THE WATCH ON Gabe Kapler’s left wrist started as a curiosity and traveled a smooth path to obsession. Big, chunky and obviously expensive, it was both striking and vexing. Morning or afternoon, the time on the watch bore no resemblance to the actual time of day.
Even more vexing, the time was never identifiable as being wrong in a way that made sense. It wasn’t just a little off, and it wasn’t aligned with a non-Pacific time zone. It was just wrong, randomly, and it made me wonder if the watch was some outward manifestation of the man’s internal clock. Kapler, the San Francisco Giants’ manager, is meticulous in just about every way. Health, fitness, nutrition, fashion, facial hair — everything seems to be exquisitely calibrated to some far away decimal few strive to reach.
Then there was the watch. I tried unsuccessfully to discern some logic in its errancy. Could this watch, sitting just above one of his pneumatic-clamp hands and just below one of his phlebotomist’s-dream forearms, be just another way for Kapler to display his counterculture bona fides?
Because this is not the traditional baseball guy. He does not talk like one or act like one or even look like one. He is a baseball guy, of course, but the rare one who seldom shows emotion, almost never gets thrown out of games and carries himself with finely tuned stoicism. Last year, Kapler’s first full season as manager, the Giants won 107 games and a National League West title — perhaps the most shocking season of any team in the past two decades. The season was such a wild surprise that it raised expectations for whatever came next. Yet Kapler spent spring training repeating the same answer: “We’re not trying to replicate last year.” And then the Giants went out and, by winning 14 of their first 21, proceeded to replicate last year before injuries and COVID infections turned their roster into a spring training B squad for close to two weeks. Then they took a deep breath, got most of their guys back and went back to replicating. They enter this weekend’s series in St. Louis, which concludes with a Sunday Night Baseball matchup, at 19-12, a game better than last season at the same point. They’re one of five NL West teams – in other words, all of them — above .500.
Stories swirl around Kapler like dust devils, making it possible to wonder, even guardedly, whether the wayward timepiece suggests he prefers to conduct himself as if living in a different time zone. He’s an inveterate experimenter and a devoted nonconformist, whether it’s lineup composition, coaching staffs or nutrition. The Giants used 148 different lineups last season on their way to those 107 wins. He has a coaching staff of 16, the most in the big leagues, and it includes one woman and not a single person he knew before hiring them. His diet consists almost solely of red meat, and it’s almost because he recently began mixing in some berries and the occasional bacon-and-egg breakfast. “There’s really not a lot of vitamins the body needs that doesn’t cover,” he says of red meat and berries. “Now, I’m making that statement without being an expert on the topic. I always know there’s a chance I could be wrong.” Who’s to argue? He is 46 years old and the only hint to his age is a sprinkling of gray above his ears. He weighs between 195 and 200 — “a tight range,” he says — roughly five to 10 pounds more than he weighed when he signed his first pro contract at 19. Last July his players celebrated his birthday by presenting him with a custom cake shaped like a steak, and Kapler says, “It was the coolest gesture. At people’s cores, they want to be understood and appreciated — even in the ways they’re eccentric or a little bit quirky. Red meat was about all they ‘d seen me eat, and I don’t eat a lot of” — here he paused, as if bracing himself — “cake.” He said the word spat it, really — as if its mere entry into the world, that one innocuous syllable, imbued it with a credibility it did not deserve.
This is all to say everything feels purposeful. He walks to the mound with the resolute gait of a general about to address his troops. The walk is like a code, simultaneously projecting gratitude to the pitcher he is removing and strength to the one coming in. “He has this physical presence, mostly because he’s yoked,” says reliever John Brebbia, almost giggling. And reliever Tyler Rogers says, “He just exudes masculinity.”
Brandon Crawford, along with Brandon Belt the only veteran who played his entire career and won World Series titles under Bruce Bochy before Kapler took over in 2020, is asked to describe their differences. “Hoo, boy,” he says, smiling. “Just a different person. Different personality. Different style.”
One example: shoes. Kapler favors designer high-tops, and he’s undoubtedly the first manager to run a game wearing Y3s. “Boch had the standard black turfs,” Crawford says. “I think his feet were so wide he had to cut out a part of the leather on the side so his foot would fit into it. I can’t see Kap doing that.”
