PHILADELPHIA — Gabe Kapler wants all those Philadelphia Phillies fans who booed him before the team’s home opener to know that he heard them and understands their inclination to vent when he makes a decision that backfires. It’s a long season, and he can’t guarantee he’ll be free from rookie growing pains.
If there’s one promise Kapler can make, it’s this: Nobody will boo him for making the same mistake twice.
In late March, Kapler lifted Aaron Nola after 68 pitches on the way to a season-opening loss in Atlanta and messed up royally by summoning reliever Hoby Milner from the bullpen sans warm-up throws and putting the umpiring crew in a compromising position. Philly fans took a break from cheering on the 76ers’ late-season surge to give Kapler the Jayson Werth-as-Washington National treatment before the team’s home opener against Miami on April 5.
It was a humbling experience for Kapler and an ominous sign for a young manager who wants the focus to be on his players. But the cold snap has since passed, the young Phillies are on a roll and he’s a model of introspection as he reflects upon that challenging first week.
“What I knew is that I was going to f— up,” Kapler told ESPN.com. “In a perfect world, that f—-up happens after a long run of good play. You’re in the middle of the season, everything is sort of settled, and you’ve seen some ups and downs, but you’ve ridden past those, and you’ve accomplished some good things. The tough part is a lot of this stuff came at the very beginning of the season at the most visible moments. I get that.
“What I’m always prepared for is to be accountable for any mistakes that I make and accept the responsibility for any miscommunication in the clubhouse, the dugout or anywhere else in this building. I also feel accountable for putting processes in place immediately that will ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again. That’s my responsibility. That’s what I stay focused on.”
Kapler, 42, is one of five MLB managers making his debut in a challenging East Coast market this spring. The New York Mets‘ Mickey Callaway and Boston’s Alex Cora are a combined 23-5 and living the dream. The Yankees’ Aaron Boone and Nationals’ Dave Martinez are doing their best to navigate bumpier Aprils with supposed powerhouse teams off to middling starts.
Kapler’s first season in Philadelphia was supposed to be about development. The Phillies haven’t had a winning record since 2011 and were ostensibly in building mode for one more year. Then, some unforeseen buying opportunities emerged, management spent $169 million on free agents Jake Arrieta, Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, and the timetable for competitiveness received a nudge in a more urgent direction.
The scrutiny surrounding Kapler stems in large part from a California-based, new-age persona that spells “culture clash” with hard-core Philly. Personality profiles inevitably make reference to Kapler’s six-pack abs, fondness for Norah Jones music and scented candles, and the lifestyle tips he once dispensed through his personal blog. Kapler is more inclined to quote Simon Bolivar than Sparky Anderson, and his pledge to take a more “holistic” approach to managing is a radical departure for a city accustomed to the managerial stylings of Dallas Green, Larry Bowa, Jim Fregosi and the master of fractured syntax, Charlie Manuel.
But it’s more complicated than that. The world sees Kapler as the embodiment of the clinical and analytically obsessed modern manager. He sees himself as a baseball rat who’s in the trenches daily with the “collection of men” in the clubhouse, as he likes to call them.
Kapler’s career résumé runs the gamut of personal experiences and clubhouse perspectives. He broke into pro ball as a 57th-round draft pick in 1995 with the Detroit Tigers and emerged as the organization’s top prospect. He reached the majors at age 23, logged an .833 OPS with the Texas Rangers at 24, was rewarded with a three-year contract and then was demoted to the minors and traded before the deal ran its course. He was released multiple times but also contributed to a championship run as a bench player on the 2004 Red Sox. His managerial influences include Johnny Oates, Terry Francona, Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle, among others.
“I know what it was like to be the guy that didn’t play every day,” Kapler said. “I know what it was like to be pinch-hit for because the matchup was better for somebody else. I know what it’s like to be double-switched for. I have such a strong connection to the human side of this game — more than probably anything else.
“I have this core group of teammates that I played with for various teams, like Evan Longoria with the Rays at the end of my career. And in Boston, I had my guys like [Jason] Varitek, Pedro [Martinez] and Trot [Nixon] and that crew. I think if you asked them about me, they’d describe the baseball guy, which is who I am at my core. It’s really interesting to me that this doesn’t get seen as much.”
