CLEARWATER, Fla. – Seven televisions flashed the same message five weeks ago when the Phillies entered a downtown Clearwater restaurant on the eve of spring training.
The Phillies were there for an introductory dinner, and the invitations — from manager Gabe Kapler — told the players and staff to wear whatever made them “feel confident.” Most paired nice jeans with dress shirts. Others wore polos. One felt confident in a pair of cargo shorts. Kapler wore a tailored suit.
The manager adopted those two words — Be Bold — as his mantra after being hired last October. Kapler, who can double as a motivational speaker, told his players that night that they would play with conviction and intent. They would bring intensity and a fearless attitude. And the clubhouse would be a place where the players could feel free to be themselves. That’s what it means, Kapler said, to be bold.
Then those seven TV screens flashed a video.
“Hey, this message is for the Phillies,” a voice boomed from the screen.
It was Justin Timberlake, the pop music star. If all those in that restaurant were not already aware that this season would be different, they were now. The Phillies, for the first time in franchise history, were beginning their season by being addressed by a Grammy winner. Timberlake carried a familiar message.
“Be bold,” he said.
A new season, the first under perhaps the most interesting manager in team history, was ready to begin.
The clubhouse culture Kapler aimed to build this spring — one that “appreciates diversity” — can be traced to a three-bedroom rancher in the heart of California’s San Fernando Valley. It was there that Kapler was raised by two Brooklyn-born parents who moved across the country in the 1970s. Michael and Judy Kapler are both educators and political activists.
Kapler grew up in a middle-class section of Reseda, 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. His parents did not impose a curfew, instead pushing their son to become independent. They welcomed friends into their house from all different walks of life — “very, very poor and friends who had money,” Kapler said — as they taught their son to “celebrate diversity.”
“The one thing that was completely unacceptable in our home was anything that took a group of people and put them in a box,” Kapler said. “Anything racially charged, anything that related to gender. No stereotypes. My dad would be really upset if a joke like that was made. He really took it to heart.”
Michael Kapler was a piano teacher and a descriptive storyteller. His son marveled at the adventures his father had exploring the country, train-hopping from town to town. Judy Kapler is an early-childhood specialist and an expert communicator. Kapler loved listening to his mother navigate phone conversations. It is easy to see each of his parent’s traits — a zest for life and ability to deliver a message — reflected in the new Phillies manager.
Kapler’s father marched in the civil rights movement and his parents were in the crowd for a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., whose picture hangs in Kapler’s office alongside those of other historical figures. One of Kapler’s earliest memories is of his father’s pulling over the car to spray-paint a political message on a freeway overpass. He was pretty bold, Kapler said.
“He encouraged questioning authority,” Kapler said. “Not falling into line because there was an authoritative figure. A police officer. A religious figure. A teacher. A political leader. Don’t blindly follow because they tell you to do something. That was never a message in my home. It was the opposite. Ask questions and challenge.”
Kapler carried his parent’s messages to Clearwater. He added diversity to his office’s collage of inspirational figures by hanging a portrait of Venezuelan hero Simon Bolivar, giving the team’s Spanish speakers a familiar figure. His camp had few rules, putting the pressure on the players to be independent. And he welcomed their questioning. Don’t simply follow the manager’s or pitching coach’s instructions because they told you something, Kapler said.
“If you don’t understand, then I messed up. If you don’t agree, I want us to talk it out,” Kapler said. “I want us to challenge each other. I don’t see the coaches up here and the players down here. I see us on equal footing. I think our players are very smart. I have a high level of respect for them.”
Kapler played the final two seasons of his career for Joe Maddon, who placed a similar emphasis on culture-building and freedom of expression as he guided the Rays and Cubs to the World Series. He told Kapler to be himself and embrace being different. It was a similar message, Kapler said, to what his father would tell him: You won’t do well if you try to be like everyone else. Kapler said he doesn’t want to be a robot. He wants to be himself. And he has not shied away from it.
He uses his iPhone to snap photos and videos of his players, hoping they will use them for inspiration. He fills the hallway outside his office with music from a Bluetooth speaker and squares off against players in clubhouse ping-pong games. He works behind a standing desk in a candle-lit office and is the first Phillies manager to see the game through a pair of reflective aviator sunglasses. Kapler has been himself and he wants his players to feel the same way.
“Some of the players in our clubhouse are very colorful figures,” Kapler said. “We want them to be bold in their expression and feel good about who they are. No one feels good when you’re trying to hide something that wants to come out of you. Think about Odubel Herrera. He’s really bright and vibrant. Why on Earth would we not want that to be there all the time? It makes everything more flavorful. I can’t imagine it would be advantageous to do the opposite. ‘Hey, don’t be you.’ It just doesn’t work.”
The Phillies left that Clearwater restaurant and began five weeks of spring training the next morning. Each locker contained a new red shirt with “Be Bold” emblazoned across the chest. Camp had instructions and drills, but it also had ways to break the monotony. There was a talent show and a ping-pong tournament. A boxing champ, a professional wrestling star, and an Eagles Super Bowl hero spoke to the team. Kapler’s spring training brought a different energy. It seemed relaxed and open. A sense of optimism — one that believes winning is near — followed the team to Atlanta for opening day. Spring training opened with a pop star’s message to be bold. And it will be Kapler’s job to keep it alive.
“Herein lies the biggest challenge,” Kapler said. “If we just let ‘Be Bold’ be a message on a T-shirt and something from the opening-night party in Clearwater, it will disappear and it will disappear fast, and it will especially disappear fast when we’ve lost seven out of nine. When we’re losing seven out of nine, we still have to hammer that message. We have to hammer that message with the players. You are who you are, and if you’re sad today or banged up over the last five days, we get it, we understand. We have to be aware that time is coming and be out in front of it so that when it happens, we don’t stop being who we are and go into a shell.”