Thompson: Gabe Kapler, on his way from fired to first place, always made allowance for the doubters (2024)

Gabe Kapler didn’t lean on “ums” or “wells.” No filler lingo. He opted for a persistent silence as he searched for the right words to pluck.

How does he explain this growth of his, such that those outside the bubble would understand? How does he reconcile the gulf between the manager who left Philadelphia and the one who has helped the Giants to the driver’s seat in the National League West? He wasn’t taking this answer lightly, because it was connected to a philosophy he holds dear.


So he took his time to fashion a worthy response. Thinking.

Thinking. The pause was long enough to seem like the call dropped.

“I had a pretty structured way that I thought baseball games and a baseball clubhouse and dugout should be managed,” Kapler said, breaking the pregnant pause in a phone interview last week. “And was fairly rigid. And I think now I’m more flexible and less certain. And I think I ask more questions, involve more people and listen more.

“I don’t think baseball is a game that’s played on paper. And I think that I feel like I understand the human beings involved, and their confidence levels. And the chemistry and the clubhouse and the harmony in the clubhouse are the most important things now, and maybe a small tactical advantage on paper isn’t worth messing with that harmony. Does that make sense?”

Certainly, Kapler is not above frustrating his fan base with some of his bullpen choices and lineup moves. But that’s par for a manager.

What’s different in his case is how quickly he’s resuscitated his managerial rep. He was all but perp-walked out of Philadelphia as manager of the Phillies with a year left on his contract. And the Giants’ sub-.500 win percentage in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season didn’t do him any favors. Now, even his biggest critics can’t argue he’s a favorite for NL Manager of the Year, or deny his hand in leading a team that’s beating down the door on 100 wins and showing up the vaunted Dodgers.

What’s unique about Kapler’s route here is that it had nothing to do with silencing critics. Instead, it had everything to do with his commitment to his life principle, an obsession of his talked about far less than his workout routine: growth. Reaching it and teaching it.

To explain further, Kapler points to “If,” the famous late-19th-century poem by Rudyard Kipling. You may recognize the opening line —If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you — popular enough to become cliche. It has been preserved in modernity as framed mantras in executive offices, as messages on coffee mugs in teachers’ lounges, as crescendos in motivational rhetoric.


But Kapler actually bonded with the second bar in this literary masterpiece, which underlines his approach to this stewardship as skipper of the Giants: If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.

The wisdom in this Victorian-era philosophy is a window into the psychology of Kapler.

He is fine with his public persona being a bit of a caricature. An idyllic sculpture who spits out ice cream after tasting it, who practically cycles a stage of the Tour de France before the sun rises, who was known more for his abs than his ABs during his 12-year career. Even if it meant being cast as superficial, as too regimented for instinct, Kapler nods in acceptance.

“What I understand,” Kapler said, “and what is fine with me is that in these roles, what most people get to know is what is written in stories and articles. It’s a little bit difficult to get to know a person a little bit more deeply. It doesn’t have to be any different. Because at the end of the day, people want to read stories. ‘Hey, that dude spits out his ice cream after he eats it.’ Like that’s, that’s interesting to people. So if that’s what we’re entertaining, that’s totally fine.”

Without a doubt, he’s about that healthy life. He gets his workouts in faithfully and watches closely what he eats. He even rocks stunna shades in the dugout, too. But Kapler is not above sleeping in. Or pounding down a doughnut. Or going with the flow of the moment.

Kapler’s interest lies not in defending his name by railing against the caricature or endeavoring to paint a more complete picture. Instead, it’s enduring the perception, appreciating it as resistance in the challenge of growth. The way Kapler sees it, his success with the Giants, however stunning it might be, isn’t vindication from past slights. Rather validation for his emphasis on self-development.


His hiring with the Giants in 2019 was met with vehement criticism, largely due to his handling of an incident involving his players in 2015 when he was the Dodgers’ farm director. Even though MLB reportedly cleared him of wrongdoing, Kapler charged himself with “not doing enough” in his attempts to handle the matter privately after two of his players were accused of witnessing an assault (the 17-year-old girl later told police one of the Dodgers’ players sexually assaulted her). Kapler apologized for his handling of it, called himself naive and expressed his remorse. He needed to be better. He’s basically eaten the blow to his reputation since, making allowance for the doubt brought on by his actions and accepting the challenge of proving over time he’s not what those choices suggest.

For Kapler, progress isn’t an event. It’s a journey.

In this way, Kapler is much like everyone else, living and learning. Growth is inevitable and not dependent on outcomes. All outcomes produce growth when it is the goal.

