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Rays to face a familiar face in Gabe Kapler

Gabe Kapler leads Phillies into Trop.
First-year Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has a different view of the game, shaped in part by his days as a Rays player under Joe Maddon. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
First-year Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has a different view of the game, shaped in part by his days as a Rays player under Joe Maddon. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Apr. 12, 2018
Updated Apr. 13, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG – Mickey Callaway has had the best start of the three former Rays players hired this winter  — obviously by coincidence, not prerequisite — as first-time managers, and all in the National League East, leading the Mets to a baseball-best 10-1 mark.

Dave Martinez has the most promising opportunity for overall success, taking over a Nationals team laden with arguably the most talent in the league.

But Gabe Kapler has been the most spotlighted — good, bad and, well, Philadelphia style —stepping in, and stepping in it a few times, to lead the Phillies, who Friday open a three-game series at the Trop.

Had events unfolded differently in 2014, Kapler, 42, might have been managing the Rays.

RELATED: 12 games in, 10 things we think we know about Rays season

He was a favorite of then-baseball ops boss Andrew Friedman, on the payroll in some form of special assistancy after retiring and doing some Fox TV work , and seemed a likely choice if/when Joe Maddon left. Instead Friedman bolted for big bucks with the Dodgers, and took Kapler along as farm director, supposedly to make him manager there, which didn't happen either. Maddon, as you may have heard, went to the Cubs.

Kapler was considered "different" during a 12-year outfield career that wrapped with the Rays in 2009-10. He was known as erudite, cerebral, eclectic, forward-thinking and open-minded among other adjectives, for being much more into analytics as well as himself, focusing on nutrition and a healthy lifestyle before that became common in clubhouses.

And, as you'd expect, even more different as a manager. Kapler went to Philly to set not just a tone but a mood— with accompanying lighting and a clubhouse sound track. He talked about doing so much, so differently, spewing catch-phrases about energy, empathy, educating, environment building – and those were just the E's.

It was an odd mix, this new-wave thinker in an old-school town, and some wondered if Kapler would make it to opening day without a major controversy.

Some things popped up, including an awkward question at Kapler's introductory press conference about an item he'd written years earlier on his kaplifestyle.com blog touting coconut oil as "the world's greatest lubricant." His winter meetings analogy that managing is "about being really nutrient dense soil" from which the players can grow. The basic Googling that reminds the world he one day thought it was a good decision to pose for photos with his oiled-up body covered by only a leopard-print thong.

But that was friendly chatter compared to the criticism he took once the season started. He left their best player the past three seasons, Odubel Herrera, out of the opening day lineup based on matchups. He pulled top starter Aaron Nola after 68 pitches in that opener and saw the bullpen blow a 5-0 lead. He brought in a reliever, Hoby Milner, who hadn't started to warm up. He put on a defensive shift that backfired and cost them a game as they started 1-4. He made Rays manager Kevin Cash look sedentary by making 18 pitching changes in the first three games.

And – I know it was Philadelphia, but still – he got booed upon introduction at the home opener.

Kapler, to his credit, was stand-up and accountable for the early miscommunication and mistakes. He brings the Phillies to the Trop 6-5, and appreciative of his previous time there, as his parts of four seasons playing, and one managing at Class A in 2007, with the Red Sox.

"The way I personally analyze baseball was shaped heavily by the Boston front office and the Rays front office,'' Kapler said this spring. "Andrew Friedman had a huge impact on the way I think about baseball. (Current Rays GM) Erik Neander absolutely had a huge impact on the way I think about baseball.

"So did (former Red Sox execs) Ben Cherington, so did Theo Epstein, so did Mike Hazen. There's lot of people that influenced the way I think and gave me things to look for as I was reading, and inspired me in a lot of ways to research and use evidence to layer on top of the feel and the tradition, blending those things together effectively, and sensitively and appropriately.''

Maddon helped shape him, too, both in the two seasons as his manager and now as a peer, encouraging him to be confident, reminding him "don't be afraid to be different.''

That, it's safe to say, is not going to be a problem.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays