Inside the Brilliant, Baffling, and Utterly Fascinating Baseball Mind of Gabe Kapler

Photograph by Steve Boyle

The dais at the Philadelphia Sports Writers Awards Banquet stretches nearly end to end in a drab conference room at the Cherry Hill Crowne Plaza hotel, where a few hundred journalists and sports fans have gathered to hear from some of the city’s past heroes and legends in the making. When you’re the new manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, you light Christmas trees, donate to food drives, hand out meals to the homeless, and trek to New Jersey for events like this one. At least, that’s what Gabe Kapler’s done. When he was hired in October, the new Phillies skipper traded his home near the beach in Malibu for digs in Northern Liberties during a brutally cold winter. His two teenage sons and ex-wife are still out West, but Kapler insisted on getting to work — prepping for spring training on his iPad, bonding on a food tour of Chinatown with his coaching staff, meeting with his players and folks across the organization from here to Miami and the Dominican Republic, and getting to know the city itself, which he sees as critical to his success and thus to the success of the team.

Seated to his right are slugger Rhys Hoskins, the centerpiece of Kapler’s young roster, and Garry Maddox, the Phillies’ center fielder through much of the 1970s and ’80s and the recipient of tonight’s “Living Legend” award. As attendees pick at their chicken marsala, Kapler tells Maddox there are three things he feels are best shared with others — food, music and books. Maddox recommends Misbehaving, by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler. Kapler endorses Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, impressing Maddox with his depth of knowledge. Hoskins listens intently as the sports banquet turns into a book club.

If it wasn’t already clear that Gabe Kapler, at 42, is a unique dude, that point is driven home by his speech tonight, a thoughtful meditation on his coaching philosophy. Dressed in a burgundy tie and a tailored navy suit struggling to conceal a physique that’s impossibly sculpted, Kapler speaks slowly, with careful pauses between each sentence and a steady intensity, as if he’s trying to etch each line directly into the listener’s cerebrum. “We are a forest,” he says. “Our players are the plants, and the flowers, and the vibrant greenery breathing life into our ecosystem. We as coaches, we’re the soil. Our job is to be the healthiest, richest, most nutrient-dense soil anywhere. We’re the building blocks upon which our players thrive. … We are also the trees in our forest, both depending on ourselves as soil, but also growing and changing constantly. We’re shade. We are climbing structures. We provide shelter from treacherous conditions. We are the landmarks for everything alive in our forest. We are grounded. We, the Philadelphia Phillies, will be a healthy forest … the healthiest in pro sports.”

After quoting a sports psychologist and telling the crowd they’re all participants in this environment, Kapler finishes to applause and a few looks that suggest equal parts appreciation and befuddlement: Is this a sports dinner or a slam poetry night? One writer near the back of the room turns to another with a smirk and deadpans, “Guess we’re part of the ecosystem.”

When the Phillies announced they were looking for a new manager last fall, Kapler was on almost no one’s short list of candidates. The former utility outfielder won a championship with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, but he was always something of a journeyman. He has little managerial experience, and none in the big leagues. His tenure in charge of player development for the Los Angeles Dodgers was marked by controversy and Kapler’s reputation for doing nearly everything differently. His blog, Kaplifestyle, offers self-help tips and a couple of risqué posts about the benefits of tanning one’s undercarriage and alternate uses for coconut oil. And there are the fitness modeling shots he’s posed for, most notably one in which he’s squeezed into what’s best described as a leopard-print banana hammock.