Thompson: Gabe Kapler, on his way from fired to first place, always made allowance for the doubters (2)

“I think now I’m more flexible and less certain,” Kapler says of the differences between his time in Philadelphia and now. “And I think I ask more questions, involve more people and listen more.” (Jason Getz / USA Today)

The easy answer is to point to failure as a precursor for future success, to presume a moment or particular enlightenment changed his stars. He prefers to credit the process, which hums along through triumphs and failures alike. Results, good and bad, are but food for the algorithm, not worthy of too much credit except in their collective contribution to growth.

He’s not good with the Giants now because he failed in Philadelphia then, not in his mind. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have been good in Philadelphia given more time and the applications of the same lessons he brings to San Francisco? Who could conclude he didn’t still grow even if the Giants weren’t blowing everyone’s minds this season? Who could determine he’s grown as much as their Lads’ record might make it seem?

“I think it’s much more similar to how people just grow over time,” he said, “and change and adapt. It’s not like one thing. And what I’ll say is, as a man, as a person, as a, as a, as a coach, as a father, you know, I have a long way to go. A lot of growth and development left. I think I’ve always been looking for ways to improve. I can’t stress this enough. Because I think sometimes the way these stories come out is this is how I am different, right? But I think these are things that make me more like everyone else in our clubhouse, more like everyone else in our community.”

It feels safe to presume Kapler’s genuineness passed the test of the Giants’ veterans. Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Brandon Belt, Darin Ruf, they’ve all virtually signed off on Kapler’s staff with their stellar play. They seem renewed under the new regime, though Posey also has a year off to thank.


Kapler said they deserved the credit. They embraced him and the staff, injecting their expertise as part of the buy-in to the new program. Their stamp of approval is a big deal to Kapler, who accepted the daunting challenge of replacing a legend in Bruce Bochy.

At the same time, Kapler’s roots are in player development. So while he and the OGs exchange notes about the finer points of the game, about maximizing and preserving their remaining greatness, Kapler and his staff are also charged with grooming the roster’s youth. From teaching them how to listen to their body and the importance of being honest about how they feel, to having real-life conversations about family and pressure.

The truth Kapler understands, as a 46-year-old in an all-out brawl with Father Time, is that development doesn’t cease. What makes the Giants clubhouse a thriving one is the thread of self-improvement connecting all its demographics. And perhaps what makes Kapler such a good fit is his perspective on the need for continuous growth and the search for that sweet spot of character, on which Kipling eloquently riffs.

So it was fine that people didn’t believe in Kapler. And some still don’t. And now that he’s winning, the challenge is to not get lost in the sauce, to be steadfast in his development mindset even as success tugs at his vanity. Also, in the fourth stanza of Kipling’s poem:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch.

“If” is a picture of manhood as defined by maturity and balance. It violates the conventional wisdom of men being governed by pride and emotion. Instead, it extols the virtues of patience, perspective and appreciation. And Kipling wrote it to his son.

Which is fitting in the story of Kapler. The bar for which he’s aiming can’t be cleared by wins alone. Because it was set by Michael Kapler.


“My dad was an excellent, excellent communicator,” he said. “And my dad was very good at keeping his wits about him in stressful situations. And he was an excellent adjustment maker. And he knew how to apologize and say, ‘I can do better.’ And those are examples that my dad set that I still to this day think about. And he didn’t sit me down and lecture me. That’s not who my dad was at all. He was just a lead-by-example kind of man. And he was imperfect, understood that he was imperfect, but was very down to make adjustments. And he cared deeply about people. All of those things were very influential to me.”

Kapler’s father died in December, just nine months ago, losing his bout with Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia. Kapler is no doubt his daddy’s son. Michael Kapler was a runner, a yoga stud, a musician and a writer.

So it stands to reason the approval of fans, of media, wouldn’t move the needle too much. Not for a boy-at-heart yearning to maintain his father’s nod. Or to a father determined for his nods to resonate with his own boys.

(Top photo: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Thompson: Gabe Kapler, on his way from fired to first place, always made allowance for the doubters (3)Thompson: Gabe Kapler, on his way from fired to first place, always made allowance for the doubters (4)

Marcus Thompson II is a lead columnist at The Athletic. He is a prominent voice in the Bay Area sports scene after 18 years with Bay Area News Group, including 10 seasons covering the Warriors and four as a columnist. Marcus is also the author of the best-selling biography "GOLDEN: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry." Follow Marcus on Twitter @thompsonscribe

Thompson: Gabe Kapler, on his way from fired to first place, always made allowance for the doubters (2024)


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