Running back Ricky Williams recently announced his retirement from the NFL after a long, strange, and often thrilling career. One of Williams’ teammates once said of him, “He’s the oddest, most intelligent, thoughtful, and interesting man I’ve ever known.”
Those same words could apply to Gabe Kapler, also an athlete who carved a unique path for himself. Kapler, who may have been the best minor league player the Detroit Tigers ever had, is also seemingly retired from his sport.
I say seemingly because Kapler’s sports obituary has been written before, only for him to rise up and start a new chapter, usually something unexpected. Kapler has had more career dead ends than Richard Nixon, only to resurrect himself just as “Tricky Dick” did so many times.
He almost didn’t play baseball, not being selected until the 57th round of the amateur draft by the Tigers. In 1996, in his first full season in the Tigers system, Kapler was an All-Star for Fayetteville in the South Atlantic League. He had 71 extra-base hits that year in 138 games. As a Jew, his slugging earned him the nickname “The Hebrew Hammer”. The next season he was wowing everyone in Lakeland, putting up 65 extra-base hits and hitting .295 for the Tigers in their top Class-A league. He was just 21 years old. Kapler was immensely popular, especially with female fans, due to his remarkable physique. He posed for bodybuilding magazines and swimwear magazines. He had a washboard stomach and biceps like Popeye. He didn’t look like a baseball player, he looked like he should be on Baywatch.
Later, when he was with the Texas Rangers, the strength and conditioning coach asked Kapler to put as much weight as he could on the machine and do 10 leg presses. Kapler placed the peg at the bottom, putting all the weight on, then proceeded to do the leg presses without breaking a sweat. The coach looked at Kapler, shrugged and walked away. “I can’t do anything to help him,” he muttered.
In 1998, at AA-ball, Kapler had one of the greatest seasons in minor league baseball in the last 40 years. He hit .322 in 139 games with a league record 146 RBI. His power continued to blossom – he hit 28 home runs and also smacked 47 doubles. In one game he hit two homers, three doubles, drove in eight runs, and threw out two runners from center field. He was everywhere on the diamond, he was like Spiderman. He was named Minor League Player of the Year and earned a quick September call-up by the Tigers. The highlight was a two-hit game at Tiger Stadium against the Royals in which he belted a deep fly ball to right-center for a triple. Cruising into third base, he had a satisfied look of determination on his face.
“I love to play baseball,” Kapler said. “I want to be the greatest I can be.”
The Tigers thought Kapler would be a helluva ballplayer too, eventually. But they still wanted their top prospect to test himself at the highest minor league level. Then in spring training, Kapler was so dazzling that the Tigers couldn’t keep him off the major league roster. He made the team and manager Larry Parrish had him starting in right field in the second game of the season. But Detroit was also trying to figure out if Kimera Bartee was a major league outfielder, and a week into the season Kapler was sent to Triple-A Toledo to get playing time. It took Kapler two weeks in Toledo to show that minor league pitching wasn’t a challenge for him. In late April, he was back in Detroit and Bartee was out of a job.
The 1999 season was historic – it was the last year of Tiger Stadium. Folks were nostalgic, and in fact, some of them were just plain pissed off that the old ballpark was being abandoned. Kapler was in the middle of it, enjoying his rookie season with a storied American League franchise that had been playing at the corner of Michigan and Trumball in downtown Detroit for more than 85 years.
The rookie made an impact. In his first game back after being called up from Toledo, he hit a towering home run to deep left field in Tampa against the Devil Rays to provide the winning margin. It was the first home run of his career. He proceeded to get a hit in his next 10 games too, hitting two more homers. he was firmly entrenched as Parrish’s everyday center fielder, learning to roam the vast expanses of Tiger Stadium and other big league parks. On May 6, Kapler hit his first home run in Tiger Stadium, forever stamping his name on the ballpark that would soon be gone forever. He hit two homers against the Mariners on June 14, the second one a mammoth blast to left field in the 9th inning that tied the game. He started to get a reputation as someone who could hit the ball – as Ernie Harwell would say – a “country mile.”
But Kapler was more than just a baseball player. There were the six-pack abs, dashing good looks (befitting of a boy born in Hollywood, California) and the incredible strength in the gym that awed his teammates. A gifted specimen and athlete, Kapler once showed off his talent on a court in Lakeland during spring training camp. While his teammates watched, Gabe grabbed two basketballs, dribbled them both the length of the court and dunked them in succession with both hands. He was, as the kids liked to say, “a freak.” But he was also a geek: he read eastern philosophy books and took off-season vacations to Scandinavia and the Arctic.
On September 27, in the final game played at Tiger Stadium, Kapler started in center field. As part of the celebration, each Detroit starting player wore an historic number on the back of their jersey that corresponded to the number worn by a Tiger legend. First baseman Tony Clark wore #5 in honor of Hank Greenberg; right fielder Karim Garcia wore Al Kaline’s #6, and so on. Kapler started in center field and did not wear a number on his back, in homage to Ty Cobb, who never had a number on the back of his jersey in his day. Later, Kapler would give his oldest son the middle name “Ty.”
That game was the final one Kapler played at The Corner for the Tigers in what was his final season with Detroit. He was folded into the massive nine-player deal that brought Juan Gonzalez from the Rangers to Motown after the ’99 season. He hit .302 in his first of three seasons with Texas and then spent time in Colorado, Boston, Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay. Everywhere he went he was celebrated as a model teammate, a great role player, and a winner. In ’04 with the Red Sox he played a career high 136 games as the team advanced to the World Series. In the final game he entered as a pinch-runner and was inserted into right field where he was on the diamond when Boston won their first title in 86 seasons. Once again, Kapler was a witness to history.
Just a few weeks after celebrating the World Series title with the Red Sox, Kapler made an unusual decision: he signed a free agent contract to play in Japan. It was the most lucrative deal of his career, for nearly $3 million. True to his habit of marching to the beat of his own drummer, the 28-year old made the move for other reasons than just the money, though. “I tend to make emotional decisions,” Kapler said. “I did it more for the life experience than anything else. And ever since I wrote [a report about Japan in elementary school], I’ve been fascinated by everything that an 8-year-old associates with a country far, far away.”
He was back with Boston in short order, however, and then in 2007 he did the unexpected once again. In the middle of his big league career he retired to take a job managing the Red Sox’ Single-A minor league affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina. Kapler was well liked by his players, most of whom couldn’t match their skipper’s physical conditioning. He was back in the majors the following season with the Brewers, again serving as a valuable 4th outfielder, pinch-hitter, and pinch-runner. Now 32 years old, he hit .300 for the third time in his career.
In his final few big league seasons with the Rays, Kapler served as a veteran leader on a talented young team. “Over the past two years, Kap has been one of the best in baseball against left-handed pitching,” said Rays executive vice-president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. “Because he’s also a plus defensive outfielder, he’s become a tremendous asset here. His value even extends beyond the field; his knowledge and presence make him a positive influence on our younger players.”He wasn’t on the Rays post-season roster in 2010, having suffered an injury in August. While in Tampa he displayed the same serene approach to life, never taking the game – or himself – too seriously. “This moment is exactly as it should be. We get what we get when we get it. We are where we are for a reason,” Kapler told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times in 2009.
And Gabe Kapler was where he was supposed to be – often times in the middle of history – several times during his fascinating career in the big leagues.