The best-case scenario for Gabe Kapler played out in front of the Phillies manager before the home opener at Citizens Bank Park on a chilly Thursday afternoon and that was before his team ended a three-game losing streak with a 5-0 win over the Miami Marlins.
First, Kapler had to endure the indignity of being booed during the pregame introductions, a process that was made a little less painful by public address announcer Dan Baker’s sense of the moment. Baker barely finished annunciating the ‘r’ in Kapler’s name when he moved on to leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez, a highly popular player even if he is blocking the even more popular Scott Kingery from being the regular second baseman.
Moments later, the Phillies’ longtime PA man took his time when he introduced Doug Pederson, the coach of the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Suddenly the sellout crowd broke into song – Fly Eagles fly – as Eagles chief architect Howie Roseman held up the Vince Lombardi Trophy the team won a couple months ago in Minneapolis.
Less than a year ago, Pederson was the target of fan and media skepticism about his ability as an NFL coach. The most infamous and ridiculous moment arose when former NFL executive Mike Lombardi said Pederson “might be less qualified to coach a team than anyone I’ve ever seen in my 30-plus years in the NFL.” No matter how often he apologizes, those words will stick to Lombardi beyond his grave and they were the reason Pederson was able to say, “been there, been there,” after watching Kapler being booed before managing his first home game at Citizens Bank Park.
“When you’re going through it, obviously it’s difficult,” Pederson said after donning a Roy Halladay Phillies jersey and throwing a strike to Rhys Hoskins for the ceremonial first pitch. “I can remember my first year we had some games where we didn’t play so well and we lost some games. I continued to trust the process, trust the players and trust my staff. Things worked out.”
Pederson said he had never met Kapler before Thursday and if he were to offer any advice, he’d tell him to always remember it’s about the players.
“It’s about the locker room,” Pederson said. “It’s about the players and just stay focused on those guys and everything will be OK.”
There is no guarantee of that, although Kapler is managing a team that is significantly more talented than the one that finished last season.
It’s impossible not to be happy for Pederson because he handled his first-season criticism with remarkable poise and class, which is not easy when dumpster fires are burning all around you. Kapler, after the short-lived introductory boos, got his first huge dose of vitriol in the top of the sixth inning when he removed starter Nick Pivetta with two outs and one on. It looked a little like the decision that backfired on the manager on opening day in Atlanta, but the circumstances and the results were drastically different.
Still, in unison, the sellout crowd rose to its feet and with a mob-like mentality voiced disapproval with the guttural sound that is as indigenous to Philadelphia as the cheesesteak and soft pretzel: Booooooooooooo!
Kapler appeared to crack a smile before handing the ball to reliever Adam Morgan, who needed just three pitches to strikeout Justin Bour and end the inning. Morgan also pitched a perfect seventh.
“My inclination is that they would have liked to see Nick continue deeper into the game,” Kapler said when asked why he thought he was viciously booed. “Whenever people are unhappy with any decision I make, the first thing I’m going to do is ask myself why and if there are any adjustments I can make accordingly. I’m going to work my butt off for these fans. I’m going to give them everything I have. At the end of the day, that’s all I can do: Work my tail off and hopefully over the course of time they learn to trust that I’m in this with them … and my process is strong. Hopefully over the course of time they understand we have great players and that’s where the attention should be focused.”
It’s going to take more than one win and one right move for the fans to change their opinion about Kapler and his analytical style of managing. Baseball and football are drastically different games, but Pederson also leans heavily on his analytics department, especially in fourth-down situations, an area that was crucial to the Eagles’ recent Super Bowl run.
“I truly believe as a coach, it is how you want to interpret [the numbers],” Pederson said. “I still believe in one-on-one conversations with players. You talk to them during the week and see how they feel. But you know fourth downs have been a big part of what I’ve done the first two years. We’re going to continue to look at that. Red zone, field position, all that stuff gets factored in, but at the end of the day, I still have to make a decision about how we’re playing as a football team at the time.”
In other words, Pederson still also relies on his eyes and what he has seen unfold in front of him over the past year is something he will never forget. Kapler caught a glimpse of Pederson’s surreal story Thursday afternoon and now he’s tasked with trying to repeat it. It’s difficult to imagine a more daunting climb given where Kapler is right now on the popularity totem pole.