When Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler ran in from his position in right field to celebrate the World Championship after the final out in Game Four of the 2004 World Series, it seemed surreal to him. “I felt like I was in a movie,” Kapler recalled in a recent interview. “I was asking myself if it was really happening.
“After a while they let my best friend onto the field with my two young sons, Chase Ty and Dane Rio, and we had our own family celebration. That’s the memory that will stay with me forever.”
It takes the contributions of twenty-five ballplayers to win a World championship and Gabe Kapler illustrates that point. He played in 136 games during the 2004 season, and he played all three outfield positions when called upon.
“I knew what my role would be when I reported to spring training.” He says. “I knew I would be in the staring lineup in some games and I would come on for defensive purposes in others. I made sure I was prepared to help the team in every game.”
MAJOR LEAGUE DREAMING
Gabe Kapler was born in Hollywood, CA, on July 31, 1975. He set his sights on a career in major league baseball at a very early age.
“From the first time I stepped to the plate in t-ball as a five-year-old, I wanted to be a major leaguer,” he says. “I still remember my Blue Jays shirt and how great it felt to hit the ball.
“I think I was the only Toronto Blue Jays fan in Southern California. I got a little off-track in high school like a lot of teenagers, but from age five on my goal was to play professional baseball.”
After graduating from TaftHigh School in 1993, Kapler attended Cal State-Fullerton on scholarship, and he transferred to MoorparkCollege in 1995. After batting .337 at Moorpark and earning All-Western Conference honors, Gabe hoped to be selected in the 1995 amateur draft.
“I was told I would be drafted,” he recalls, “but the draft takes place over three days and I never heard a word. I was at a local All-Star game and a Tigers’ scout said, ‘They are all set for your arrival in Jamestown (NY).’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“It turns out the Tigers had drafted me in the 57th round. But I was such an after-thought that no one from the Tigers’ organization got around to calling me!”
When you are drafted behind 1,600 of your baseball peers it is difficult to get playing time in the minor leagues. How did Gabe Kapler overcome that obstacle?
“When I got to Jamestown [NY-PENN League] one of our top prospects had a minor injury and said he couldn’t play. I think he had a sore pinkie finger,” Gabe remembers. “I took his place in the lineup and hit right away. I kept hitting and I was a starter for the rest of my time in the minors.”
And what was the hardest adjustment for an 18 year-old breaking into professional baseball? “Being on my own for the first time was the tough part. I was 3,000 miles from home, away from family and my girlfriend. I had to learn to do things myself and to be a man.”
Kapler adjusted well enough that he advanced swiftly through the Tigers’ minor league system, thriving at every stop. Based on his outstanding play for Double-A Jacksonville (FL) in 1998, USA Today named him the Minor League Player of the Year.
Gabe Kapler’s major league dream came true on September 20, 1998, when he started in right field for Detroit against the Twins at Tiger Stadium. “I remember I came up four times and I got a bloop single to center in the fifth inning. You never forget your first game.”
In 1999, his rookie season with the Tigers, Kapler played in 130 games, mostly in center field, and he hit a career-high 18 home runs. “I really enjoyed playing in Detroit,” Gabe says. “I loved Tiger Stadium with its wire cage lockers. And it was my first experience in an older industrial city and I enjoyed soaking it in. It was totally different from where I grew up”
Following the 1999 season, Kapler was traded to the Texas Rangers along with five other Tiger players in a deal that brought Juan Gonzalez to Detroit. Kapler enjoyed the two seasons he spent with the Rangers.
At the trading deadline in 2002, he was traded to the Colorado Rockies where he hit .311 over the balance of the season. The Red Sox signed Kapler as a free agent on June 24, 2003, following his release by the Rockies.
INSTANT CULT HERO
In his first game in a Red Sox uniform at FenwayPark, Gabe went four-for-five with two doubles and three RBI in a loss to the Florida Marlins. The following day at Fenway he delighted a sellout crowd with three hits, including two home runs and four RBI to lead the Red Sox to an 11-7 win over the Marlins.
Gabe Kapler has fond memories of his fast start with the Red Sox. “I was in the right place at the right time. It was great to start off like that. I felt at home with my teammates, the fans and the city from day one.”
Kapler was a key contributor in the team’s successful drive for a 2003 wild card spot. In his three months with the team he appeared in 68 games, playing all three outfield positions and filling in at first base during one game. He batted .291 during his time with the Red Sox in 2003.
He appeared in four games during the Red Sox 2003 ALDS victory over the Oakland A’s, and played three games in the ALCS loss to the Yankees. He has one word to describe the ALCS Game Seven loss to New York: “devastating.”
2004 WORLD CHAMPIONS
Gabe Kapler remembers the mood at the Red Sox 2004 spring training camp as “confident.” He goes on to say, “We had put the loss to the Yankees behind us. If anything, it made us more determined.
