Gabe Kapler's career follows his heart
Rays outfielder has spent 12 seasons in the Majors
Gabe Kapler didn't know any better. He thought being selected by the Tigers in the 1995 amateur draft meant having as good a chance as fellow draftee Mike Drumright of making it to the Major Leagues.
Drumright was the Tigers' No. 1 pick that year, 11th overall. Kapler was their 57th-round choice, 1,487th overall.
"I didn't understand at all what it meant to be drafted [so low]," the Rays outfielder said. "I figured the 57th-round draft pick competed with the first-round draft pick. I didn't understand that the guy drafted in the first round got the opportunity and the 57th-round guy was just filling out a roster."
Drumright pitched nine years in the Minor Leagues. He never made it to the Major Leagues. Kapler is in the 12th season of his twice-interrupted Major League career.
The California-born Kapler pitched at Cal-State Fullerton in 1994 and Moorpark College the following year. His draft value was diminished in part because he considered playing more college baseball.
Kapler, 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds when he finished high school, dedicated himself to becoming bigger and stronger. He wound up on body-building magazine covers and briefly considered life as a model, "but I felt I wanted to play baseball for a living."
He has played for the Tigers, Rangers, Rockies, Red Sox, Brewers and Rays -- and, briefly, the Yomiuri Giants in Japan after Boston's 2004 World Series championship season.
In 2007 he tried managing in Boston's Minor League system, found it wasn't for him and unretired to sign as a free agent with Milwaukee in 2008 and with Tampa Bay the past two seasons.
"I went to Japan," he said, "because I wanted to play every day, because I felt I had the opportunity to play every day there and prove that I could come back here and play every day, because I wanted to have a different cultural experience, and because the financial implications were dramatic," a deal worth nearly four times Boston's reported contract offer.
Kapler enjoyed the cultural experience. Not so his wife, Lisa and their two young sons, then ages 4 and 6.
"It was difficult for them to navigate a completely foreign world and for my wife to learn the train system," he said.
His baseball experience was another matter.
"I got off to an awful start," Kapler said. "I've had the advantage and disadvantage of being a streaky player. In the course of my career I've run into some rough patches, and that just happened to be one of them."
In 38 games with the Giants in 2005, before being released, Kapler batted .153 (17-for-111) with three home runs and six runs batted in. He re-signed with the Red Sox in July 2005 and retired -- temporarily, it turned out -- after the 2006 season.
Major Leaguers generally do not retire at age 31. "There are no rules for getting from the beginning of a career to the end of a career," he said. "Just because the answer for most people is, 'Hey, I'm going to stay the course, and I'm going to do it this way,' it's not the answer for everybody. I recognized that I wanted to try something different."
For years he'd been thinking about managing and "thought that was all I was ever going to do," he said. The Red Sox named him manager of the Class A Greenville (S.C.) Drive. The team finished 58-81, seventh in the South Atlantic League's Southern Division.
"I made an emotional decision to go manage and an emotional decision to come back and play baseball," Kapler said. "It won't be the last time I make an emotional decision.
"I missed getting dressed in a Major League clubhouse, I missed getting ready for a game, I missed the camaraderie," he said. "One of the things about managing [in the Minors] is that you're married to two other people -- your pitching coach and your hitting coach, and you don't get to choose them.
"I loved those guys [Walter Miranda and Randy Phillips]. They're great guys, but there wasn't this," Kapler said, waving his arm around a clubhouse filled with Rays teammates in various states of pregame preparation. "This environment right here lets me choose among 25 guys I want to spend my time with on a given day."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.