What we complain about when we complain about Gabe Kapler

Associated Press

Gabe Kapler was introduced as the new Phillies manager at a press conference yesterday. What has spun out of it suggests to me that he’s not likely to get a fair shake with the Philly media or, quite possibly, the national media. To understand why, let’s go back a bit.

Kapler was considered a pretty thoughtful guy for a ballplayer, always good for a bit more than the usual “play ’em one game at a time” cliches. In the middle of his career he retired, managed in the minors for a season, un-retired and came back to play more. Not a typical thing for a player to do, that’s for sure, but the Red Sox figured he was ready for it at the time. No one has ever doubted the guy’s brains or ambition.

Kapler has always been known as a physical fitness nut. After his playing career ended he worked in media and started his own personal fitness/lifestyle blog. He’d write about some serious things, such as this excellent take about what leads a player to take PEDs. Sometimes he’d write somewhat frivolous things, most famously about how nude sunbathing is great for you because one’s testicles are GREAT absorbers of vitamin D. He tended to take a tongue-in-cheek approach to that kind of stuff, though, winking at the reader a bit. He was having fun with it.

It wasn’t all just nude sunbathing, of course. Kapler worked as a broadcaster and then spent several years as the Dodgers Director of Player Development. The farm system has certainly produced great talent on his watch. Taking that job, succeeding at it and, later, interviewing to be Don Mattingly’s successor as Dodgers manager show that he was committed to the game.

Kapler didn’t get the Dodgers managerial job despite initially being considered the favorite by the brass. This was partially because Dave Roberts proved to be a much stronger candidate than some expected (and, in hindsight, the right choice). It has likewise since been suggested that, even if he was a favorite of the brass, Kapler wasn’t uniformly loved by Dodgers players and that he could be polarizing. It was also reported earlier this year that that his one-time employee, Nick Francona, filed a complaint alleging that Kapler pushed him out after Francona, a military veteran, reached out to a veteran aid agency, which Kapler allegedly took as a sign of Francona’s unfitness for his job. The allegations, if accurate, reflect poorly on Kapler to say the least.

Which brings us to Kapler’s hiring by the Phillies. When his hiring was announced the other day, there was an initial burst of negativity directed at him from certain corners of the Phillies fan base and certain members of the Philly media. The nature of it — joking about his old fitness blog and rolling eyes at his sabermetric and analytical background — was to be expected. Kapler is a big departure from the types of guys who have always managed the Phillies. As I wrote at the time he was passed over for the Dodgers job, the baseball establishment encourages conformity and disparages even the most modest eccentricity. It’s common to cast Kapler as something other than a “baseball man” even if, on the merits, he is every bit as much of a baseball man as anyone else.

The complaining about Kapler extended into his press conference yesterday when Philadelphia sports personality Howard Eskin asked a long, awkward question about one of Kapler’s old lifestyle blog posts. The post had to do with the health benefits of coconut oil. At the time he wrote that Kapler, quite clearly adding some of that tongue-in-cheek flavor, talked about how, in addition to everything else, coconut oil was a great sexual lubricant. It’s pretty clear that Eskin asked that question in order to paint Kapler as a wacko before he made his first decision as the Phillies manager.¬†Eskin is long removed from being a journalist people take seriously, but a lot of people will laugh and nod along with him and others who want to make fun of the weird, smart kid.

After yesterday’s press conference, Jon Heyman wrote a column about Kapler. Some of it was very good, as Heyman went into greater detail about Kapler’s time with the Dodgers, the mixed reception he received from the players, the Nick Francona allegations and Kapler’s reputation for being polarizing. A lot of it, however, was bad, with Heyman diving back in to the old lifestyle blog business and generally painting Kapler as an eccentric in the way that baseball men aren’t supposed to be eccentric. Some of it was downright unfair. Check out this paragraph:

One hard-to-believe story about Kapler: In order to talk to a group of minor league kids about analytics, a subject in which he is expert, he requested and received a rental TelePrompTer to use for his speech. That could be an issue since extemporaneous speaking is a prerequisite for a major league manager.

I’m not sure how a journalist can preface an anecdote by saying it was “hard to believe” and then go on and uncritically offer the anecdote up anyway. It smacks of someone who wants to slam Kapler but wants to do it at arm’s length. It’s bush league either way.

None of which is to say that Kapler and his past is above questioning and none of which is to say that Kapler will be successful as the Phillies manager. He might end up being a bad hire. But when it comes to assessing Kapler, both now and going forward, there is a legitimate line of critique and there is an illegitimate line of critique.

If Kapler has a hard time communicating or relating to his players — if those stories about him being polarizing in L.A. are born out by him being polarizing in Philly — and if he simply performs poorly in the job, obviously, it’s relevant and obviously it will determine if he’s a success or failure as a manager. People should talk about that and reporters should report on it.

If, on the other hand, Kapler is derided merely because of things he wrote three years ago or because he’s benignly eccentric or different and doesn’t fit into some stereotypical manager mold everyone is used to, it’s irrelevant and unfair. It’s valuing conformity for the sake of conformity and is evidence of the baseball establishment’s regrettable tribalism.

Going forward, listen to what people are complaining about when they complain about Gabe Kapler. It will tell you whether or not that person is worth listening to in the first place.