Gabe Kapler's only season as a manager gave hints for how he will lead Phillies

New Phillies manager Gabe Kapler in charge of the minor league Greenville Drive back in 2007.

It was another batting practice, another hot afternoon in a South Carolina or Georgia baseball outpost — the details are jumbled a decade later — when 31-year-old manager Gabe Kapler detonated. His shortstop looked apathetic. The whole Greenville Drive team, the low-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, dragged. This was not acceptable.

So Kapler, months into his retirement that carried him from the American League to the South Atlantic League, paused batting practice. He grabbed a glove. He darted to shortstop.

“It was unbelievable,” pitcher T.J. Large said. “I’m standing in left field, watching Gabe Kapler diving at shortstop for balls in batting practice. This is incredible.”

You only know how much range you have, Kapler yelled, if you practice it.

Camera icon TOM PRIDDY / Greenvillle Drive
Gabe Kapler managed the Greenville Drive in 2007.  Photo courtesy of the Greenville Drive.

“We just thought he was joking around,” infielder Mike Chambers said. “He was diving. He was laying out, going crazy. He gets off the field sweating. We were all laughing. We thought he was just having fun.”

He was not. He screamed at his players in the clubhouse. They did not know what work was, what it took for a 57th-round pick to push himself to the majors. There should be a purpose, he told them, in everything they do.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Chambers, now the head coach at Franklin Pierce University. “Here we were, these young guys, thinking we have it all figured out. He put us right in our place in a way that you don’t see a lot at that level.”

Kapler comes to the Phillies as an unknown; his sole experience as a manager or coach was in 2007, with Greenville, that served as a gap year between stages of his playing career. His players from that team portrayed a manager unlike any they encountered in their professional careers — a manager who mesmerized them in the weight room, who formed deep connections with them through late-night motel talks or private breakfasts, whose intensity spilled into postgame hacks in the batting cage or sprints around the ballpark.

It’s been 10 years since then, and a major-league clubhouse is a far different place from one in the South Atlantic League, where most of the players had never played a full season as a professional. Kapler has changed. The game has changed.

“One thing about Gabe Kapler that is pretty prevalent is that he can command a room,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “He has that presence. He has opinions.”

In Greenville, there are decade-old hints to how Kapler will approach his new job.

“The level of focus he brought into it — now I’m an attorney and I see that kind of focus more in the professional setting,” Jon Still, a Greenville catcher, said. “Gabe had a good time with it, but you could tell it was a job first. He had a good dedication and focus toward his job. He took it extremely serious. We, as players, appreciated it. There were times he made mistakes as a manager. But you knew he did the best he could and there was a lot of thought into everything he did.”

Challenging his players

Start in the weight room because everyone from the 2007 Greenville Drive has a Gabe Kapler workout story. Like the time they were on the road, maybe in Hickory, N.C., and Kapler joined a pregame session with his players. The manager grabbed a 50-pound dumbbell, outfielder Matt Sheely said, and put it between his legs.

“We sat there and counted,” Sheely said. “He did 50 pull-ups with a 50-pound dumbbell between his legs. We were all like, ‘Holy crap.’ I don’t care who you are. Oh my goodness.”

Or when Still, a fourth-round pick who was 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, realized his manager had topped him.

“I thought I was lifting a bunch of weights,” Still said. “I look over and, of course, Kapler is curling 20 more pounds than I was on each arm. Wow, that’s pretty embarrassing when the manager is in better shape than you are.”

Or when Chambers, 6-foot and 175 pounds, attempted to wrestle his manager.

“He threw me into a fence about five feet away,” Chambers said. “I wanted to see if those muscles were real. And he pummeled me. What a realization it was that a person could be that much stronger than me. It was like I was a child.”

But Travis Beazley, a starting pitcher from that team, remembered how Kapler used the morning workouts as moments to connect. Kapler challenged his players to think about how they prepared, how they ate, and —  how they thought. It was easier for the manager to reach them because he was right there, alongside them, lifting.

Beazley played in the Red Sox system for four seasons. Kapler, he said, took an interest in his players more than any other manager he knew.

“It was little things like that, at the time you don’t really think too much about,” said Beazley, now an assistant coach at Lynchburg College. “But when you look back, it wasn’t just about the time at the ball field. It wasn’t just about the game. He really invested a lot of time and energy. He cared for the young guys.”

The college players on Kapler’s team gravitated toward him because his style reminded them of what they knew. Lars Anderson, an outfielder, went to Kapler as an 18th-round pick from a high school outside Sacramento, Calif.

“I was in an entirely new world and knew very little in retrospect,” Anderson said in an email. “He helped tremendously.”

Anderson was 19. Kapler took an interest in Anderson because he was cerebral. The manager challenged his ideas. They developed a bond. Kapler once gave  Anderson a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and wrote on the inside cover: “This might make you want to thank your parents.”

“And,” Anderson said, “he was right.”

Anderson played 30 games in the majors. He spent 2017 with an independent  team in Japan.

“What stood out now that I’ve had dozens of managers to observe was how engaging and seemingly interested he was,” Anderson said. “He wanted to know who we were as human beings and what our off-the-field life and interests were. I would talk to him for hours about music, traveling, politics, etc. That was so huge for me and I’ve missed that at times in my career — it’s not common to interact with a manager like that.”

Camera icon TOM PRIDDY / Greenvillle Drive
Greenville outfielder Lars Anderson on Kapler: “I would talk to him for hours about music, traveling, politics, etc. … it’s not common to interact with a manager like that.”

