Gabe Kapler's rise: from Earth, Wind & Flour to the big leagues

After a few hiccups at Cal State Fullerton, Gabe Kapler’s season playing in junior college helped set the course for his career in the majors. Now, he’s a first-time manager trying to turn around the Phillies.

Gabe Kapler had already thrown away his first chance at college baseball when he grabbed the roof of his junior-college dugout and started doing pull-ups. Kapler, who morphed that season into a walking, talking fitness video, lowered himself against the dugout bench for a set of dips and then dropped to the ground and started counting push-ups.

Kapler was at Moorpark College, a junior college about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, in 1995 because he had gotten kicked out of Cal State Fullerton before the end of his first semester. He had no interest in attending class, which caused Fullerton’s legendary baseball coach to no longer have interest in him. The late Augie Garrido yanked Kapler’s scholarship and poured doubt on the baseball dreams he had held ever since he wore a satin Phillies jacket around his Southern California neighborhood.

The embarrassment at Fullerton — Kapler had to call home and explain to his working-class parents how he had squandered a near full-ride to college — set the rest of Kapler’s life in motion. His adolescence, Kapler said, ended in Garrido’s office when the Fullerton coach told Kapler that he wasn’t quite ready for college.

Kapler packed up his dorm room and drove home, spending the next eight months taking community-college courses and delivering pizzas. He altered his outlook — finding the structure and discipline that launched a journey that returns him home to L.A. on Monday when he heads to Dodger Stadium as Phillies manager. And the first step of that journey came when he went to Moorpark seeking a chance.

>>READ MORE: Gabe Kapler becomes the face of ambitious change (from November)

“My m.o. was that nobody is going to outwork me. Nobody is going to out-prepare me. Nobody is going to outhustle me,” Kapler said. “You might be more talented. You might have a prettier swing. You might be more skilled. But I’m going to outwork you. I’m going to outhustle you.”

He reprioritized his life and dedicated himself to baseball, setting his sights on being selected in the MLB draft. Kapler was determined to not repeat what had happened at Fullerton. No more drives home in the middle of the night to visit his girlfriend. No weeks of classes simply ignored. No one would work harder than Kapler, even if it meant using the time between innings to turn the dugout into his personal fitness center.

“That was just Kap,” said Pat Queenen, who played with Kapler on that 1995 Moorpark team. “Whether if he was in the gym or on the field, he was always working out. That dude was a friggin’ health freak. We joke about it, some of the guys that I still talk to, as most of us in college are doing our own thing, farting around, chasing girls and parties, he was dedicated. He was a worker. He knew what he wanted to do. He worked his tail off.”

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Gabe Kapler, the Phillies first-year manager, was tasked with reviving a team that lost almost 100 games last season.

More humbling

Mario Porto, then an assistant and now the head coach at Moorpark, was tending to the bullpen mound when Kapler interrupted to introduce himself. He told Porto he had played at Taft High and was supposed to be in center field at Cal State Fullerton, one of nation’s elite baseball programs.

That sounds nice, Porto thought. But he had seen plenty of Gabe Kaplers, kids looking for a second chance at a junior college after flaming out in the big time. Kapler’s scholarship at Fullerton didn’t mean he had a spot waiting for him at Moorpark. Tryouts are on Tuesday, the seasoned baseball man with the handlebar mustache told Kapler, before resuming work on the mound.

If Kapler was good, Porto told him, he would play. If not, there were 18 other Gabe Kaplers waiting for a spot.

Kapler said he was a punk teenager. And this was the humbling he needed.

“It taught me that nobody cares what your story is,” Kapler said. “You have to put in the work. You have to prepare. You have to have a routine. You have to execute every day. You have to fight every day. It was a lesson in adversity. Here’s your chance. You think you’re a good baseball player? You either show you’re a good baseball player now or it’s all over. That would have been the end of it. All of the dreaming that I did as a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old all the way through my high school baseball career is done if I don’t get my act together and just make the junior-college baseball team.”

Camera icon MOORPARK COLLEGE
Mario Porto, head coach of Moorpark College’s baseball team, gave Gabe Kapler a chance after Kapler was kicked off the team at Division-I Cal State-Fullerton. They’re pictured here in 2008.

Kapler impressed Porto and made the team as the third baseman. This was not the Kapler who had blown his chance at Fullerton. He grew up. This was the Kapler raised in Reseda by two teachers, whom Kapler watched work long hours and overcome their own adversity. He came to the team’s baseball field early and stayed late. He fielded as many ground balls as his coaches would hit, and he swung for hours in the batting cages.

“You could see in the way that he went about his business that he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way,” Porto said. “He would do everything he could do to be better.”