Kapler oiled up in an early fitness pose. Photograph courtesy of Martin Ryter

None of this sounds like the Phillies — at least, not the Phillies we’re used to, an organization that perpetually hires from within and dodges change like it’s a fastball to the noggin. “He’s unlike anything we can imagine,” says 97.5 The Fanatic host Anthony Gargano. “When this hire came down, I was blown away.” Charlie Manuel’s homespun, folksy leadership set the standard for Phillies skippers, and Kapler’s love of analytics and 12-pack abs couldn’t be more different. But Manuel’s championship was a decade ago, and principal owner John Middleton’s hunger for more jewelry is growing. “One thing you can say about this hire — it might be a swing and a miss, but it would a Ryan Howard-sized swing,” says writer Jayson Stark, who’s covered the team since 1979. “These are not your grandfather’s Phillies. They’re looking to take a bold, radical step forward. [Kapler’s] incredibly unique — not just as a manager, but as a human being.” Gargano agrees: “He’s so out there. I think he fits into where we are in 2018 — new Philadelphia being built arm-in-arm with newcomers. I think we’re going to love him.” I ask Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, regarded as the most outside-the-box personality in baseball, if he’s ever met anyone in the game like Kapler. “No,” he says. “Maybe the only guy I can think of like that is me.”

Before the dinner ends, comedian Joe Conklin does a few minutes on each Philly team, and everyone in the room knows where he’ll go with the Phillies material. In a dead-on Manuel impression, he says, “Y’know, this guy, y’know, this Kapler, quite a different approach, y’know what I’m sayin’? I mean, I never saw no coconut oil. I’m a Quaker State man myself.” Kapler smiles, and even Hoskins can’t help but chuckle as the audience roars.

But when the laughter ends and the wins and losses start piling up, the results of his progressive philosophy will frame Kapler in a new context: among the most unconventional field generals in Philadelphia sports. Will he look like Chip Kelly, whose radical thoughts on jock science and play-calling wowed early, but who quickly lost games and his locker room? Or could he be the next Doug Pederson, the first-time coach who inspired his players and exceeded all expectations?

Three days after the banquet, the Phillies host an invite-only luncheon for about 50 season ticket holders in the executive dining room at the ballpark. Three of the team’s key players — Hoskins, Nick Williams and Hector Neris — are here for a panel conversation led by radio play-by-play whiz Scott Franzke. But it’s Kapler who commands the room. There’s a rock-star air to him, dressed as he is in a slim-fitting leather jacket, black pants and polished leather boots. Kapler recounts a lunch conversation he had with some journalists at the league’s winter meetings in Orlando in December. When a debate broke out over who stands as the most popular athlete in the city’s history, Kapler turned it into a non-scientific study, asking each writer to text five people that question. The overwhelming favorite? Chase Utley. “He was not the most talented guy among that group,” Kapler says in a deep, crisp baritone. “But he was the most prepared, he was the most determined, he was the most dedicated, and he modeled incredible teammate behavior.”

Kapler showing off his juggling prowess. Photograph courtesy of Steve Boyle

Franzke approaches one of the tables and hands the mic to a 60-something guy who poses a question to Kapler: “You’re very much into mental preparation, staying positive. Do you have anybody that helps you if you have down times and self-doubts?”

Kapler pauses. “That’s an awesome question,” he says. “Are you offering?” After the laughter dies down, Kapler continues: “To be completely vulnerable, I need that.”

After 20 minutes, the Q&A portion ends, and fans line up for autographs. The longest line and lengthiest conversations are for the manager. Hoskins understands why; a few weeks earlier, Kapler invited him to Zahav for a get-to-know-you dinner that focused more on life than baseball. “He’s obviously an intense guy,” Hoskins says. “He’s very, very thorough. And he cares a tremendous amount … that’s pretty cool to have as a manager.” Hoskins describes the dinner as a “unique situation and something that I appreciated. Different can be good.”

Kapler tells me that the only reason he was so popular at the luncheon was the demographics in the room — by any estimation, overwhelmingly white, male and AARP. Along with “intense,” Kapler is often described as someone who knows his audience; both GM Matt Klentak and Middleton say that what most impressed them during Kapler’s day-long interview with dozens of people across multiple team departments was his level of preparation and his people skills. “The number one thing that stood out was Kap’s ability to connect with every one of those groups,” Klentak says. Kapler talks about “hunting for value at the margins” and “thinking progressively”; prior to spring training, he wrote a three-page “commander’s intent” document, a guide to his Phillies ideology, to share throughout the organization. Kapler’s mind-set resonated with Middleton: “He’s a baseball guy, no question, a very technical baseball person. But he talks like a corporate CEO. He thinks conceptually and in the nitty-gritty detail and moves between them fluidly.”

