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August 12, 2019

Paul Hagen: For Kapler and the Phillies, actions must speak louder than words

There was this time, on a back field during a long ago spring training, that Phillies manager Terry Francona was going on and on about the improvement he’d seen in a certain young player.

When he was done, a smart-alecky reporter – looking at you, Jim Salisbury – remarked dryly, “You’re lying particularly well this spring.”

Tito threw up his hands. “What do you want me to say?” he asked in exasperation. “Look, I know he stinks. You know he stinks. But I can’t say that.”

With that in mind, I’d like to propose that we all stop squandering so much time and psychic energy worrying about what Gabe Kapler says, especially in his postgame press conferences.

(To be clear, this plea is limited only to his words. Baseball decisions are fair game. After all, second-guessing the manager is one of the most enjoyable parts of watching a ballgame.)

Sure, for Kapler to suggest last week that when the Phillies are at their best they’re “unbeatable” was silly. Sure, he sometimes goes to absurd lengths to find something upbeat to say after an ugly defeat. Kind of like the story Ronald Reagan liked to tell about the little kid who finds a pile of manure under the Christmas tree and is delighted. “There’s got to be a pony around here somewhere,” he reasoned.

It happened again Sunday night. To recap, the Phillies had just completed a 2-5 road trip with another gut-punch loss to the Giants. A team that had a share of first place as recently as June 11 had fallen to fourth in the National League East.

And this is what he told reporters: “We know we’re in the hunt and we have to continue to fight. What we have control over is how we respond to getting knocked down, and this road trip was definitely that. We will get up and we will get up strong.”

It all the tends to be the same old yada, yada, yada. But here’s the thing: It’s not just Kapler. It’s just about every manager and coach, in just about every sport.

What do you want them to say?

Wait, check that. I know what you want them to say. You want them to reflect your emotions. You want them to be as angry as you are after a bad loss. You want them to vent and rip into the players who don’t hustle. You want them to rearrange the clubhouse décor, mostly upside down.

Well, guess what? It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen.

Not here. With extremely rare exceptions, not anywhere. Kapler caught some flak recently for saying that he’s not bleeping Dallas Green. Well, who is? Players have changed. Professional sports has changed. The world has changed. When Dick Williams, another fiery old school skipper, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 he was asked how he thought his style would work today. He reckoned he’d be fired in about two weeks.

Here’s a dirty little secret. Sportswriters, myself included, can fall into the trap of using quotes as a crutch. It feels obligatory to include a comment from the manager, the starting pitcher and maybe a key player or two. It checks a box. It takes the reader inside the clubhouse.

But, all too often, those words do absolutely nothing to add to our understanding of what happened in the game. They’re programmed responses designed to say as little as possible.

Once upon a time, managers might send a message to their players through the media. Now that message – “I’ve got your back” – is pretty much the same every night.

Now, there is one problem with all this. It can leave the impression that players aren’t being held accountable for their mistakes. That impression is reinforced when the same goof-ups keep happening over and over again.

MORE: A-Rod rips Gabe Kapler for 'careless managing' on ESPN

Charlie Manuel didn’t criticize players publicly, but it was well known that he didn’t hold back behind closed doors. Jim Fregosi played cards with them in the afternoon but didn’t hesitate to sternly correct them in private.

Even Larry Bowa, having learned in his first managerial opportunity with the Padres that letting his emotions show was counterproductive, mostly managed to keep his frustrations to himself by the time he took over the Phillies.

Kapler has said he deals with these issues in the way he feels is most effective, and we have to take his word for that.

It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time, say the mid-seventies, when the normal postmortem after a baseball game was conducted by a handful of beat writers and maybe a wire service reporter or two. In that setting, exchanges could be more honest. A manager might go off the record. Or he might indicate what he really thought by body language, a crooked smile, a raised eyebrow.

Shortly after that, radio reporters began covering games, which brought tape recorders into the equation. Print guys soon followed suit. Claiming to have been misquoted if there was some blowback on their comments was no longer an option. The invention of mini-cams allowed television stations to cover from inside the clubhouse, adding to the spectacle.

Believe it or not, youngsters, there was a time when televised games were a rarity. Now almost every game is on the tube, which has led to the live postgame press conference. Let’s just say it’s not a setting that encourages open and candid discussions.

So the next time Kapler (or Doug Pederson or Brett Brown or Alain Vigneault) says something after the game that makes you want to scream, remind yourself that he’s just reading from an invisible script purposely designed not to ruffle nay feathers.

Don’t get mad about what they said. Focus on what they did.

MORE: Kevin Cooney: Ignore the standings, this Phillies team isn’t close to being ready to win again

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