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August 06, 2018

Angelo Cataldi: Is first-place Phillies manager Gabe Kapler crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy?

One hundred and eleven games into his rookie season as Phillies manager, Gabe Kapler has managed to confound just about every fan of the team, including me. Is he a visionary? Is he a kook? Can he be both?

There is no arguing his results so far. Not one of us believed the Phils would contend for the National League East title this season, and yet there they are, in first place by a game and a half, a week into August. As the dog days arrive, the lead canine is wearing red pinstripes. Bravo to that.

The only problem is, Kapler has been managing the ballclub like no one has ever managed (or coached) a team in Philadelphia, a booming voice of optimism in a sports city renowned for its dark moods. And last week was Kapler’s most confusing week since the start of spring training, when he renounced alarm clocks and endorsed coconut oil.

It all began with a pronouncement after a third straight loss to the Cincinnati Reds that Zach Eflin had been “tremendous,” despite allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings. Back at the NBC Sports Philadelphia studio, analyst Ricky Botallico was incredulous.

“If he really believes that,” the former Phils pitcher snapped, “he’s off his rocker.”

The situation grew worse the next night, when Kapler downplayed two game-deciding gaffes by Odubel Herrera, at one point actually saying the quirky outfielder “did everything right, except slide hard” on a ridiculous double play during a rundown in a 2-1 loss to Boston.

This time, it was my turn to howl, turning my WIP radio show into a four-hour indictment of the Pollyanna style of the rookie skipper. When a caller named Eric said Kapler had told security to have him evicted from Fenway Park in the third inning because Eric had screamed “Wake up!” into the Phillies dugout, we all believed the fan.

Eventually, Fenway Park security apologized to Eric for the eviction – by most accounts, he used no profanity – and later in the week identified the dugout complainer as Herrera himself, not Kapler. So why did we all buy the story that the manager was behind the ouster? Because Kapler has protected his players, to a fault, all season.

By the time Kapler had made his weekly appearance on my show last Thursday, the Phils had won a huge game against the best team in baseball, Boston, and the manager was frothing with new optimism. I told him Philadelphia prefers the truth to his sugar-coated answers, and he respectfully replied that his style will never change. In public, he will never rip a player.

What about behind closed doors, I asked?

He said those conversations were private, and would remain so. My suspicion is that, even then, Kapler coats his criticisms in a thick layer of praise. Gabe Kapler is no Dallas Green. The rookie manager wants the players to respond to him, maybe even like him. He is less concerned about how the fans feel.

Of course, because nothing about Kapler is simple, the Phils went on to win five games in a row, and there was new reason to feel the same optimism the manager does every day, win or lose.

Kapler is the latest entry in the mixed bag of recent Phillies managers, from the withering scowl of Larry Bowa, to the hayseed charm of Charlie Manuel, to the awkward vibe of Ryne Sadberg, to the straight talk of Pete Mackanin. The range of those styles should have prepared us for someone like Kapler, but it didn’t – probably because there is no one like Kapler.

It’s August, and the Phillies are in first place. Today, I really like Gabe Kapler. 

Check back with me tomorrow.

* * *

As tributes to Philadelphia sports fans were booming from microphones at Citizens Bank Park and in Canton, Ohio, over the weekend, my only wish was that the Vikings devotees who crucified our city last fall were watching. As you may recall, many Minnesotans tried to ruin Super-Bowl week for us because of our alleged boorish behavior toward them at the NFC championship game.

Yes, some of our fans were a bit overzealous when they saw a Vikings jersey at Lincoln Financial Field for the biggest Eagles game in over a decade; there’s no argument there. But the passion of this amazing sports city should not be diminished by the stupidity of a few. That was the message I got from Saturday night.

For starters, Brandy Halladay was brilliant in accepting the Wall of Fame honor on behalf of her late husband, especially when she talked about their concerns when Roy was traded to the Phillies from Toronto in 2010. Would Philadelphia accept not just the extraordinary pitcher but also her and her two children? From the first day, she said, they were embraced.

“To be loved by a fan base like Philly is priceless; absolutely priceless,” Brandy said. “We loved it here. We loved every second here.”

In 18 riveting minutes, Brandy described what it was like for Roy to perform in front of a passionate fan base, in big game after big game, while she received the same acceptance away from the field. At one point, she said through tears that her sarcastic nature was ideally suited to our curmudgeonly city. If you haven’t seen her speech, check it out online. It was every bit as spellbinding as Roy’s perfect game.

Meanwhile, the very embodiment of Philadelphia passion was receiving an honor worthy of his remarkable career 400 miles away at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Eagles legend Brian Dawkins arrived on stage for his induction in full “Weapon X” mode and proceeded to prove once again why he, too, was a perfect fit for Philadelphia.

