It is way too late to say the honeymoon is over because that ended before Gabe Kapler managed his first game in Philadelphia. By the time he got to Citizens Bank Park following the Phillies' season-opening road trip to Atlanta and New York last season, the locals already had steam coming out of their ears based on some of the rookie manager's early-season decisions.
A long cooling-off period followed when the Phillies shocked us all and spent 39 days in first place before the massive late-season implosion that saw them tumble from a season-high 15 games over .500 to two games under after the season's final day. The team finished third and the disappointment in the clubhouse was palpable. By mid-September, Kapler was back in the doghouse and his attempts to go from perpetually upbeat to suitably annoyed were viewed as less than authentic.
The manager gave himself a homework assignment for the offseason. He decided he would spend as much time as possible in his home city in an attempt to get to know and relate better to the people who stand as judge and jury of his work.
"Come with the questions that you called into the radio station with, come with the questions that you screamed into your computer with, and let's talk it through," Kapler said during an October meeting with our Scott Lauber. "I'll show you and I'll share with you how those decisions were being made. I think what might happen over the course of time is people would see me as less 'out there.' We have to work hard – and we should have to work hard – to market and convince our fan base that the decisions we make are rooted in a tremendous amount of research and care. And there's never anything that is flippant. It's our responsibility to message that effectively. That doesn't mean we're going to win everybody over. But at least we keep working at it, we keep trying to communicate, we keep trying to share the vision, and we'll acquire a larger degree of trust."
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It's safe to assume we will not see any In Gabe We Trust banners hanging in South Philadelphia before the Phillies' season opener against the Braves. As it turned out, his offseason was nearly as tumultuous as his actual season. He fired a pitching coach (Rick Kranitz) whom everybody seemed to like, and allegations that he mishandled a volatile situation four years ago when he was the player development director of the Los Angeles Dodgers surfaced earlier this month.
"There is no question that there were some challenges this offseason," Kapler said after his team went through its first official spring-training workout Wednesday morning on the rain-soaked Carpenter Complex fields. "The way I dealt with those challenges was to focus my attention on others. I think those lessons are applicable to us as a team. When you want to achieve something that matters, you can't do it on your own. You need to lean on others for support and you need to support those leaning on you. I think that's the way I approached this offseason, that's the way I'm going to approach spring training and that's how we will approach the season."
Kapler added nothing of substance to the Dodgers' situation from four years ago, opting instead to refer to the statement he posted on his personal website. It's understandable that he wants to put the entire thing behind him and focus on his team and the new season that lies ahead.
In that regard, there was a sort of Gabe Kapler 2.0 reboot to his first news conference of the 2019 season. Taking a page from former Eagles coach Andy Reid, he opened with injuries, disclosing Jake Arrieta's "meniscus cleanup" on his left knee for the first time before also revealing that hard-luck right-hander Jerad Eickhoff had some issues in January after undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome shortly after the season ended.
Kapler also said things would be run a little differently this year than they were last year.
"I think that we're going to have some boundaries in the clubhouse ... that are a little bit stronger," the manager said. "Last year, I stressed that we wanted players to be able to be themselves and to be celebrated for who they were, and we're going to continue to stress that. And at the same time, we're going to implement systems and processes and boundaries that make it clear that we are here to work every single day. Spring training is going to be a jumping-off point for that. Everything we are going to do is going to have a higher level of intensity. Our attention to detail is going to be stronger and there are going to be some boundaries put into place. Not that I'm going to implement a set of rules different from what we had last year, but I will say that we are going to raise the bar for the behavior across the board."
Pressed for an example, Kapler offered none.
"There's nothing specific that I can point to," the manager said. "I can just tell you that it's an area of emphasis for us."
As always, the actions will be far more important than the words. The pressure is on the manager now because the Phillies got significantly better this offseason, with the very real possibility that they could get even better before spring training is over. If Manny Machado or Byrce Harper show up in Clearwater before the season begins, it will be postseason or bust and Gabe Kapler will likely pay the price by losing his job if it's the latter.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bob Brookover is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.