One of the most interesting moments so far this Spring Training came when new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler was seen listening to Charlie Manuel, the winningest manager in franchise history, behind the the batting cages. The two are an interesting contrast: Manuel is a traditional "baseball guy," while Kapler is largely in this position because of a willingness to embrace new tools. Kapler, as has been well documented, could be mistaken for a body builder. Manuel may have been a spokesman for Nutrisystem, but he's not quite on Kapler's fitness level.
The two are very different, yet the hope from the Phillies is that Kapler leads the club to a sustained period of success, like Manuel did when the Phillies won five consecutive National League East titles, two National League pennants and a World Series title between 2007 and 2011.
There's one other interesting contrast between the two: their playing careers. Manuel batted just .198 in 384 career at-bats in the major leagues, but hit nearly 200 home runs in a wildly successful career in Japan. Kapler, on the other hand, had a pretty successful 12-year major league career, including playing for the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who broke an 86-year World Series drought. His brief stint in Japan, however, didn't go as well.
Kapler was asked to discuss his 38-game stint with the Yomiuri Giants in 2005 at this winter's Phillies college summit. He, rather eagerly, explained why he wasn't able to find success in Japan.
"In 2004, I was young, and I think I made a decision without considering every angle," Kapler began. "As a young boy, I fantasized about Tokyo...I fantasized about Japan and about the culture of Japan. Things like being a ninja fascinated me at like five or six years old. And that was my association with Japan, and I think that sort of painted the way that I thought about it as a grown-up. So, I thought first about the culture. 'Hey, I'll go to Japan and get on a train and I'll get off and see all of these buildings and everything will be written in Japanese and I'll have this really cool experience.' But I didn't really focus on what I was going over there to do, which was to play baseball successfully."
Kapler, less than a year removed from winning a World Series title, burned out in Japan. In 111 at-bats, he slashed .153/.217/.261 with just one home run, before ultimately being waived by the Yomiuri Giants.
After a short, unsuccessful stint in Japan, Kapler ended up back with the Red Sox for 36 games in 2005. He says that in addition to the cultural pull that he felt from Japan, he largely viewed playing there as a means to an end.
"I also was thinking about it as a catalyst to get back to the United States and parlay that into an everyday job at the major league level. So, the Red Sox had offered me a contract for 2005 - it was a one-year deal. Japan offered me a two-year deal, for essentially two times the money and then I saw this shiny cultural thing that I wanted to experience. So the aggregate of these two things was 'let's go over there, let's collect the money, let's experience the culture, let's eat the food, let's get back to the United States.' I'll play great over there, so then I'll get an everyday job playing center field here [the United States]."
That Kapler viewed the Yomiuri Giants as an ideal place to potentially leave an impression on a major league team wasn't that surprising. Just three years prior to his stint with the team, Hideki Matsui slashed .334/.461/.692 with 50 home runs and 107 RBIs in what turned out to be his final season in the Japan Central League. This allowed Matsui a chance to pick between multiple lucrative contract offers in the major leagues, before he ultimately landed with the New York Yankees. Heck, he even got his own cover on Sports Illustrated Kids that simply read "Ruth. Mantle. Matsui?".
So Kapler was in a place where if he had an impressive year, he could, in his words, parlay that into a deal that would allow him to be a starting outfielder in the major leagues. He says he struggled to get invested in the process after going to Japan, however.
"But what I failed to do was just get invested in just being a good Yomiuri Giant - for one full year, play well, and then see what happened."
Whether Kapler would go play in Japan if he had the opportunity to make the decision again is unclear. What is clear is that he feels he learned quite a bit during a few months with the Yomiuri Giants. Rather than viewing his stint in Japan as a blemish on his resume, it's something he's eager to talk about, because it added onto his unique life experiences in the sport of baseball.
These days, Kapler doesn't have to worry about parlaying experience anywhere else into the position that he desires in the major leagues. There's 30 managerial jobs in the major leagues, and he has one of them. What stood out at Kapler's introductory press conference last November was his preparation. He has an interesting background in the sport, but one the Phillies thought highly enough of to make him their new manager. However short, and seemingly unsuccessful his stint playing in Japan was, he seems to believe that it helped prepare him to lead the Phillies to a sh*tload of wins in the coming years.