I first meet Kapler at Café La Maude in Northern Liberties, near his new home. Kapler’s become a regular there, and the owner has reserved us a table in the back. Kapler is the kind of guy who talks like you’re the only person in the room; as the shop fills with Saturday-morning brunchers, he’s laser-focused on our conversation (save during a brief cameo by former boxing champ and fellow La Maude regular Bernard Hopkins that leaves him a bit starstruck). He draws a parallel between the attentive personal service he gets at the cafe and what he wants to build with the Phillies: “It’s like how that felt when they know me well enough to fill my cup. Can I create a little bit of confidence — not just me, but all of us — in a player by knowing them that well? Like, holy shit, this environment makes me feel at home. I’m a little bit more comfortable. That translates into a little bit more athleticism, we squeeze a little bit more development, we win a lot more baseball games. That’s the philosophy.” Before the sportswriters banquet, I text him to ask whether he prefers “Gabe” or his baseball handle, “Kap.” “I believe nicknames are a way of demonstrating familiarity,” he texts back. “Kap is great.”

This raises the fairly urgent question of what planet Kap is from and how he ended up in Philadelphia. Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer to the former is California, specifically Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley. His parents are both teachers originally from New York, and his father’s stories of his travels, sometimes taken via jumping on the back of a train, made a permanent impression. (“If you give me a day to do whatever I want,” Kapler says, “I want to get out and get lost. Stumble into a good restaurant, have an incredible meal, hop on a train, get off at a stop where I have no idea where it is, find my way to a hotel or Airbnb. That would be a day that I’d really want to spend.”) Kapler attended the same Woodland Hills charter school as rapper Ice Cube, actress Lisa Kudrow, and a long list of pro athletes and coaches. Growing up in the cross-cultural bouillabaisse of greater Los Angeles in the early ’90s in a liberal-minded household shaped Kapler’s worldview. His folks saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington, D.C.; Kapler has framed photos of King and Nelson Mandela in his Phillies office. Even at a young age, he was tuned into the feelings of other people in a unique way, particularly for a jock, says high-school friend Chris Gors: “He’s a very caring person. He comes from a hippie family that communicates. He’ll want to talk through something until it’s exhausted.”

Kapler during his playing days with the 2008 Brewers. Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As for the journey to red pinstripes, it’s been a long and winding one. The sport was Kapler’s first love — “I knew from the time I was five years old that I wanted to play professional baseball” — and in an odd portent of the future, the young Pete Rose fan wore a red satin Phillies jacket around Los Angeles. Kapler admits he wasn’t a good student and didn’t develop his physical tools until he transferred to a tiny community college and figured out how to consistently hit balls into outfield gaps. He’d also been hitting the weights and modeling, resulting in some of those fitness pics that still follow him across the Internet. “It was fun,” he says. “A few hundred bucks went a long way. Part of it was just coming into being a young man and appreciating that I could influence how I felt and how I presented and how that impacted me on the baseball field. All those things synced up pretty nicely.”

Kapler was drafted so late in 1995 that the round in which he was selected — the 57th — doesn’t exist anymore. The 1,488th overall pick joined the Tigers’ farm system and would play outfield for Detroit, Texas and Colorado before the first of two big moments that would change the course of his baseball life: signing with the Boston Red Sox in 2003, just as the team was on the verge of its first championship in 86 years, under the leadership of former Phillies manager Terry Francona. Kapler came off the bench and was the kind of player Philly fans love — a hustle guy with a knack for hitting lefties and fearless defense. But off the field is where Kapler really stood out. When his teammates would take a car service or drive themselves to the ballpark on game day, Kapler would take the train. After he joined the Dodgers organization, he once camped out in the mountains of Idaho while his team stayed in a hotel; on a scouting trip to the Dominican Republic, he took a car and drove off to spend a day in a remote part of the country.