Balance Kapler’s clubhouse- and dugout-centric world view with an intellectual curiosity that consumes him, and you’ll find a complicated figure at the crossroads of two contradictory and often contentious worlds. Kapler is reluctant to use the word “mantra” because it has a new-age tinge that perpetuates a stereotype he’s trying to shake. But a quote from author Malcolm Gladwell summarizes his fondness for respectful debate and divergent viewpoints among the people in his circle.
“That’s your responsibility as a person — as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible,” Gladwell said. “And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”
Kapler’s office across from the Phillies clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park is free of personal adornments. But one monument to feng shui is hard to miss. His managerial predecessors sat at a big, wooden desk readily visible to anyone who opened the office door, but Kapler moved around the corner and replaced the desk with a more ergonomically friendly model that raises and lowers at the push of a button. He subscribes to the notion that sitting is the new smoking.
Before a recent home game, Kapler emerged at 4 p.m. for his daily media briefing in the dugout. Unlike most managers, who stake out a seat and casually field questions, he stood ramrod straight and began the session with two unprompted, big-picture declarations: The Phillies have been excellent at going first-to-third on base hits, and catchers Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp have done a bang-up job of pitch framing in the early going.
One thing Kapler refused to do was bite on a series of questions about rookie J.P. Crawford‘s early struggles at the plate. Crawford got off to a 1-for-23 start and was, by his admission, working diligently in the cage to reduce the length in his swing. But Kapler danced around several questions about Crawford’s shortcomings and focused on his young shortstop’s discerning eye and ability to work a count. His perpetually sunny-side-up approach to player assessment is a contrast from that of his predecessor, Pete Mackanin, who was generally blunt with his public comments.
“For me, this is more a human philosophy than it is a baseball philosophy,” Kapler said. “When the media asks me about players, I can always find something positive to say about them. I just think that’s the right way to live. It’s not baseball-related. It’s less a media strategy than a life strategy.”
The Phillies’ roster construction has compounded the early challenges facing Kapler. The team has a surplus of young position players who all burn to play regularly and have little experience with the alternative. On any given day, when Kapler posts his lineup card, two players with a legitimate claim to starting are going to be warming the bench and not especially pleased about it. Some early discontent bubbled up when Odubel Herrera expressed his disappointment about sitting on Opening Day and fellow outfielder Nick Williams chafed over his limited playing time in the first week. But public affirmations of support from several Philadelphia players seem to indicate the roster is sympathetic to Kapler’s plight and onboard with the program.
“That’s your responsibility as a person — as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”
Malcolm Gladwell, a quote Gabe Kapler is living by in his first season as Phillies manager
“One hundred percent,” said left fielder Rhys Hoskins, the team’s best player. “You probably see that in the way we’ve played the last week. If the first week had gone a little better and a couple of balls bounced our way and we wound up 4-1 instead of 1-4, I’m not sure that perception would be there at all.”
Nevertheless, Hoskins concedes, Kapler’s style is a departure from the norm and might require some adjustments from both sides. Kapler’s natural tendency is to text or tell players in advance if they won’t be playing. Some players prefer that approach, and others don’t. Kapler is still trying to sort out who falls into which camp.
“He’s recently out of the game,” Hoskins said. “He played over 10 years, and he knows how things operate. From what he’s told us, he’s been around great clubhouses and not-so-great clubhouses, so he has a pretty good idea of what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. You’re seeing his different style a little bit, and I don’t think that’s bad at all. It’s great. I think he’s just trying to take things in the past that have worked and put his flavor to it.”
As an organization, the Phillies are trying to temper a narrative that’s hard to corral. From the moment owner John Middleton pledged allegiance to the analytics revolution in 2015, they’ve had to balance their embrace of numbers with the perception that they have strayed from traditional scouting and become oblivious to the human element. The Phillies didn’t even have an analytics department until 2013, so upper management is less concerned with achieving world domination through statistics than with playing catchup with the competition.
Little snippets that reflect the team’s new mindset emerge daily. In spring training, Kapler declared a moratorium on shagging batting practice fly balls because it’s a way to get pitchers off their feet and create an opportunity for “awesome volunteers” to patrol the Citizens Bank Park outfield in the early afternoon. TV cameras capture Philadelphia’s outfielders consulting positioning index cards they have tucked in their back pockets. Fans who ride the SEPTA train to the park see a stern-looking Hoskins accompanied by Kapler’s catch phrase: “Be Bold.”
