Written by: Mike Duffy
Cover Art by Paine Proffitt : http://www.paineproffitt.com
Exclusive Interviews with
Chase De Jong, Greg Venger, John Stolnis, & Chase Kaper
Last offseason, one of the biggest surprises was the hire of Gabe Kapler to be the new manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a move on the bolder side, for general manager Matt Klentak, who was given the green light to make his first managerial hire. Kapler was the runner-up for the Dodger gig two seasons before in 2016, having been their Director of Player development.
Kapler has a more bold and analytical approach to the game. This, on top of a few more characteristics, made him a unique choice for a Phillies organization that is familiar to more of a traditional approach to baseball. He has had a rollercoaster first year as manager, and a very interesting journey into baseball which I was just excited to find more about.
So one Thursday during lunch I swung by the main office at my school (Cleveland High School) to speak to the Athletic Director, Greg Venger. He noticed that I had a Phillies shirt on and mentioned that he had gone to Taft High School with Gabe Kapler. In ‘93 while Greg was the JV shortstop his sophomore year, Kapler was the varsity shortstop. During the playoffs Greg was brought up to Varsity, allowing for some memorable moments for Greg, where he was able to watch and model after someone who was soon to become a major leaguer.
“Gabe was a great teammate great guy. Well liked by everybody very popular in high school,” said Greg. “He was a gym rat always working hard to stay in shape. His group friends were a nice good circle of friends, they are lawyers or stockbrokers, they’re all doing successful so yeah you know they all figured out their niche in life.”
Greg was telling me about how “people liked to be around him,” and the positive bolt of energy people would get when he walked into a room. He also recalled some memories from their times on the field:
“We won the game against Kennedy High School, but ended playing in the semifinals against Chatsworth and we got blown out like 17 to 1. His leadership with that group of guys pretty special group he had his senior year. Gabe was definitely the catalyst to my team. ”
Also, we talked about how currently while managing he stresses the idea of drawing a lot of walks and telling them to take pitches. I asked Greg if Gabe took a lot of pitches, and Greg laughed and said:
“He was an aggressive guy. He never saw more than a few pitches when he was hitting. He was always up there to hit he did not wanna walk, he had a lot of pop. Back in the day, Taft high school fence in left field was like 330ft and like 408ft to straightaway center. Now they have a different fence up there. If Gabe played there right now, he would’ve broke the state record for home run, guaranteed.”
After graduating from Taft High School he attended a Division 1 school, Cal State Fullerton. It didn’t work out there for Gabe, so he ended up going back to Moorpark College. He got noticed there and he got drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 57th round in the 1995 Draft.
“He just peaked at the right time,” Venger said. “And that was the big thing.”
Gabe played fifteen seasons of professional baseball and has the highest career WAR of anyone drafted in the 57th round. During the twelve seasons in the MLB, he played for the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, Colorado Rockies, Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, and the Tampa Bay Rays in. In 2004 he won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
After winning the World Series with Boston, he went to Japan to play some baseball where he ruptured his Achilles. The Red Sox organization offered him his first and only managerial job before coming to the Phillies with the Sox Low-A team, the Greenville Drive. The team had a record of 58 – 81 in his two seasons with them before returning to playing baseball for three more years.
While he was working hard on his career, he always made time for his two sons. I spoke with his son Chase Kapler. Here’s what Chase had to say about his father:
“I have to credit him for how independent and self-starting I am, from a very young age he trusted me to make my own decisions and face my own consequences for those decisions. He also never pressured me to be anybody that he wanted me to be. He was very supportive of what I wanted and what I needed.”
