Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has been criticized on a rather frequent basis during his first year for his positivity, even in circumstances where the team’s season appears to be on the ropes. After losing 15-2 in just his third game as Phillies manager, Kapler guaranteed the Phillies would make the playoffs. During a month of August that’s seen the Phillies go 11-14, Kapler has repeatedly maintained that he doesn’t worry about his team.
Monday, Kapler joined Jon Marks and Ike Reese on SportsRadio 94 WIP and the three had an insightful discussion on positivity and what gets players to respond:
Marks: A lot of the phone calls we take are “we like Gabe – but he’s too positive after a game, at the press conference…the Phillies just lost, I’m hurting inside and I tune in and you’re not dragging Odubel Herrera out after he has a bad game and saying he had a bad game!” So the one thing I hear about you is that you’re too positive, do you hear that as well?
Kapler: I have heard that. And look, I am human, like Ike said, so I do experience the highs and the lows of this game. But I don’t think anybody wants the leaders of the clubs in Philadelphia to ride the emotional waves. I just don’t think that’s a good thing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the emotions, I’m just not going to ride the emotional waves and I don’t think that any good leader of a sports franchise swings wildly up and down [emotionally]. I just don’t think that’s a good thing for a leader.
Ike (in a sarcastic tone): We want you to be Lou Piniella.
Marks (said while laughing): Flipping tables in the clubhouse…
Kapler: You know what I really believe in my heart? Players don’t respond to that. Players are grown-ups. They don’t like to be treated like children. They don’t like to be yelled at. They don’t like to be berated. I actually don’t think it’s a strong developmental tool or tactic, and that’s why I don’t use it.
Ike: Man, I wish my coaches thought like you…I wish my coaches thought like you when I was growing up.
Kapler: Well let me ask you this, if any leader of a team you played for came to you and yelled in your face, is that something when you walked away [you would say] “man, I really like playing for that guy?”
Ike: Nah, I’ve never felt that way.
Marks: He [Ike] played for Nick Saban at Michigan State. What did you think about Nick, Ike?
Ike: I couldn’t wait to leave Michigan State.
Kapler: But seriously, if you’re feeling like “I can’t wait to get out of here,” are you going to perform better?
Kapler made sure to point out that his response wasn’t about Saban or anyone specifically, but it is an interesting example. Saban is arguably the greatest college football coach of all-time. Between his stops at LSU and Alabama, Saban has won six National championships. But despite being universally viewed as one of the best football coaches in the world, Saban has only once coached in the NFL, tallying a 15-17 record as the Miami Dolphins head coach between 2005 and 2006. He left the NFL after his second season when offered the Alabama job and has remained there since.
It’s probably not that Saban isn’t capable of putting gameplans together that would succeed in the NFL, but in professional sports, things are entirely different than college. Players are a few years older, players have guaranteed contracts (fully in the case of baseball) and players have the right to leave in free-agency when said contracts are up. But unlike in college, the goal isn’t to develop players and have them star in a three-to-five year period. You don’t get a new crop of freshman every summer (you get rookies, but in a much smaller class), so you can’t have your veterans thinking “I can’t wait to get out of here.” That’s what veterans felt at the conclusion of Chip Kelly’s tenure as the Eagles head coach, and it created a toxic environment and poor on-field product.
It remains to be seen if Kapler’s uber-positivity will have any sort of shelf-life. But it doesn’t remain to be seen if modern professional athletes respond to being treated poorly or micromanaged. In Philadelphia alone, we’ve seen players tire of being coached by the aforementioned Kelly, Eddie Jordan and Doug Collins.
It also feels naive to act as though there’s no line in between being a pushover or an authoritarian coach. Tuesday evening, for example, Kapler didn’t need to rush into the clubhouse at the game, scream at Vince Velasquez for a base-running blunder and flip the ping-pong table over. That doesn’t mean you don’t address the mistake that ended a crushing loss – in fact, Kapler said in his post-game press conference that he did that – but there’s a way to do it that will get people to respond. And that’s on top of hearing a stadium boo after being over-eager on the basepaths in a situation that Velasquez should have simply stayed at second base. There’s a conversation to be had, but by and large, you would have to think that in an instance like that, the conversation would be short because Velasquez is in his fourth season. He knows what he did wrong.
As it turns out, in a 162-game season you have to pick your spots as a manager. You have to balance correcting mistakes made by young players, with not micromanaging players to the point where they simply tune you out. It’s a fine line, one Kapler has tried to walk in his first season as Phillies skipper.
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