bryan Colangelo to Process, which they are doing nicely.
With Kapler, there’s just … more. All the time. He’s Relentless in his effort to Share the Value of an Out, since Winning Starts Now.
Is it too much?
It can be, said Al Ries, a marketing consultant and author in Atlanta.
“Yes, too many slogans undermine the memorability of any one slogan,” said Ries, who has more than 40 years of experience in the field.
Kapler contends that he isn’t sending too many messages, and that repetition is vital.
“My thought process is – and this has been pretty well studied – you have to send messages a lot of times before they land. If you believe in a specific kind of language to inspire, and if you believe in a specific kind of language to educate, it doesn’t stop with saying it one time and moving on,” Kapler said. “Similar to the way we raise kids. You have to say it every single day. We use the word Relentless. You have to say it relentlessly, if you want it to land, and to sink in, and to travel.”
His bosses are delighted at Kapler’s unrelenting messaging.
“We had a pretty good sense for what we wanted, and we had a pretty good sense for what we were getting,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “You never know for sure until you actually go through a season with somebody, but this is the type of person we were hoping we were getting. He has absolutely delivered on that.”
Really, Kapler hasn’t delivered anything so far besides words and ideas, but, to be fair, that’s where Pederson and Brown started, too. Finally given the Assets, Brown improved his win total by 180 percent last season and, as of Friday, by almost 43 percent this season. Pederson won it all.
Both Pederson and Brown were speculative hires, but neither was as big a gamble as Kapler.
He managed for one season in the minors, in 2007, before he returned to play for three seasons. He scouted for the Rays from 2011 to 2013, then spent the last three years overseeing the Dodgers’ minor-league system. But he’s never been even a coach on a major-league staff.
Maybe that keeps Kapler purer for his crusade. Maybe the Phillies, stubbornly stuck in a 1990s mentality for 15 years too long, need a completely fresh approach. Step One: Hire Klentak, boy-wonder analytics whiz. Step Two: Hire a manager who speaks his language. In this case, a manager who has created his own language.
Philadelphia isn’t the only organization with a quirky skipper. Joe Madden, Dave Roberts, and A.J. Hinch each enacted a degree of Renaissance with the Cubs, Dodgers, and Astros.
It’s been six years since the Phillies had a winning season. A little rebirth is in order, no matter what words they use. Besides, does it really matter if Kapler’s postgame news conferences serve as 162 TED talks?
As long as 75 or 80 of them are delivered after Phillies wins, the Relentless messaging won’t be all that hard to hear.