When officially hanging up his glove he dabbled around in different forms of media. In 2013 he was an analyst for Fox Sports 1. Then using his love for “the importance of training outdoors and clean eating. To that end, he took to sharing information in 2013 and started a health and well-being blog at Kaplifestyle.com. ”
He used his knowledge of fitness and health to land him the job of Director of Player Development with the Los Angeles Dodgers in November of 2014. The press told two stories of how he was doing at that post, one that we see now, with all the amazing prospects that have come through that system like Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Austin Barnes, and so many more. This shows that Gabe was doing something right with that system. The other narrative was one that talked about how he just came into the system and took out all the unhealthy food in all the clubhouses of the system and made them follow strict diets. We never really heard what the players thought of that, but obviously Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman liked what he was doing and made him a frontrunner for the manager position. Gabe lost it to Dave Roberts in the end.
I was curious to hear what some of the players thought about Gabe when he was Director of Player development. I followed up with, Major League pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, Chase De Jong, who I originally interviewed back in 2017.
De Jong, who was originally a Dodger prospect, said he “enjoyed being under his leadership. Our minor league organization thrived under it.”
I asked him if he mentioned any of his goals for his future in baseball, and if he was preaching about being bold in Los Angeles like he is now doing in Philadelphia:
“Yes Gabe was always clear about being bold. We all knew that he had aspirations to be a major league manager. He’s a leader in whatever he does. He was very passionate about what he believed in he always entertained other points of view and I think that’s an incredible quality to have. Gabe I believe desires knowledge and wisdom above everything else. He’s a learner.”
This passion of learning and determination to be as knowledgeable about every player and the game is what caught the eye of GM Matt Klentak. Before the 2018 season, Kapler was signed to a 3 year managerial deal.
“They needed a new culture,” suggest Greg Venger on why Klentak hired Kapler. “But some of the old school Phillies fans might not like that so much. I think that his young energy and his intensity is what that organization needed. It’s maybe for some of them an acquired taste. But as a coach winning cures everything. You win everyone’s gonna love you.”
For Kapler, his first week was really rough. He pulled Aaron Nola early on Opening Day, and then the bullpen blew the game that was filled with miscommunications. He was also greeted with boos at the home opener. During all of this, Kapler stayed positive and said they would definitely go to the playoffs. Most people thought he was on something but Greg Venger suggested that “there is a little bit of arrogance about him, because he is confident. So the players, they like the confidence, they relate to that because that’s how the players are too.”
I reached out to Writer & Podcaster for SB Nation’s The Good Phight, John Stolnis, where he focuses on covering the current Phillies. He falls in the middle on the Kapler spectrum like most other writers but I challenged him to put away the criticism and just focus on the positives of his rookie season.
“I think my favorite thing about Kapler this year was how he was at least willing to try things that were different. I didn’t agree with all of what he did, and late in the season I thought he tried to do too much. But I liked that he wasn’t afraid, and I think he has shown a willingness to take criticism and to learn,” Stolnis said.
Greg Venger agreed with Stolnis and had this to say about Gabe’s first year of managing:
“I’m sure he would be the first to tell you the game part he’s still learning it. The game is different from it used to be. And it’s evolved. So when he came up as a player it was more of a small ball steal bases and now it’s more of strikeouts and guys hitting home runs.” – Greg Venger
After that first rough week, the Phillies turned it all around. They were in first place for over a month. At one point they even were 63- 48! It looked like Kapler would win Manager of the Year. The Phillies were in first place, had a really good division lead, and the Nationals were falling off a cliff. Gabe’s son, Chase said his favorite moments of this successful part of the season were “either the Maikel Franco walk off or Nola out-dueling Scherzer twice.”
But then the bad skid happened, the really bad skid. The Phillies went 8-20 for the rest of the season in September and they were not able to get that postseason chance they were hoping for. The pitching staff looked tired and bats were not coming alive.
Although the Phillies finished 2 wins below .500, they showed improvement from the year before. The ride has just begun for Gabe Kapler and he is ready to get back out there next season with something to prove to the city of brotherly love. Gabe wants to make sure he can be the manager of the next Phillies World Series team rather than finding himself on the hot seat.
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Thank you Paine Proffitt, Chase De Jong, Greg Venger, John Stolnis, & Chase Kapler, and everyone else who helped out on this article.