Gabe Kapler, nine months after the Phillies fired him as their manager and three days before he is to begin the regular season leading a new team, gathered his San Francisco players Monday afternoon and delivered a message.
The Giants, Kapler told the group, would support them if they chose to stand or kneel during the national anthem before that night’s exhibition in Oakland. And then Kapler told his team what he planned to do: take a knee.
Kapler, alongside several players and coaches, became the first major-league manager to kneel during the anthem. It is also believed that he is the first manager or head coach in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues to kneel during the anthem.
“I did that because I wanted them to know that I wasn’t pleased with the way our country has handled police brutality,” Kapler said during a postgame call with reporters. “I told them I wanted to amplify their voices and I wanted to amplify the voice of the Black community and marginalized communities, as well. I told them that I wanted to use my platform to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with the way we have handled racism in our country. I wanted to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with our clear systematic racism in our country and I wanted them to know that they got to make their own decision and we would respect and support those decisions.”
Kapler was joined Monday night by players Jaylin Davis, Mike Yastrzemski, and Austin Slater, and coaches Antoan Richardson and Justin Viele. Angels pitcher Keynan Middleton also knelt during the anthem on Monday in San Diego. Hours later, the demonstrations seemed to reach Washington.
“Looking forward to live sports,” President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “But any time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!”
Kapler was asked Monday night on a Zoom call with reporters about President Trump’s tweet and said he did not see kneeling during the anthem as “disrespect at all.”
“I see nothing more American than standing up for what you believe in. I see nothing more patriotic than peaceful protests when things are frustrating and upsetting,” Kapler said. “And finally, there’s nobody that should make us stop doing the right thing. It doesn’t matter what leader says that they’re not going to be following a game. What matters the most is that we’re unwavering in trying to do what’s right, and what guides our decision is standing up for people who need us to stand up for them.”
Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations and the man who hired Kapler, said in a statement that the team was proud of its players and staff for “continuing to participate in the national conversation about racial injustice.”
“We support those who knelt to peacefully protest racial injustice and those who stood to express love of country,” Zaidi said. “We do not see those as mutually exclusive sentiments and believe the freedom to express both is what our country is about. As an organization, we reaffirm our denouncement of acts of discrimination and violence against members of the Black community and our pledge to work together with those who seek to end racial injustice in America.”
Kapler was polarizing during his two seasons in Philadelphia for the way he managed. He relied on analytics, mismanaged his bullpen, seemed to spin every negative into a positive, and watched his team collapse in consecutive Septembers.
Kapler, especially for Philadelphia, was different. And he’s bringing that same style to San Francisco. The Giants applied a defensive shift Monday night that placed their third baseman in deep left field. He has assembled a staff with a 31-year-old bench coach and hired Alyssa Nakken as the first woman to be a full-time major-league coach. On Monday, Nakken coached first base and became the first woman to coach in an on-field capacity during a big-league game.
Kapler, just as he did in Philadelphia, is bucking traditions. And just like it was in Philly, Kapler’s office in San Francisco is decorated with framed portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi. Kapler grew up in a middle-class neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. His parents were mindful of social issues, active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and taught their children to “celebrate diversity.” It was that childhood that planted the seeds for Kapler to kneel on Monday.
“The one thing that was completely unacceptable in our home was anything that took a group of people and put them in a box,” Kapler said in 2018 before his first season with the Phillies. “Anything racially charged, anything that related to gender. No stereotypes. My dad would be really upset if a joke like that was made. He really took it to heart.
"He encouraged questioning authority," Kapler said. "Not falling into line because there was an authoritative figure. A police officer. A religious figure. A teacher. A political leader. Don't blindly follow because they tell you to do something. That was never a message in my home. It was the opposite. Ask questions and challenge."
The Giants begin their season on Thursday in Los Angeles against the Dodgers as one of the two games to be played on the first night of the MLB season. The baseball season begins two months following the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed across America.
It was expected that even baseball, a sport that frowns upon individualism, would see players protesting this season. No Phillies players protested during the team’s three exhibition games or said they plan to do so during the season. But manager Joe Girardi, like the man he replaced in Philadelphia, said he would support his players if they did so.