“It was relatively easy for me to prepare,” he emphasizes, “because I knew I would start in right field against left-handed pitching, fill in for Manny [Ramirez] and Johnny [Damon] when they needed a break, and come in late in the game for defense.”
To add to his versatility, he worked out at third base and played several exhibition games at the position. “I never played at third during the regular season, but I was ready if they had needed me.”
Asked what highlights for the 2004 regular season stand out, Gabe offers a unique point-of-view, “I think that baseball, like life occurs on a continuum. Some days are more eventful than others. But over a six-month season it is all about being prepared every day and executing.”
A game on September 5, 2004, against the Texas Rangers with the Red Sox fighting for a playoff spot is a good example of his point. Johnny Damon was scheduled to start in center field but after batting practice he was pulled from the lineup for an MRI. Gabe Kapler filled in at the last moment and his two-RBI single provided the winning runs in a 6-5 victory.
Jason Varitek told reporters after the game, “Gabe had to step in for Johnny and he’s done such an excellent job on short notice so many times this year.” Damon added, “He’s been doing an awesome job for us all year.”
After sweeping the Angels in the 2004 ALDS, the Red Sox had their backs against the wall facing the Yankees in Game Four of the ALCS. Gabe Kapler’s memory of the Red Sox clubhouse before that game differs from some of his teammates.
“I remember the mood as somber,” he says. “One more loss and it was all over. But,” he emphasizes, “that all changed when we won Game Four. Then we really felt the momentum had shifted and we were back in it.”
And how did he feel going into the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals? “No team could have beaten us at that point,” he insists.
In the off-season, Kapler signed a $2 million contract, plus a $700,000 signing bonus, to play for the Yomiuri Giants in the Japanese Central League for 2005. “I had two objectives,” Gabe recalls.
“First, I wanted an entirely different cultural experience, and second I wanted to play well enough to return to MLB as a starting center fielder. I achieved my cultural objective,” he emphasizes, “but the baseball, not so much.
“I really enjoyed my time off the field,” he recalls, “and some of the Japanese game preparation impressed me. For instance, they pay top-dollars to batting practice pitchers to ensure that BP is close to game conditions.”
Kapler re-signed with the Red Sox on July 15, 2005. Asked if he had second thoughts about his decision to play in Japan, he answers, “No second thoughts. I skipped right by second thoughts and went to third, fourth, fifth and so on.”
He played 36 games in the outfield for the Red Sox in 2005, starting in 25 of them. But on September 14 he ruptured his left Achilles tendon and his season was over.
Kapler recovered from his injury in time to return to the Red Sox in June 2006. He played in 72 games, compiling an on-base average of .340 and he played error-less ball for the second straight season.
THE ROAD LESS TAKEN
In December 2006, Kapler retired as an active player and agreed to manage the Red Sox Single-A minor league team in Greenville, South Carolina for 2007. Kapler’s players in Greenville included former Red Sox pitcher Felix Dubront, now with the Chicago Cubs, reliever Daniel Bard, and former outfielder Josh Reddick who now plays for the Oakland A’s.
“I loved managing,” Gabe says. “I had been in their position ten years earlier, so I could relate to them. What I enjoyed most was advising them on how to adjust to life as a professional ballplayer. I was close to my players and I believe I helped them.”
But after one year on the bench, Kapler returned to the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers. “I believed I could still play at that level,” he says, “and I just wanted to play some more baseball.”
He played in 96 games for the Brewers in 2008, and he enjoyed one of his best offensive seasons. His catch robbing the Dodgers’ Russell Martin of a home run while diving headfirst into the leftfield seats was voted “Play of the Year” for the This Year in Baseball Awards.
Kapler spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays where he contributed on the field and in the clubhouse. Rays’ VP of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman, and manager Joe Maddon, both praised Gabe for his on-field play and for mentoring the team’s younger players. “Having Gabe was like having a playing coach,” Maddon remembered.
GABE KAPLER TODAY
Gabe Kapler is currently an analyst for FOX Sports and he appears as a panelist on “Fox Sports Live.” Admitting to a bias against New York Yankees in a recent blog post, he wrote, “Playing in Boston I learned to hate the Yankees.” He added, “In my new world of analyzing baseball, objectivity and open mindedness is not just responsible, it’s essential.”
Gabe Kapler thoroughly enjoyed returning to FenwayPark for the tenth anniversary of the 2004 World Championship team. “My lasting memory will be the way fans responded to us. Red Sox fans are the greatest,” he says. “On a personal level I will always remember greeting my teammates in the hotel lobby and remembering how close we all were in 2004.”
Does Gabe Kapler ever think about managing again? “Absolutely, but my boys, Chase Ty (14) and Dane Rio (12), are still young and they need me around,” he emphasizes. “When they are older I look forward to getting back into organized baseball.”
And does he have a message for Red Sox fans? “I will keep this simple,” he says. “Thanks for all of your support over the years. I love you all.”
Portions of this article appeared in the August edition of Red Sox Magazine. To subscribe to Red Sox Magazine click here.