The first day of the 1995 MLB Draft was winding down, and one Tigers area scout was getting more and more fired up. He pleaded with scouting and player development director Jeff Scott to select a juco third baseman he really liked -- Gabe Kapler from Moorpark College.
"I had him in the eighth or ninth round," the scout said this week after it was announced that Kapler had been hired as the next Phillies manager.
Scott promised to consider the kid the second day, but he ended up passing again. The scout, with increasing urgency, continued to press his case. Finally, on the third day, almost as an afterthought in the 57th round, the Tigers drafted Kapler. And there are two points to be made about this story.
First, there's a Phillies connection. The scout who believed in Kapler so much that he kept nagging his boss to draft him was Dennis Lieberthal. His son, Mike, had been the Phillies' No. 1 pick five years earlier and would eventually be added to the team's Wall of Fame in 2012 after catching more games than any player in franchise history.
Even more significant were the reasons Lieberthal was so adamant about getting a player no other team seemed interested in. Kapler could hit, sure. But there was more.
"I thought he was going to be successful because he has this inner strength," Lieberthal said. "I said, 'You can't imagine how tough this guy is inside himself.' He was so strong internally. If he didn't succeed, it wouldn't have been because he didn't give it 110 percent plus 50. He would kill himself to be successful."
Later, Scott would see the same drive.
"Every time you walked by Gabe, he would be doing pushups," he said. "He was obsessed."
At the time, Kapler was also playing for a scout team Lieberthal ran for the Tigers. That weekend, they were scheduled to play against a college team at UC Santa Barbara. In those more primitive times, neither the scout or player knew yet that he had actually been drafted.
"All I did was apologize the whole day that I couldn't get him drafted," Lieberthal said with a laugh. "I told him, 'If you stick around with the team, I'll try to sign you sometime this summer.' He hadn't gotten a phone call, and I was so upset, I was kicking the dugout wall. Anyway, he hit three home runs that day against good college pitching."
After all that got sorted out, there was still the matter of getting Kapler signed. That wasn't a slam dunk. At first, Lieberthal was authorized to offer just $5,000. All these years later, it's not clear who first raised the concerns that he could get lost in the shuffle, but again it was Lieberthal who pressed the case with the front office.
Kapler had to be assured he'd play every day. He had to be invited to participate in the Florida instructional league. And, yes, he had to get more money.
Scott agreed to all the conditions as long as Kapler would go out right away. The next season, at Class A Fayetteville, Kapler hit 26 homers with 99 RBIs and a .912 OPS. He was on his way to a career that included 12 years in the big leagues with six teams and has now led to the dugout at Citizens Bank Park.
"He was ignored by every scout in Southern California. They just ignored him," Lieberthal said. "He was a third baseman who was so stiff because he lifted a lot of heavy weights. He was afraid to let go and throw the ball from third base to first base. When he did, he'd throw it over the fence behind the first baseman at the junior college. He also hesitated and bounced it over there.
"You never saw his really great arm. He had never played outfield a day in his life until we put him in there [the weekend after the Draft], and all of a sudden, he's throwing rifle shots in. You hear the ball whistle by you on the mound when you're hitting fungos. He had great instincts. He was off before the ball was even hit. Those were natural abilities. Nobody showed him how to do that. He was just stuck at third base, where he looked terrible.
"Nobody ever got him in a good time running, because when he hit the ball on the ground, he got upset with himself and he hesitated for a half a second or a second before he took off. But I knew how would hit at the next level. Every time he hit the ball, you wouldn't want to get in front of it if you were in the infield. In junior college, the guys would just shy away from the ball when he hit it. When he had an aluminum bat, he was dangerous up there."
As it turned out, all Kapler needed to make it to the big leagues as a player was a chance. Now the Phillies are giving him the same opportunity to prove himself as a manager.
Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.