Kapler was also known for his discipline when it comes to food. He’d occasionally let a bite of chocolate or a lick of ice cream linger in his mouth for a glorious moment of taste-bud stimulation, then spit it out. Teammates would tease him to put the skin back on his chicken. “He was completely different,” says Bob Ryan, the longtime beat writer for the Boston Globe who nicknamed Kapler “The Body.” “He’s as smart as any player I’ve ever met. He was someone you always wanted to talk to, and it was fun to have him around. Bodybuilding intellectuals do not arrive in our midst very often.”

Kevin Millar, one of the most popular players in that Sox clubhouse, was Kapler’s locker mate. “He was one of my favorite teammates ever,” says Millar. “You saw he was a student of the game and a student of people. He knew how to lift you up. Your successes, your failures — you live, eat and drink it every day. I think as players, we don’t do a good enough job of getting away from it. He had a knack for saying, ‘Hey, tomorrow, 8 a.m., let’s get some eggs and bacon and walk around.’”

Millar says any ribbing he gave about Kapler’s fitness photos was also an acknowledgement of his discipline. “It’s respect for knowing I’ll never have obliques like that guy,” he says. “If I was on [Kapler’s coaching staff], I’d have one of those pictures blown up in a frame. You don’t want your manager outworking you.” Kapler also holds a unique honor, according to an article on Outsports.com, as a “figure of liberation for gay male sports fans,” who appreciated his play and his willingness to pose shirtless long before ESPN’s annual Body Issue debuted. (Kapler discussion apparently “dominated” the Outsports “Hot Jocks” message board.) Kapler says he never read that story, but calls it a “really fascinating perspective”: “It’s an honor to be well thought of by any community. That’s what my parents are all about. Everybody — no matter where you come from, what color your skin is, who you chose as your partner — you should appreciate that person for who they are. More than anything else, I’m passionate about appreciating the diversity of human beings.”

After winning the World Series, Kapler signed with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, largely to experience a new culture and a bigger paycheck than utility outfielders usually earn. After a disappointing start to the season overseas, he returned to the Red Sox and later spent one season managing their single-A team to a 58-81 record.

“The record … wasn’t at all a reflection on the team we had,” Kapler says via text. “What I learned was that players need to see your emotions. I went into that season thinking that arguing with umpires was futile. They never change their mind … what’s the point? I learned that the team needed to see that I was just as committed as they were. … I wasn’t just thinking about how to be better every moment, I was feeling it and experiencing it along with them.”

The second life-altering stop on his tour came during his final two seasons back on the field, with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays starting in 2009, fresh off their World Series loss to the Phillies. Maddon is baseball’s Zen master, once mocked for using a laptop in the dugout and now beloved for his early embrace of analytics and that eccentric persona. (The Grateful Dead fan once drove his custom van onto the field during spring training; when the doors opened to the sounds of “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire, a circus clown emerged.) Maddon proved a fitting mentor for someone like Kapler, who signed a $1,000,018 contract — the number 18 representing chai, the Hebrew symbol for life. “What makes Joe so special is that he didn’t try to hide his different,” Kapler says. “It’s really admirable that he was comfortable enough, or bold enough, even though he was going to be criticized for being different, he embraced the shit out of it and said … I have to be authentically me. That stuck with me. I’ve had conversations with him, he’s said, ‘Don’t try to not be different, because you are.’”

Maddon says he relied on Kapler as a “conduit” to teach younger players with Tampa Bay about work ethic and preparation: “He was 100 percent sincere. He doesn’t speak quickly, he’s a great listener, and he’s definitely chewing on everything you say. There’s a tremendous inquisitive nature to him. He checks all the boxes when it comes to the mental and physical sides of the game. And he’s just a good guy, man. He’s primed and ready for this job.”

What followed Kapler’s retirement in 2010 — a losing effort as bench coach of Team Israel in the 2012 World Baseball Classic qualifiers, a failed e-autograph start-up, a brief run as an analyst for Fox Sports — were more experiences that he threw himself into fully. But it was his three years as director of player development with the Los Angeles Dodgers that were closest to his current role with the Phillies. “When he got the job with L.A., it was like, goodbye,” says his friend Gors. “He was like, ‘Chris, I love you, but I’ve got to put all my time into my work and my boys.’” That obsessive dedication is a good sign of what’s to come here and is already manifesting itself in Kapler’s nonstop routine. His return to his hometown was also when Kapler learned that being a leader can come at a price.

Leave it to Howard Eskin to take a whiz on a guy’s big day. At his introductory press conference in November, Kapler traded his suit jacket for a large white Phillies jersey (emblazoned with 22, his youngest son’s football number), pulling it over his wide traps and tugging a red cap onto his tanned head. “I feel more comfortable in a baseball jersey than I ever did in a collared shirt,” he said off-mic. “This feels right to me.” Kapler often waited a moment before responding to reporters and even thanked two of them for good, smart questions. He addressed allowing his players to express themselves as they see fit, similar to the “no rules” approach he applied to the Dodgers. No dress code, no facial hair policy, no conduct checklist hung in the clubhouse. To quote Kapler quoting Maddon quoting Albert Camus, “Integrity has no need of rules.”

Kapler at his introductory press conference: “I feel more comfortable in a baseball jersey than I ever did in a collared shirt.” Photograph courtesy of Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Then came Eskin, grilling Kapler about the coconut-oil post on his Kaplifestyle blog. (“The world’s greatest lubricant,” Kapler wrote. “I can’t help where your mind goes with this. Once the ball leaves the bat, I can’t steer it.”) Kapler calmly framed some of his pieces as “tongue-in-cheek” and “imperfect — I’m imperfect. But I’m also very proud of a lot of the content.” Eskin wasn’t impressed; later, on his WIP radio show, he’d describe Kapler as a “nut job.”

What Eskin and nearly everyone else overlooked was the majority of Kapler’s posts, which were primarily aimed at players in the Dodgers organization and covered everything from fitness to leadership. A piece titled “Pushing Boundaries” quoted Nabokov and celebrated the work ethic of a young Hollywood intern named Steven Spielberg. Another began with a conversation Kapler had with his parents and led to an examination of the communication style of “New York Jews,” citing studies by the National Academy of Sciences and a Georgetown linguistics professor. One of his guest posts was a poem by the bass player of Rage Against the Machine. All-Star Tampa Bay pitcher Chris Archer wrote about his passion for books that challenge his worldview. “He was just like, ‘Arch, you have a special mind, we need to get this out to other people,’” Archer says, noting that he’d maybe penned one paper in school. “It was tough putting it together. It’s another example of Gabe seeing something in somebody that they don’t see in themselves and extracting that. He’s special.” When I ask Kapler to send me pieces he’s proud of, he gives me three: “Building a Winning Culture,” “First Impressions,” and a 2,300-word deep dive into player motivation for Fox Sports that references six psychological studies.

About those first impressions — Kapler’s focus and measured speech, combined with his “fanatical” diet, as his friend Gors calls it, and a physical presence that’s by turns awe-inspiring and intimidating, might give off a sort of Patrick Bateman American Psycho vibe. Eskin’s not alone in questioning whether this skipper’s a little too far out in deep left field. Shortly after Kapler joined the Phillies, a story by longtime baseball writer Jon Heyman on FanragSports.com put Kapler in the crosshairs. Anonymous Dodgers sources ripped him for being “more persona than person” and “acting like he was the dude.” He alienated staffers by playing gangsta rap in the offices and planning to build a chicken coop at spring training, and reportedly drove key players, including Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez, to voice their firm opposition when he interviewed for the manager’s job there in 2015. Three baseball sources close to Kapler confirm the broad strokes of his polarizing personality. “He’s a narcissist,” says one. “He’s a salesman. Some people buy it and some people don’t.”