Skinny roots

Kapler was just 17 when he graduated high school and weighed only 175 pounds. He needed to add bulk to his 6-foot-1 frame. The Kapler you see in the Phillies dugout — chiseled, with a physique that rivals that of his own players — wasn’t the one who got booted from Fullerton.

He had noticed in high school that he could make good contact but that he didn’t have enough power to drive the ball past the outfielders. He ran hill sprints. He did pull-ups in the dugout. He did almost anything he could.

“I had a good enough arm to get the ball across the diamond and had good hand-eye coordination, but I wasn’t as physical as I could have been,” Kapler said. “I didn’t have like the armor that I needed, especially since I wasn’t perfectly athletically talented. I needed some of that. The only way I knew how to do it was to put in more work. And I did. I knew how to work physically. I’m blue collar in that way. I knew how to pick things up. I knew how to stay active. I had endless levels of energy.”

He looked like a bodybuilder with his arms bursting from his tank top, as if the muscles themselves had ripped off the shirt sleeves. His new teammates wondered who the sleeveless guy was and then saw him hit and said Kapler could wear whatever he wanted. But there was so much more to “Kap” than his physique, said Ryan Briggs, who played shortstop.

Kapler was a leader with a sense of humor. Briggs and Kapler used to break the monotony of marathon practices by playing a game called “What If?” — as in “what if I break-danced after throwing out a runner?” or “what if I moonwalked the bases after hitting a homer?”

On one ride home from a big win, Briggs hid in the overhead storage compartment of the team bus and a teammate asked Kapler to reach up for his wallet.

“He opened it up and I grabbed his arm and I think that was the only time you ever saw Gabe have some fear,” Briggs said. “We all got a good laugh because here was this big, tough dude. Gabe’s a tough cat. Philly has a tough guy there. Philly’s a tough town, and you have to be tough to work there. This is a California kid who is about the toughest guy I know. He’s just a soldier.”

Camera icon RON J. JENKINS / FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM
Gabe Kapler (right), then with the Rangers, knocks the ball out of White Sox catcher Mark Johnson’s mitt during a game in April 2000. Kapler started to take his physique seriously while at junior college near Los Angeles.

Muscling up

Kapler added 15 pounds at Moorpark and led the team in home runs and RBIs in 1995. He matched his weightlifting with a structured diet. The team used to stop on its way home from away games for burgers at McDonald’s or tri-tip sandwiches at a place called Woody’s Bodacious Barbecue. Kapler ordered grilled chicken sandwiches without the buns. His teammates held Sunday meetings at a pizza parlor where two players worked. Kapler ate just the cheese from his pizza.

He challenged Queenen, who had gained weight after an injury the previous season, to get in shape by following his diet. He told Queenen, a left fielder who batted behind Kapler in the lineup, to ditch carbs and eat tuna, salads, and cheese. Queenen lost 25 pounds, had the best season of his career, and landed at a four-year school. He was perhaps the first follower of “The Kap Lifestyle,” the blog Kapler launched after his playing career to discuss fitness, diet and healthy living. That lifestyle seemed to be born at Moorpark.

>>READ MORE: Breaking down the advanced metric Gabe Kapler uses to evaluate his bullpen

“We’d go on road trips with our per diems or whatever and we’re all grabbing McDonald’s or finding someone who was 21 and who could buy us beers,” Queenen said, “and Gabe was constantly the guy in the gym and just a consummate health freak. We always thought it was kind of weird. But that was him. I’d be like ‘Hey, we’re going to go to this party’ and he’d say ‘Nah, I’m going to the gym.’ Never once did I catch him out with us. He was just a freak about baseball.”

Kapler batted .337 in his one season at Moorpark and achieved his goal that June when the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 57th round — a round that no longer exists — of the 1995 MLB draft. It was just 19 months earlier that he was driving home from Fullerton and walking into the cleverly named pizza joint Earth, Wind & Flour to see if the place needed a new delivery driver.

It was the way Kapler responded to failure that made everything — from his time at Moorpark to his 12 years in the major leagues to his current stint as one of MLB’s 30 managers — possible. He flew to Florida for the Tigers’ instructional league, almost like a glorified tryout for the draft’s anonymous 1,488th pick who was announced as “Gabriel Kapler.” It was as if Kapler was back at Moorpark, just looking for a chance. And like at Moorpark, Kapler made the most of this one.

“I never thought the goal was to not make mistakes or to not take a punch. That’s impossible,” Kapler said. “Having the fear of not making a mistake or not taking a punch or not getting knocked down is debilitating. It’s paralyzing. I don’t fear those things. What I don’t want to have happen is to not have the ability to make the adjustment, the quick pivot, to be flexible, to be responsive.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gabe Kapler taking off his Phillies jersey after his introductory press conference in November.