Early into sabermetrics

The 2007 Greenville Drive were not a particularly good team. They won 58 and lost 81. They allowed a league-worst 818 runs; the pitching staff was buttressed late in the season with numerous signings from independent ball. The Drive had the youngest group of position players in the league and scored at the league average.

The roster featured nine future big-leaguers, ranging from Josh Reddick and Daniel Bard to Dustin Richardson and Argenis Diaz. Greenville, S.C., is a city of about 60,000 located between Atlanta and Charlotte, and the birthplace of Shoeless Joe Jackson. They averaged 4,883 fans per game in 2007. A few thousand greeted Kapler that February at the Haywood Mall.

Kapler encouraged his players to be aggressive but selective. Greenville ranked second in the league in walks. One early sabermetric principle that began to permeate forward-thinking front offices around that time was evident in Kapler’s managerial style. Greenville recorded eight sacrifice bunts, the fewest in the league and half as few as the next closest team. Those eight bunts were the second-fewest among all full-season, minor-league teams in 2007.

The whole thing was unusual, even by the odd standards that govern minor-league baseball.

“Him just being removed from a player career, you could tell at times he was taking it a little harder than most minor-league managers would,” said Eric Jarinko, now the Greenville general manager. “He wanted to win every game.”

His players remembered how he relieved stress before and after games by taking swings in the cage or lifting again in the weight room. He had postgame reports to file every night, and Jarinko said it was not uncommon to hear Kapler hitting baseballs after midnight.

“When he was angry after games, he just started running around the block of the stadium,” Sheely, the outfielder, said. “It’s downtown Greenville. It looked like a full-blown sprint. It was so intimidating. You have this massive human being out at like 10 or 11 o’clock at night just striding like a madman.”

“I like to joke,” Beazley said, “that he managed us for one year and realized we were either so bad or that he was still so good that he decided to go back and play.”

Or the minor-league style just did not suit him. Kapler would bring his own organic eggs and organic peanut butter and organic whatever on the road with him. It was difficult to trust the options at rest stops and budget hotels across the South Atlantic League.

“He was so into health,” Still said. “He’s addicted to ice cream. So he would sit there and lick ice cream but have a cup and spit it into it. He would lick it just for the taste but didn’t want to eat it. I told him, ‘Dude, that’s like Unabomber type stuff.’ That’s a thing he did.”

‘Everything he does to the extreme’

The intensity, his players said, had a purpose. It may have alienated some, but it united others.

“Everything he does to the extreme,” said Large, who now works in player development for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “He wants to see how far he can go in anything. He challenges you in all aspects of the game. He was always preaching, ‘Protect your teammates.’ ”

There was a hard play at second base in one game, the opposing runner sliding into the Greenville second baseman. “Hey,” Kapler told his dugout, “you saw what happened. Let’s go.” Large hit the offending player with a pitch later in the game. He returned to the dugout. Kapler summoned him.

“We go in the tunnel and he slaps me on the chest and on the back and gives me the greatest dad-hug,” Large said. “I get in the shower and the guys just start laughing. I have a handprint on my back.

“He was just so excited. But those are the things that are important. When you have a manager or coach, if you feel that they’re proud of you, that’s an emotion that is not really given in the game as much as it probably should be.”

That is what Greenville taught Kapler.

“The most important lesson I learned was how to be emotional with the players from time to time,” Kapler said earlier this month. “I had made a pact with myself that I was going to be very calm and rational in the dugout. What I found was that the players wanted me to be a little bit emotional with them. I made that transition as we went through the season. By the middle of the season, I was picking and choosing at times when to be strategically emotional with them. It was a really valuable lesson.”

Can his approach from Greenville work in the majors?

“It’s hard to even speculate because it was so long ago and both he and the game have evolved since then,” Anderson said. “That being said, we had a lot of freedom in Greenville and I think that translates well to the big leagues, considering the amount of money and egos involved.  Being a hardass with a lot of rules seems to be a thing of the past.”

Years later, the private moments with Kapler are what stick with the Greenville players. Chambers was at the end of his playing career; Kapler sensed his frustration, so they went to breakfast to talk about life. Anderson loved the debates and how Kapler demanded his players research and provide evidence to support their stances. Large recalled late nights on the road in Kapler’s room spent talking baseball. Sheely connected with Kapler based on their shared junior-college path.

“He was probably the best manager I ever played for,” Sheely said. “The intensity that he brought to each conversation and his ability to communicate, it brought out the best for me.”

“I look back at my career, that was probably the best season I had,” Still said. “A lot of that is because every day you showed up to the field, you tried to live up to what Gabe was doing.”

Beazley, the pitcher, said he was not that close with Kapler. He was a 38th-round pick from a Division III school. He signed for $1,000. He was promoted to high A in July despite a 5.22 ERA.

The same agency that represented Kapler called Beazley soon after his promotion. They wanted to represent him. Beazley, a 6-foot righthander who threw between 88 and 92 mph, did not have an agent. There was nothing remarkable about him as a player.

“It was, essentially, 100 percent because of Kap,” Beazley said. “He put in a call for me. Unprompted. He never said one word to me about it.”

That, 10 years later, still resonated with Beazley.

“There would be moments where you knew he was fully invested in what you were doing,” Beazley said. “He would come up to you and talk about things and you’re like, ‘Man, he noticed that?’ “