Like all analytically inclined managers, Kapler will have to fight the perception that his marching orders come directly from the front office. His boss is quick to dispel that notion.
“The manager has to have autonomy — to write out the lineup, to make bullpen decisions, to use his experience and instincts to manage a game and manage people,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “That cannot come from the front office, and it won’t. That’s not the way we do things.”
Kapler is giving his coaches a wide berth to put their imprint on the team. His bench coach, Rob Thompson, is a Canadian-born baseball lifer who spent 28 years in the Yankees organization, worked with Joe Torre and Joe Girardi and was revered for his steady demeanor, sound judgment and organizational skills.
Thompson has developed a quick rapport with Kapler as a sounding board and trusted confidant the new manager can lean on every day. His perspective was particularly helpful in the first week of the season, when Kapler felt besieged by negative feedback.
“Every manager’s been booed at some point,” Thompson said. “When the Yankees hired Joe Torre, it was ‘Clueless Joe’ in the front page of the [Daily News]. Then he gets booed for a while, then we win and everybody cheers. Then Girardi comes in, and they boo him because he’s taking over for Torre. Then he wins and everybody cheers for him. I think that’s all part of it. If we win a bunch of ballgames, all that stuff will go away.
“I just tell him stories about things that happened in New York. You had two World Series managers, and some of the things they went through are very similar. I just try to let him know, ‘You’re not the only guy that’s ever gone through this. You’re not on an island all by yourself. We’re all with you, and we all have your back.”’
Two weeks in, Thompson has seen growth from Kapler and the ability to adapt on the fly. After using 18 relievers in Philadelphia’s first three games, Kapler has given his starters more rope of late. Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez all pitched into the seventh inning or beyond during three-game sweeps of Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.
“He’s very organized,” Thompson said. “He’s a preparer. And he’s a good communicator, so he’s way ahead of the game for a guy who’s been managing  games in the big leagues. I think the world of him. He cares so much about these players, and he talks to the coaches and takes their information and really listens and goes through it and comes up with a decision. And he’s not afraid.”
The Phillies don’t have to look far to see the value of patience with on-field leadership. Brett Brown, who entered this season with a 75-253 record as 76ers coach and could have been a goner on multiple occasions, led the team to 52 wins and a playoff berth this season. Doug Pederson, who was perceived by some as a disaster-in-waiting when the Eagles hired him in 2016, led the team to its first Super Bowl victory and was wildly cheered upon his throwing out the first pitch at the Phillies’ home opener.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we expect Kap or any first-year manager we would have hired to come in and be perfect from day one,” Klentak said. “That’s just not realistic. I wasn’t perfect in my first day on the job as a general manager, either. Kap will learn and grow the same way that the players and I are learning and growing, and we’re all going to develop together.
“All we have to do is look across the street, in a couple of different directions. We see a football team that learned and grew together with a new coach and took it all the way to a dramatic Super Bowl championship. You look across the street the other way and see a young, blossoming basketball team in the playoffs. This story has played out over the last couple of years in Philadelphia with a great deal of success. We’re hopefully following in the footsteps of those two teams.”
At the outset of his three-year contract with the Phillies, Kapler is simply trying to manage the demands on his time and the grip the job has on his emotions and his psyche. At Yankees’ spring training, Boone shared the observation that he has had more “job-specific” dreams than anyone could have imagined. Kapler can relate.
“The work and the preparation, it just doesn’t stop,” Kapler said. “It ends when everybody leaves the ballpark and you get home and start to make your last-minute notes. Then you crash and wake up and go, ‘Oh s—, I need to get the lineup to this and that person.’ The days just don’t end.”
Kapler’s notoriously demanding workouts have taken a hit, from 90 minutes to roughly 30 at a crack, but he finds time to unwind after games. Three days a week, he’s in the weight room. Two days, he’s sprinting on a treadmill or running outdoors. The other two, he’ll clear his head by taking a walk.
For now, the focus is on setting a tone and striking a balance between old-school values and new-school innovation. When the Phillies begin their next homestand Thursday against Pittsburgh, Kapler and his team will have a winning record and a different story to tell. And chances are a kinder, gentler soundtrack will be emanating from the Citizens Bank Park stands.