boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

Kapler is managing nicely

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .

An entire other baseball universe exists. While Daisuke Matsuzaka and the rest of the varsity were taking on the Florida Marlins across the state in Jupiter, the hopefuls and the wannabes were going about their business at the Red Sox minor league complex. Among them was a rookie minor league manager taking his baby steps into a brave, new world in which he is no longer the focal point of his own existence.

"I'm ecstatic," says Gabe Kapler. "You know I'm not good at hiding my emotions, but I can't remember the last time being on the baseball field brought me this kind of pleasure. Granted, the games haven't even started, and I haven't had any 10-game losing streaks to deal with."

Kapler never got a farewell tour. He never got a retirement press conference. He didn't even have a little media scrum at his locker. The 2006 season ended, everyone dispersed, and one day in the offseason it was announced that Gabe Kapler, age 31, would be the manager of the Greenville (S.C.) Drive, a member in good standing of the South Atlantic League.

Gone will be the charter flights and the four-star hotels big leaguers take for granted. Kapler will get acquainted with bus rides to such outposts as Asheville, Charleston (both West Virginia and South Carolina), Hagerstown, Kannapolis, Savannah, and Rome (Georgia, not Julius Caesar's old hangout). He'll be happy to score a king-size bed at a chain motel.

But he'll be riding in the first seat on the bus. He'll be in charge of young lives. Kapler finds that very appealing.

"Every day, my wife says, 'How was today?' and I say, 'Great.' Every day. When I played, it was all about me. If she said, 'How was today?' I might say, 'I had a [censored] batting practice,' or something else went wrong. 'This happened. That happened.'

"Every day you were trying to get better, and it was all about you. Now, every day is great. It's about, 'Who did you help? What player did you instill a little confidence in?' "

Why am I not surprised to hear this? Should any of us who have gotten to know Gabe Kapler over the last four years be surprised that he is approaching his new job with such enormous enthusiasm? They all like the game they have been privileged to play to some degree (with the possible exception of Keith Foulke, and talk about supreme ironies), but few love it as much as Gabe Kapler, and even fewer have the ability to express their fondness for the game the way Gabe Kapler can.

The final tally for Kapler: 850 major league games. Career totals of .270, 64 homers, 302 runs batted in. He played for Detroit, Texas, Colorado, and, finally, Boston. He played in two Division Series, two Championship Series, and one World Series. He has a ring. He could run and he could field, but he was always viewed as someone who could have done more with the bat because he had this uncommonly ripped body that was unable to deliver on its promise of 45 homers and 140 ribbies. Everyone waited and waited and waited and, well, it just didn't happen. There are fat guys who can hit and Body By Fisher guys who can't. That's baseball.

Could Gabe Kapler still play? Yeah, he could still play. There might very well have been a job out there for him in 2007.

"I just didn't want to play anywhere else," he explains. "It just didn't seem worth it to me to be a fourth outfielder in city X, Y, or Z. I feel that I have extended family here in Boston. I just don't want to be a part of any other organization.

"I don't think there is another organization like it," he maintains. "So far this spring I've taken Spanish classes and medical seminars, and I've had an education on new statistics I didn't realize were that important before. Everyone in the organization has, in every way, shape, or form, helped me make this transition."

Rookie minor league skippers have a lot to learn. They must, for example, throw batting practice, or BP as it's universally known. They must learn how to hit fungoes. And they must learn how to give signs.

"BP, huh?" Kapler laughs. "Does throwing to [Kevin] Millar or [Doug] Mirabelli count? We'd be at the end of the day, and none of us would be satisfied, so we'd throw BP to each other. But I realize this is different. This is a focused drill. I'd give myself about a C-plus for BP right now. Fungoes? I'd say I'm about a B-plus for outfielders and a C to C-plus for infielders."

Could he not seek out Johnny Pesky for some fungo tips?

"Tips?" he roars. "Tips? Everyone is giving me tips for everything."

Finally, signs. He may very likely be his own third base coach, so he'll have to give signs. It's quite a common practice for new coaches and managers to practice giving signs in front of a hotel mirror.

"Is that right?" he inquires. "Yes, I'll have to work on that."

The managing thing has been in his head for about five years.

"I could never be here doing this if I weren't on the bench in Boston," he explains. "I was greatly influenced watching Tito [i.e. Terry Francona]. I listened to him instill confidence in guys. I watched the way he operated in the clubhouse."

Kapler may not have had the playing career he hoped for, but no one could have gotten more out of the experience.

"What I'll always reflect upon are the relationships," he says. "Some of my most meaningful and nostalgic conversations took place in that clubhouse. I'll reflect on those people who inspired me, the Brad Millses of the world. I'll think about how fortunate I was to wind up in Boston.

"I don't know how to say it without it coming out like sentimental, cheeseball stuff, but that's the way I feel. I had this opportunity all laid out for me."

Greenville, South Carolina: You don't know how lucky you are.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES