BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Gabe Kapler came here Thursday night, to the Sands Bethlehem casino and hotel for a stop on the Phillies’ offseason caravan, looking like … well … like Gabe Kapler. Light gray sweater, with the collar up, under a sleek brown blazer. Slim blue pants. A robust tan, with spring training less than three weeks away.
Still, before he entered a ballroom to join Andrew Knapp, Nick Pivetta, and a few other Phillies players, for a Q&A with fans and sponsors, a woman saw him walking through the hotel, and asked, Hey, are you with the Phillies? Or, maybe the way he looked was why she asked.
Either way, that’s the basic question everyone’s still asking about Kapler, isn’t it, even after his first season as the Phillies’ manager?
Yes, he’s with the Phillies, but is he with us? Is he one of us? Us, of course, means Philadelphia and its fans. People here ask that question of just about every coach or manager. Some of them answer it better and faster than others.
Charlie Manuel was confident that he would win us over, and he did, in large part by winning a World Series. Doug Pederson was just Doug Pederson, and he won, too, and now he’s beloved. Dick Vermeil wore his heart on his tear-soaked sleeve. He’s still one of us. Dave Hakstol, recently fired as the Flyers’ head coach, never got there. He was a blank slate, mostly, as he took a couple of years to understand the market, to size up the city and the Flyers’ fan base.
Kapler has been different from all of them, in that he had further to go to win over the town — and, really, many of his players, too — because his personality and persona were so contrary to what everyone around here was used to, and generally preferred.
Even before the Phillies collapsed over the final month-and-a-half, even while they were in first place and as many as 15 games over .500, people were unsure about Kapler, and that uncertainty, that what-to-make-of-this-guy vibe, went beyond the makeup of his lineup or the number of pitching changes he made.
It was in the clubhouse: “There was anger,” reliever Pat Neshek told USA Today last May. “Nobody knew what was going on. A lot of guys were questioning him.”
It was outside the clubhouse, too. Philadelphia fans love their news conferences. They analyze them. They dwell on them. They judge their athletes and coaches by them. And Kapler’s demeanor and answers in those settings, his relentless positivity even after an embarrassing loss during a long losing streak — his insistence, like Kevin Bacon at the Faber College homecoming parade, that all was well when it obviously wasn’t — did him no favors.
A manager might protect his players, might keep all his criticisms in-house, but Kapler at times seemed to be describing a reality that didn’t exist. In Kapler’s world, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia wasn’t a dark and ironic comedy. It was a public posture that made people feel as if they were being sold something.
What Kapler faces now is a two-pronged test. Getting his players to buy in, to play hard and well for him every day, is one thing, and he is confident that he delivers enough tough love behind closed doors, even if it isn’t as tough as some might like it to be. Pederson, the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll, the Red Sox’ Alex Cora — he sees himself in line with those coaches, who view leadership as a partnership.
“If you ask our players, we don’t go easy on them,” Kapler said. “We don’t show everything. One of the things that I want our players to know is that I will be direct with them. So I think our players would say, ‘Gabe is direct with us. He tells us the truth.’ I don’t bull--- our players. I can engage them. I treat them like adults. Most adults don’t like being screamed at. It just doesn’t seem like an effective leadership style to me.”
But getting the public to understand and appreciate him and what he’s trying to do is something else — and perhaps the more challenging task.
Consider the first thing Kapler said during an interview Thursday night: “This is an exciting time. Anytime you have the players around, you start to smell it a little bit. I’m smelling it.”
Reading those words, you can picture people’s eyes’ rolling and their mouths’ spitting out, Gimme a break with this crap, Gabe. But that’s the rub for him, isn’t it? Philadelphia demands that its sports figures be real, be themselves. If this is who Kapler really is, is it fair to turn around and ask him to be someone else?
“One of the things that I learned specifically is, the fans in Philadelphia like to see emotion,” said Kapler, who lives in the city. “They like to see passion. They like to see, if they’re suffering, that you’re suffering along with them. So one of the things that I can do better is show them a little bit more of me.
“Look, when we lose a baseball game, I’m crushed. It is a blow, and I feel like ---. I don’t sleep well. I come back to the ballpark the next day, and we do it all over again. I think I share that in common with our fans, and I think one of the things I can do better is show that side of me. I have more work to do in that regard than anywhere else.
“The challenge of the media in Philadelphia is a real one. The challenge of the fan desperation in Philadelphia is a real one. And I ... love it. I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t want it another way.”
He won’t get it another way, not around here. Starting next month, we’ll find out what he’s learned.