LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Gabe Kapler spent his first four spring trainings in Lakeland, Fla., as he started his baseball career with the Detroit Tigers. Each camp began the same way: Kapler finding a list of rules in his locker and then promptly tossing the sheet into the trash.
"In my opinion, grown-ups don't like being told what to do," said Kapler, the new Phillies manager, on Tuesday at baseball's winter meetings. "They like to be given choices and given the chance to make sensible ones. It doesn't always play out the way you expect it to, but I think through a relentless approach of educating, educating, educating, you get there over the course of time."
There will not be list of rules waiting for Kapler's players in February when they report to Clearwater, Fla. Instead, there will be no rules at all. The manager has spoken about building a "healthy culture" and "great environments" where the players "like coming to work." His stance on rules is a peek into what that culture may look like.
"Not having rules doesn't mean not having expectations. Not having rules doesn't mean not demonstrating to a player where he needs to improve," Kapler said. "… So one of the ways that you sort of police it is by challenging. And when people aren't living up to expectations, it's sharing that there's no rule against what you just did; however, there is a consequence for the action, and here's what it is. It's not always the same. It's not always that you pull a guy out of the game. It might be that he might lose his teammate in the locker next to him. His teammate might have less confidence in him because of that decision."
Kapler tested his rule-less method during his three seasons as the Dodgers' director of player development. It was the former big-leaguer's chance to construct an atmosphere that he would have loved to play in. The minor-leaguers had no rules, but very rarely was a "traditional rule" broken, Kapler said.
"You'd talk to them. A guy didn't show up on time, we had that conversation. Everybody knew that it wasn't acceptable," Kapler said. "You actually don't have to post a list of rules on the wall for there to be a philosophical agreement that we have expectations."
Joe Maddon, who managed Kapler with the Rays, told Kapler recently to not be afraid to be different. The Phillies hired Kapler because he is different. He seems to approach the game like no other manager in team history. Kapler is probably the first Phillies manager to say that the area he is most passionate about is "environment building."
Kapler spent his first six weeks as manager laying that foundation. He had dinners with Rhys Hoskins and J.P. Crawford. He flew to Miami and met with Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez. Kapler then visited the Dominican Republic and met with Maikel Franco, Luis Garcia, and Hector Neris. The manager is selling that environment, one that will not include rules. It will be interesting to see if his team buys in.
"So by way of example, if you don't have a rule about facial hair, and a man comes to the ballpark and his facial hair is down to his belly button, we might just say, hey, this is how this looks to your teammates. There's no rule against not having a beard down to your belly button, but I just want to hold up an accurate mirror for you," Kapler said. "Society passes judgment, whether we like it or not. So it's almost like every decision you make in a Major League Baseball clubhouse has repercussions."