More damning is the story of Nick Francona, son of Kapler’s Red Sox coach and an assistant director under Kapler in Los Angeles. Francona, a former Marine Corps officer who led a sniper platoon in Afghanistan, tells me his first year working for Kapler was fulfilling: “We were joined at the hip. On the same page, working well together. He referred to me on his blog as his good friend.” But in a letter to the Dodgers and nine league officials that accused the team of discrimination, Francona made a detailed case that their relationship changed after he told Kapler he planned to seek an assessment at the Home Base program, which provides support services for veterans affected by PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other issues. Francona wrote that a Dodgers employee explained that “Gabe simply told him that I was ‘too hardened’ and ‘ruined’ by my military experience.” The Dodgers eventually gave him a choice, Francona wrote: Accept a role in a different department, resign, or be terminated. Francona told the team they’d need to fire him, and they did.

Internal investigations followed; Francona rejected two settlement offers from the Dodgers but didn’t sue. In the end, the league reportedly cleared the Dodgers and Kapler and officially considers the matter closed; the Phillies looked into the situation but won’t speak to the specifics. Francona, now with the New York Mets, says he’s never seen any material from the investigation and was told the league determined that his firing was a “personality conflict.” “There was indeed tension towards the very end, but that was a result of a concerted effort by Gabe to manufacture conflict in a very bizarre way,” says Francona, who took a shot at Kapler on Twitter in January and ended up in the New York Daily News. “I don’t understand why he acted the way he did.” When asked about the situation between his son and his former player, Terry Francona told TheAthletic.com, cryptically, “I don’t ever root against anybody, but that’s personal and not something that I’d be comfortable hashing or rehashing.”

Of course, there’s a sunnier side to the story of Kapler’s days in L.A. Two of his former staffers sing his praises to me, on the record, including Shaun Larkin, a Dodgers infield coordinator who worked closely with him. “The experience was life-changing for me,” Larkin says. “He encouraged staff members to take their role and dominate it — take risks, get beyond your comfort zone. And you knew he’d be there to support you any way he could.” Kapler’s minor-league baseball operations manager, Juan Rodriguez, says the key to understanding his old boss is being open-minded. “What I wish others had done was find common ground and then build from there,” he says. “If the people who said negative things had done that, maybe their opinions would be different.” For Joe Maddon, the Kapler described in Heyman’s story doesn’t sound like the one he knows: “You’re going to have some people who just don’t get it, some jealousy. When someone says that in a negative mind-set, to me it says more about the speaker than the subject.”

Kapler’s response when I ask about the Heyman report and what I’ve been told in support of it is, fittingly, both well-considered and emotional. “Not everyone’s going to like me,” he says. “I think that’s true of anyone who makes a lot of decisions, and being in a leadership position, you can’t cater to everyone.” He adds, “I’m a human being. I don’t like hearing that.”

Kapler says he’s been asked not to address the specifics of the situation but adds in a text that Francona’s “separation was made with the input of many and, after his allegations, was investigated no less than three separate times by different parties, none of whom found any merit to his allegations.” More broadly, he offers some self-analysis: “I have absolutely made mistakes as a leader along the way. I’ve learned from them, and I’ve applied the lessons learned. I think I moved too fast in my first year with the Dodgers. It’s important to consider how everybody in the clubhouse feels, how everybody in the organization feels. Leading with more empathy is an adjustment I’ve made to my leadership style.”

