CLEARWATER, Fla. — The manager’s opening speech is one of the grand traditions of spring training. Rules are covered (work hard, be on time, usually covers it), goals are established (Hey, everyone is tied for first place, to hell with the skeptics, let’s go out and win the World Series!) and an overall tone is set for camp and beyond.
Giving that speech for the first time is exciting and even a little nerve-racking. Gabe Kapler began thinking about what he would say to his team months ago. And now, with Phillies pitchers and catchers opening camp on Wednesday and the full squad set to report over the weekend and hit the fields on Monday, Kapler’s time to address the entire group for the first time is almost here.
“I know what that message is with a tremendous amount of clarity,” the new skipper, looking tan, muscular and ready to kick some ass, said Tuesday. “It’s critically important. It’s everything.”
Kapler was asked for a taste of what he will tell his troops.
“I can give you a little bit,” he said. “One of the questions I’ve been asking a lot of our players is what does it mean to play boldly? What does it mean to deliver a pitch boldly? What does it mean to take a swing in the batter’s box boldly? What does it mean to communicate boldly?”
Kapler went on to talk about conviction, courage and fearlessness, attributes he wants to see in his club. He wants to build an environment where there is no fear so his players can be comfortable and bold.
And if they are bold, they can shock some people.
Just like another team in town did recently.
“We would be foolish to not take cues from what the Eagles accomplished,” Kapler said of the Super Bowl champs. “Not just over the last couple weeks, but over the summer when coach (Doug) Pederson addressed his team and said, ‘This is what the world thinks and this is what we think you are. We get some development from our young quarterback, and we get some development on defense, we’re going to be much better than people think.’
"I think if everybody on our roster takes a small step forward, we have an opportunity to shock people. That’s the message we’re going to convey in camp. Ultimately, the message is we can win. It’s not like a delusional statement. It’s more like we all take that small step forward, we all get a little bit better, we all develop just enough where we surprise people.
“I think it means being very competitive when September rolls around. So being in the mix, being in the hunt, fighting for the National League East. I don’t think there has to be any major declaration made here. We’re fighting for the National League East in September.”
On paper, the Phillies don’t have the starting pitching to dethrone the Washington Nationals.
But Kapler is nothing if not positive. He runs on positive, can-do energy the way some people run on Wawa coffee.
“Yes,” he said when asked if the Phillies have the personnel to win.
He raved about what he has seen in early workouts from pitchers Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta, two big arms who know how to show it off in the bullpen.
Of course, the Phillies are still looking for more starting pitchers and may end up bringing in an arm in the coming days or weeks (see story).
Kapler has been in Clearwater bonding with early-arriving players, stressing boldness, for two weeks. He watched the Super Bowl at “a tiny wine bar in Tampa.” The fitness buff did not drink, but he had two bacon burgers, and you can bet he passed on the bun.
“It was one of my favorite three-hour stretches that I can remember in a really long time,” Kapler said. “It was quiet. I just locked into the game. It was really remarkable. And, obviously, we talked about the cues that we can take from the Eagles. We talked in this conversation about being bold. Well, those guys were nothing if not bold. The play-calling. The relentlessness on the field. Across the board, they played with boldness. So that was an inspiring day.”
Now, the ball has been handed off to the Phillies.
And Gabe Kapler has a message for the lads: