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Getting knocked down has been part of the fight for rookie manager Gabe Kapler

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

LOS ANGELES – Manager Gabe Kapler’s baseball team is 30-22. It has not burned itself to the ground. He has not driven it into a lake. It’s fine. Two months in, it’s fine. And he’s fine. All’s fine.

Only three weeks until summer, and last year’s 96-loss Philadelphia Phillies are on a breezy enough pace for 94 wins, which seems a bit optimistic. But, then, a couple months back, there’d surely been enough Philly barstools that wouldn’t have believed a pace for 30.

As Philadelphia goes, as Gabe Kapler goes, there have been more graceful entrances. William Howe’s, for one. Within hours, pitching changes went wrong. A few games were lost. Social media blazed. The new manager, an earnest and unconventional kind of dude with all these, you know, ideas, could fill out a shirt sleeve, sure, but what about a lineup card? He was booed before the home opener. Which was, turned out, the day the Phillies started winning.

There is progress. As summer comes, they will be as capable as the rebuild, the players, the franchise allow. The players are good, for the most part, and there’s money to replace those who aren’t. There is a plan, beyond “Be Bold” and “Value at the Margins,” the catch phrases that translate into organizational philosophies. Part of the plan is Kapler. Part of his plan is theirs, and theirs his, which at their best is how these relationships work, and then sometimes you can’t help but to think of Mike Tyson’s bad-ass observation about such things: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Kapler grinned.

“I love that quote,” he said.

Even in this particular analogy, he’s reminded, as he was the one left dusting off his pants and counting his teeth.

“No, it’s got me thinking,” he said. “I don’t think it’s admirable to avoid getting hit. I don’t think it’s admirable to try not to get punched. I think there’s a lot of value in having that moment where your guard comes down and you get whacked. Because it helps you defend better moving forward.

Last year’s 96-loss Philadelphia Phillies are on a breezy enough pace for 94 wins under new manager Gabe Kapler. (AP)

“And I don’t think it’s admirable to try not to make mistakes. I think mistakes are essential. They happen to everybody. Some are better at covering them up than others. Mistakes teach us. They help us make adjustments. And we have better processes as a result. And that’s how I feel about it. I don’t set out to make mistakes. I do set out to not make the same mistake many times over. But getting knocked down is part of the fight.”

He was not advocating for rolling around in the dirt all night, every night. He was not rationalizing a series of let’s call them episodes that were perhaps clumsy but slowly, slowly dissolved into eight weeks of decent baseball and decent decisions. He was saying, however, that those who climb into the arena should rather expect to lose a half-pint-or-so of blood once in a while. Hell, just six months ago Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers walked into Game 7 of the World Series, and just six days ago Dave Roberts’ boss was compelled to announce Dave Roberts was not in danger of being fired. So, imagine the new guy who comes in for a hug and is greeted with a forearm to the throat, and maybe that’s self-inflicted and maybe that’s how the games work anymore, and just know that tough folks in tough towns simply will not stand for flimsy bullpen management. You know, unless it works.

Kapler, who may be the only manager in baseball to conduct his pregame press briefing while standing, on Tuesday afternoon leaned against a post in his dugout. Asked what that punch two months ago did for his plan, he laughed. Not at the notion that the plan might change over one punch. At the assumption there’d been only one.

“I think it’s easy to look back and look at just one moment,” he said. “And that’s the moment that he – or whoever – made the mistake or fell on their face. But you really get punched every day. Over and over and over and over. Really, adjustments are made along the way, adjustments to the process and the plan. You do have a blueprint. But then you’re flexible enough to go off and react to the situation and to be responsive to the environment. So that’s where I am with it. Consistently being responsive to the environment and then reading what the environment is saying relative to the blueprint.”

Oh.

“I never said that it wasn’t hard, right?” he said, smiling again. “It was, you know, a little bit, as a human being, nobody wants to get booed. Right? Everybody wants all their moves to work out perfectly. But that’s a pipe dream. … If you think you’re never going to get hit you’re crazy. That doesn’t happen. The fact that it happened at the very outset of the season, in this particular case, drove a lot of it. And I knew that all the way through. I’m very aware of what’s happening here.

“So what ends up happening, because I’ve had that perspective as a player, because I’ve had the perspective as a man, as a human being, where something is magnified, the storm was just the storm. I was very even. I was very measured. I was very aware. Feeling what I was feeling – ‘This sucks’ – but I understood what was happening around me. I was watching it unfold. It never felt out of control by any stretch. I was just observing.”

Besides, he said, “I don’t have a problem with conviction. I’ve never had a problem with conviction.”

Gabe Kapler may be the only manager in baseball to conduct his pregame press briefing while standing. (AP)

An uncomfortable game, or two, or five, whatever it might become, would not become a month or a season. Yes, Gabe Kapler has notions of what works and what will not. Everyone does. His don’t always sound like everyone else’s, which makes them neither wrong nor right. Just, his. Theirs. By September, maybe even – who knows – October, his players will let him know what they think, by winning 70 games or 80 or 90.

Meantime, Kapler has if nothing else worn the sort of public judgment more often reserved for players. They’re the ones who lost 96 games last year, after all. And 91 the year before. And 99 before that. So, hey, he’s in it with them, for better or worse. Not above it. Not hiding from it. Vulnerable, like everyone else, to the punch that changes everything. Or nothing.

“I think I believe inherently that players and staff members, that baseball people, I believe the best in them,” Kapler said. “And I believe that they’re really, really smart. And sometimes I forget how emotional we all are. How emotional we all are as human beings. Circling back to the main point here, the most important thing that I’ve learned is to be responsive to that emotion and sometimes give it more weight than the optimal strategic decision.

“They’re emotional. You’re emotional too. And what is driving our decision-making process, isn’t always what we think it is. Taking a step back, respecting that, it’s a helpful, holistic view.”

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