Finally, on a Sunday morning in his office at Oracle Park in the first week of the season, I decide to ask about the watch. Unlike every other manager’s office, Kapler’s is largely unconnected to his sport. There are a couple of bats in the corner, almost intentionally hidden, but aside from that it could easily be the office of a hip, young executive at one of the nearby tech startups. It is perfectly in line with his public persona. The hybrid bike he rides to work from North Beach is propped against a cabinet, in front of a bass guitar and behind a standing desk. Several bottles of good liquor — mostly Scotch, Kapler’s preference — and fine wine sit on a bar cart. (His older brother, Jeremy, describes Gabe’s Scotch collection by saying, “He likes it, but it’s probably like someone saying they like dolphins and the next thing you know they’ve got a room full of dolphins.”) A large framed photo of Nelson Mandela looms over the desk. Einstein’s on a different wall, Muhammad Ali a third. Several books, including “Journals,” by Kurt Cobain, and “Sister Outsider,” by Audre Lorde, line up with geometric exactitude on a coffee table.
Kapler apologizes for the mess. (His definition, unsurprisingly, is different from most.) He speaks with a measured precision. Questions are followed by a pause, as if there exists an inner Gabe whose sole responsibility is to predict and understand how the outer Gabe will be perceived.
So, about the watch.
This time, inner Gabe is not consulted.
“There’s nothing there,” he quickly says. “The watch is broken. I like the watch, so I wear it, and I haven’t gotten it fixed. But no — trust me, no — there’s nothing there.”
He is eager to get out in front of this one. Kapler knows, better than anyone, the lore that surrounds him, and he knows the watch could become a thing if left to its own devices. “Over the years it’s always been the most extreme version of the story that’s been written,” he says. This is a man who was asked, in his 2017 introductory news conference after being hired as manager of the Phillies, to defend an item in his lifestyle blog that semi-comically extolled the virtues of coconut oil as a — how can I say this ? — self-pleasing enhancement. He does not want to spend the rest of this season — and maybe beyond — answering questions about an alternate conception of time. “All these things,” he says. “They become like caricatures. They grow into something that’s not really human.”
His tone carries the remnants of every past story, every perceived exaggeration, every caricature, and so he wants the world to know he resides solidly within his prescribed time-space continuum, firmly rooted in the time zone in which his corporal body exists.
He does, however, wear a watch that doesn’t tell time.
KAPLER TAPS TWO fingers on the tattoo on the back of his left hand and says, “That’s my dad.” It’s an elaborate rose, with the date of Michael Kapler’s death — 12/20/2020 — inscribed below the knuckles. The idea came to Kapler after the memorial ceremony for his father last November. Roses were passed out, and anyone who chose to speak on Michael’s behalf needed to be holding a rose. As Gabe held one and spoke of his father, he realized that if Michael Kapler, who died of complications of Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia, had the rose in his hand, he would be passionately expressive. He would be offering the rose to those around him and extolling its virtues. You’ve got to smell this roseGabe imagined him saying, it smells amazing.
“All of it came together,” Gabe says, running his fingers across the ink. “And I just wanted to see it. I wanted it to be very visible, a consistent reminder of my dad, a very important, very influential figure in my life.”
It’s not Kapler’s only tattoo — he has several, including “Never Again” on one calf and a Star of David on the other — but the rose likely makes him the first major league manager with visible ink. (Likely only because this remains one category where analytics fall woefully short.) “Interesting play,” Jeremy Kapler says, a touch of envy creeping in. “Not everyone has the freedom to have a hand tattoo at work.”
Michael Kapler wasn’t into baseball. He was a wanderer and a poet and a romantic and a classical pianist and a music teacher and, in words that Gabe manages to deliver fondly, “a failed composer.” He would climb fences and trees in the neighborhood to pick fruit, and he regularly peeled an orange and stuck the peel to his sons’ noses, saying those same words Gabe imagined him saying about the rose. Michael and his wife, Judy, were New Yorkers who met at a Vietnam War protest, and they attended speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. before moving to Los Angeles. The Kaplers were educators and voracious readers, and Jeremy says he and Gabe were constantly invited to partake of their father’s reading list. “I wouldn’t categorize it as ‘assigned,'” Jeremy says. “More ‘suggestive,’ like, ‘You’ve…