His unscripted speech was pure Dawkins – emotional, inspirational, remarkable. His bond with the fans is deeper than any athlete I have encountered in my 35 years in Philadelphia, and he captured the magic of this connection near the end of his presentation.

“Let’s talk about these Eagles fans,” he began, as a huge throng in green roared its approval. “I know some of you drove all the way from Philly here. I have a good understanding that you don’t have money just to waste, so that means you (spent) hard-earned money to come out here and celebrate with your boy.

“So, thank you for loving me the way I love you.”

All we can hope is that Vikings fans – and critics of Philadelphia sports fans all across the country – were finally hearing the truth about our city.

MORE: What they're saying: Dawkins stole the show at HOF ceremony

* * *

First, an apology. I am painfully aware that I am about to repeat myself for the fifth or sixth time on the critical issue of whether Carson Wentz will start the season as the Eagles quarterback. Still, I feel compelled to write one more time the absolute reality of the situation. 

Wentz will not start the season. I have been certain about that fact for at least the past three months. Ten days into training camp, I am more convinced than ever.

As recently as a week ago, I was alone in my thinking, at least within the Philadelphia media. Wentz practiced with few restrictions in the first three practices since he tore his left ACL and LCL in Los Angeles last Dec. 10. He was moving freely, cutting well, throwing better than ever. There was no doubt among the onlookers there that the star quarterback would be back for the season opener on Sept. 6.

I was not one of those enthralled observers, but I have never wavered in my more conservative prognosis because I have talked to so many orthopedic surgeons – at last count, nine – and only one doctor thought it made any sense to rush Wentz back before the end of the healing process.

After that rush of activity in the first few days, Wentz has been relegated to far less demanding drills, triggering fears that he has experienced a setback. There was no setback. As the coach said, there is a plan – a very specific plan – mapped out with the doctors.

And that’s the only real clue you need that Wentz will not start the season. It is a matter of biological fact that the tears to two key knee ligaments cannot fully heal in nine months. Maybe in 10, usually in 11. That’s what the doctors have said throughout this process.

Now let’s apply just a little logic here. What doctor is going to risk a re-injury to such a valuable player for the benefit of two, three or even four games? Until the knee is completely healed, the risk for injury is greater. No one will dispute that. And the doctors are going to roll those dice anyway? Not a chance.

Now, the Eagles could weigh the medical advice and play him anyway; there’s no doubt Wentz himself would prefer starting the season. But why do that when the quarterback backing Wentz up is the same guy who just won the Eagles their first Super Bowl? The Eagles can win the first few games with either quarterback. Why risk the franchise? It makes no sense.

So, at the risk of sounding like a trained parrot, let me repeat one more time that Wentz will not start the season. He will be there for the biggest games, fully healed and probably better than ever.

Hey, even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while. This story is my acorn. You can congratulate me next month.

* * *

And finally . . .

The only negative story – at least to me – in a wonderfully nostalgic and successful weekend for Philadelphia sports was the huge ovation Jayson Werth got when he was introduced Sunday during the tribute to the 2008 champions. Not only did this ingrate once say, after he signed with the Nationals, that he would “see to it personally [Phillies fans] never walk down Broad Street in celebration again,” he was also the least fan-friendly player on that great team. And now he draws cheers? No, thanks. 

If Philadelphia ever hosts a testimonial dinner for Matt Klentak, the keynote speaker should be his biggest fan – Matt Klentak himself. The novice GM, who actually performed effectively at the trade deadline, gushed about how “more than 40” different prospects in the Phillies organization came up during trade discussions. He interpreted this interest as a major endorsement of the rebuilt farm system, and in his own work. Not so fast, Matt. The way it works here in Philadelphia is, first you win something, then you take a bow. Not the other way around.

The Sixers are entering their third month without a GM, and I’m really starting to believe they might not be a well-run organization. Their medical staff has been historically inept for years their last two GMs were, shall we say, unusual, and they are in the midst of a terrible off-season. Yet here we are, 61 days since Bryan Colangelo was forced out, and still there’s no one running the team. That’s amazing, even for the Sixers.

Maybe it’s just me, but there still seems to be a strange vibe between ex-Eagles coach Andy Reid and the best player he ever had, Brian Dawkins. Reid’s video tribute to Dawkins for the Hall of Fame ceremony was wooden and tepid. In fact, Reid’s words for Terrell Owen seemed warmer. We all remember how Reid turned his back on Dawkins at the end of the Hall of Famer’s 13-year tenure as an Eagle. Something tells me there’s a lot more to this story.

Chris Long actually said last week that he’s “sick of the Super Bowl.” The veteran Eagles defensive end is right to look beyond the biggest win in Philadelphia sports history; after all, a new season is at hand. But he needs to know right now that Philadelphia will never be sick of Super Bowl LII. We will be talking about it – and the media will be asking him about it – for the rest of our lives.