A day before he was announced as the new manager of the Giants, Gabe Kapler walked out of Oracle Park with Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris, who had just been introduced as general manager, and headed for a late lunch. The three were smiling as they crossed four lanes and headed down Third Street, preparing to start the process of building together.
It was a much different scene than the one Kapler encountered about a month earlier, when his previous bosses hopped on a plane in Philadelphia and flew to Kapler's home in Southern California. Kapler knew there was only one reason Phillies managing partner John Middleton, president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak could be visiting.
"I understood," Kapler said Sunday morning. "I just wanted to have a good discussion. I thought we did have a good discussion."
As part of it, Kapler was dismissed as manager after two seasons that did not live up to expectations in Philadelphia. He had one year remaining on his contract, but the Phillies had gone 81-81 in 2018 and 80-82 in 2019, Bryce Harper's first season in town.
Kapler was left hanging after that second season, which included a 12-16 record in September that turned up the temperature on his seat. It took 10 days for Middleton to make a final decision on his manager's future, and Kapler said Sunday that he spent that time talking to family members and friends, but also dissecting the 2019 season and looking ahead to 2020.
"There was a lot of work to do," he said. "There always is after the season."
That work ended up being done in San Francisco. After getting fired, Kapler immediately landed in the center of the Giants' search to replace Bruce Bochy, and his previous connection to Zaidi carried him to the finish line. He is now in his second season with the Giants, and he's set to return to Philadelphia for the first time since being let go.
Kapler heard some boos before his first-ever home game as manager of the Phillies, who had started 1-4 in 2018 before returning to Citizens Bank Park, with Kapler coming under fire for some early moves with his pitching staff. He said he doesn't know what to expect tonight.
"I don't want to say I haven't thought about it. I have," Kapler said. "But making that prediction ... I just don't know where to begin."
Kapler is returning in a slight position of strength. The Giants went 29-31 in his first season, finishing a game ahead of the Phillies in the wild card race. They are 9-6 this season, a game better than the Phillies.
Kapler was dismissed for underperforming, but the Phillies did the same thing in their first year under Joe Girardi, and Klentak, the GM who had Kapler's back, was fired a year later. Kapler took the majority of the blame for the Phillies' bullpen woes, but when he was gone, the group posted a historically bad 7.06 ERA over 60 games. There was also a perception that Kapler, a Southern California native who has wholly embraced analytics and new approaches to baseball and life, just wasn't a great fit in the city of Philadelphia. He gently pushed back on that Sunday.
"I have pretty thick skin," he said. "I understand all the criticism. It always kind of raises the bar for me, gives me a chance to meet that bar. I do feel very comfortable in San Francisco. Honestly, I don't know how this gets taken, but I felt pretty comfortable in Philadelphia, too. Look, it didn't work out. It's part of baseball."
Looking back at his two years there, Kapler said he is happy that he was given that opportunity and feels he did the best job he could. He did not want to get into specifics of what might have held the Phillies from reaching their goals.
"There were a lot of opportunities to perform better," he said. "There were a lot of opportunities to coach better."
If there are any hard feelings tonight or throughout this three-game series, it seems they might be on the other side. Kapler has landed in a great situation, with a front office he works closely with and an ownership group that has backed him through his on-field work, as well as his decision to kneel during the anthem last summer. He said he's mostly just looking forward to seeing old friends this week and spending as much time with them as COVID-19 protocols and restrictions will allow.
If there are a lot of regrets about the way it ended, Kapler didn't present them before flying back to Philadelphia. Asked about what could have kept him in that job longer, he said there's just one thing that sticks out.
"I think that's pretty simple," he said. "Just, you know, winning more. That's pretty straightforward."