We can all remember where we were in 2018 when Gabe Kapler’s positivity became too much. By mid-September, the rookie manager’s relentless optimism was looking less like a healthy mindset and more like incurable brain worms.
“I think we are well-prepared to get back to Philadelphia in a really good spot to strike. I think we didn’t perform our best on this road trip. I don’t think that can be diminished. It happened. And now we turn the page and get prepared for a home stand in Philadelphia.”
The Phillies were not in a good spot to strike. They had been, at the beginning of August, and for the 39 days they spent in first place. But now, they were 74-68, 4.5 games out of first place, with not enough calendar left to right themselves. They were in a great position to be struck by other, better, more engaged teams. They were not in a “good spot to strike.”
“I’m a New Yorker; I don’t think anybody can be that positive,” Phillies President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail said when asked about Kapler’s limitless optimism that was at times perceived at disingenuous:
“He will get probably an all-expense paid dinner where he’s going to have to listen to me drone on for two hours. I watched this happen with Dusty Baker. If you’re just overly positive, overly positive, you lose credibility with the fans after a while. You have to find a way to craft a message that is not critical of your players or negative, but acknowledge there are some areas like the rest of us where we need to make some improvements.”
From this two-hour dinner conversation, assuming it happened, would come the tone of the Phillies’ clubhouse culture for 2019. Kapler’s absorbance of MacPhail’s droning would combine with his already established views on leadership to create an environment that, according to Kapler, would be based on accountability.
“When things aren’t going the way that they should, it is always my responsibility to step up and be accountable for those things,” Kapler said. “And I will do that in this situation as well.”
This is an evolution of Kapler’s clubhouse strategy from last season, which was based on private meetings (“With the players I thought could have been more engaged, those conversations were had. I addressed every situation that clearly needed to be addressed last year in appropriate settings,” he said), as well as players policing themselves. The results of that experiment weren’t published until recently—and informed us that apparently, at one point, Kapler had a renegade cop on his hands.
According to ESPN’S Jeff Passan, younger Phillies players had taken to playing Fortnite during games, an act that never sat well with veteran Carlos Santana. The big walk machine decided to form his own solution, Passan wrote, and apparently Santana took a bat and smashed a clubhouse television to pieces to express his feelings.
Reports indicate this story has passed through several perspectives and third parties (“There is some untruth to the story, some things that were not portrayed correctly,” Jake Arrieta said). But it sure sounds like something was broken in the Phillies clubhouse last year—possibly a television, probably the line of communication—giving us a brief glimpse of the culture of the 2018 Phillies.
The television incident isn’t the only thing we kind of know about the Phillies’ inner sanctum from last season. We know that Odubel Herrera was left to his own devices in the absence of leaders like Freddy Galvis and Andres Blanco, and that his numbers indicated he could have benefited from the sort of guidance they had apparently been providing. We know about the team employing a “sensitivity bus” to reel in anyone who had what was considered an overly emotional reaction, and that the gag was quietly and efficiently killed by Kapler behind closed doors. We know that Kapler refused to criticize his players in public, a tactic that is being reworked for 2019, all in the name of accountability.
As MacPhail and Kapler pieced together over dinner what that word will mean for them moving forward, we already had an idea of how Kapler defined “accountability.” Easily buried by the roster developments of the Phillies off-season was the story that surfaced in early February about Kapler while he was the director of player development with the Dodgers: During spring training in 2015, two of his players were allegedly partying in the Dodgers’ hotel in Arizona with three women, one of whom was a teenage runaway. According to the Washington Post report, when the other two women assaulted the teenager, “one of the Dodgers players videotaped the beating on his phone, and then posted the video on Snapchat.” The victim later alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by one of the players during the evening. Kapler said that he was not aware of any sexual assault accusation until long after he had received the initial report.
The police were not called. Kapler notified the Dodgers’ legal team and his supervisor, and, according to him, eventually attempted to set up a meeting between the players and the victim “...to provide the opportunity for the victim to receive an apology in a controlled environment with supervision, and to educate the players on how to be accountable.”
“While others determined the consequences for the players from a legal and social perspective, I and others in player development took steps to work on their decision-making skills.”
It’s an odd choice, to put it lightly, to look at the situation in front of him and determine the best course of action following his players’ part in the assault of a teenager is to talk it out like they had been scuffling middle schoolers on the playground. We don’t know exactly how Kapler saw this tactic playing out in his head, but the general idea to get everybody in the same room, even without knowledge of the alleged sexual assault, is, frankly, bizarre. It shows that Kapler, at the time, viewed “accountability” more as an opportunity for self-improvement, rather than solely justice or punishment. There’s something to be said for the idea that every moment, good or bad, is a chance for growth. But some moments are grotesque enough to shatter their potential as a learning opportunity. And those moments, like this one, can be pretty clear in announcing themselves.
Much has changed for Kapler since 2015, and we have to wonder if that includes his definition of “accountability.” Considering how often the word “accountable” has been used to describe the Phillies’ culture moving forward, his belief in what that word means factors heavily into the team’s future.
Now, for the other side of that two-hour dinner. In his press conference following the disappointing end of the 2018 regular season, Andy MacPhail mentioned the laissez-faire approach that he had taken to the Phillies locker room: “I’m a little bit removed from that. You don’t see me in the clubhouse or anything. I try not to second guess too much.”
When he returned to the microphone for his first press conference of spring training this year, MacPhail still wanted to make it clear just how far he lives from the pulse of the team. After rattling off a list of franchise resources, new stadium attractions, and improvements to the scouting, analytics, and social media departments—presumably to get his resume on the public record in case his team failed to sign Bryce Harper (they didn’t)—he repeated that his focus was elsewhere:
“I may be the last guy to find out about some of that stuff,” MacPhail said when asked pointedly about his team’s pursuit of Bryce Harper, which at the time was ongoing. Later, he added, “I’m not a Philly-centric guy; I spent four years in Carlisle, that’s as close as I got.”
Just how effective, then, would a conversation about increasing team accountability be between someone content with being distant from the team’s culture, and someone who’s definition of accountability can fairly be called into question?
There’s still a lot to learn about this team; not as much about who will fill out the roster, but plenty regarding the culture in which they will play. Leadership was not a strong suit of the Phillies last season, and the lack of it became a factor of their quiet inconsistency. The result of that, we’ve learned, was that beneath the Phillies’ silent exterior was an occasional smashed television.
Kapler will be using his adjusted views to lead the team, but players will inevitably police themselves again, and in that regard, the team is stacked: Rhys Hoskins is ready to be a leader, and last year, he had everything but the major league experience to do so. He and Arrieta have reportedly been central to the development of new clubhouse philosophies for the Phillies. Bryce Harper is aware of his influence as a superstar, and J.T. Realmuto most certainly has some wisdom to share. Andrew McCutchen is the easiest new player about whom to find anecdotal evidence of his exemplary clubhouse presence, and was likely acquired in part for this reason.
There is a part of clubhouse culture we haven’t mentioned yet, and that’s winning. If this team wins as often as it intends to, clubhouse culture and chemistry will come a lot easier. People who like baseball don’t have to care what goes on in the locker room, but it’s from that environment from which temperaments are generated and impact how a team plays together. When everyone has their own definition of accountable, things have a way of getting confused.
These new Phillies needed to find a new way of addressing each other, addressing the fans, and addressing televisions. Perhaps an injection of positive leadership to the roster will help stabilize the bumpy process we’ve been on with Kapler. If it doesn’t, MacPhail may have to hold his nose and come down to Philadelphia for a conversation much less pleasant than a two-hour dinner.