The $1,000,018 question is whether the Phillies will buy what Kapler’s selling. No one’s more bullish on the new skipper than John Middleton. He shares a story about a visit he made years ago to one of the hotels his family operated. Middleton ended up in conversation with a laundress who’d been one of their first hires. “When I left, she looked at me and said, ‘You seem to be genuine. I think I can trust you.’ That was an object lesson for me. It’s not just what you say — it’s sensory. You feel that sincerity when you talk to Gabe. You can’t fake that.”

At the season-ticket-holder luncheon at the ballpark, I chat with a longtime employee who speaks bluntly about some past managers. Kapler has already won her over. She raves about the energy he brings, how he talks to everyone, the way he engages in conversation and wants to get to know people: “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

On the phone from Clearwater a week before pitchers and catchers report for duty, Kapler says he’s standing outside his apartment under a cloudless sky. He’s bummed that he missed the Eagles championship parade; he remembers the Red Sox party in Boston. It’s no surprise that Kapler sees lessons in the Birds’ season: “They were just projected to be okay, and what Coach Pederson told his players — it’s fascinating. Collaborative, inventive, open to new ideas and, in the Super Bowl, fearless. I think we can take a lot of cues from the Eagles.”

Kapler is a seeker: new experiences, new cultures, unique thought, perfection in sport and his physical form, stimulating philosophies and food and music. He’s the embodiment of life as a journey, not a destination. So what happens when the seeker lands here, at this singular moment for the city and its sports? Philly, arguably, hasn’t been so pliable in its identity since the days when truths were first held to be self-evident. The Phillies have inarguably never been so determined to transform. Maybe the guy who’s in a constant state of change has arrived at exactly the right time. Kapler does nothing halfway — maybe you would get a Star of David tattoo, too, but he also has the dates of World War II, an eternity flame, and NEVER AGAIN inked on the back of his right calf, along with at least 12 more designs etched across his body. Or maybe that explorer’s urge, inward and outward, will be what sinks the Great Gabe Kapler Experiment. When spring training opened in February and the Internet exploded with photos of Kap on the field, muscles bulging like a Marvel superhero’s, those snapshots highlighted the fine line between inspiration and looking like “the dude.”

Here’s what Kapler knows to be true: If everyone in the organization loves him but the Phils lose 90 games, he’s not long for this town. If the team plays hard, passes .500, and maybe sniffs a wild card, they’ll be having Coconut Oil Nights and showing a Speedo Cam on the Jumbotron (well, maybe). If there’s some truth to the rumblings from L.A., there’s also a silver lining — the guys who bought what Kapler was selling were the young up-and-comers, which describes most of his current roster. His SoCal-brah self-help mind-set is custom-built for the “be your best self and speak your truth” generation. (On connecting with 20-somethings, Kapler shifts into CEO-speak: “They’re very comfortable communicating open-kimono-style.”) And his original thinking, singular personality and lubricant endorsements? “Nobody gives a shit,” he says. “I have a really healthy awareness of that. Phillies fans want the Phillies to win.”

His friend Gors insists the #Kaplife is fully authentic: “This is who he is. I mean, he is a little bizarre. He wrote weird shit on his blog, but it wasn’t as weird to me as it was to other people. … He’s never been in the spotlight before. He’s the man now. He’s going to own it.” And owning it he was as spring training began, with Kapler wanting players to track and log every swing, throw, squat and sprint they take. Workouts start an hour later this season, to encourage more sleep and recovery. If you’re feeling sore, hey, relax and maybe stay home. His theme for the season, inscribed on t-shirts given to each player: “Be Bold.” Credit GM Klentak for somehow, in a single sentence at Kapler’s first press conference, nodding to the old-timey Phillies culture he’s changing and admitting he has no clue how baseball historians will someday regard the Kapler era: “We can’t project exactly how the next few years are going to play out, but boy oh boy, it’s going to be fun.”

Published as “Inside the Brilliant, Baffling, Beautiful, Bizarre and Utterly Fascinating Baseball Mind of Gabe Kapler” in the April 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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