Barber: Farhan Zaidi's reputation at stake as Giants hire Gabe Kapler
Farhan Zaidi’s San Francisco honeymoon ended Tuesday evening, when the Giants announced that Gabe Kapler would be the team’s new manager.
That was the moment Zaidi returned home from the beach, dumped the sand out of his shoes, unpacked the dirty clothes from his suitcase and looked around to find a stack of unpaid bills, an empty refrigerator and mold on the shower curtain. Welcome home, Farhan!
The new reality was more than apparent during Wednesday’s ?media session at Oracle Park. It was a strange spectacle. Most introductory press conferences are celebrations. This one was more like an extended apology.
“I think what we’ve come to understand is this is not a situation where these incidents and what you do afterwards are just about protecting victims,” said Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations. “But really about supporting. And I don’t think we did enough in that regard. And I’ve had to reflect on that, and I’m truly sorry.”
“I think if I could go back and do some of the Dodgers stuff different, I probably would have called my mom and asked her about which steps to take,” said Kapler, who replaces the eminently respected Bruce Bochy in the dugout. “… I think this is the right time to say I’m sorry that I didn’t make all the right moves.”
The “incidents” and “moves” in question are what made Wednesday more of a referendum that an ice breaker. Kapler’s handling of an assault - possibly a sexual assault by a player - during Dodgers spring training in 2015, when he was that organization’s director of player development, was at the very least insufficient, and by some accounts dirty.
There are multiple layers to that story, and some debatable gaps. I will not recount it in detail here because those issues all were sitting on the table the moment Kapler walked into the Giants’ door, and I have nothing new to add. Suffice to say Kapler’s past makes him the least popular coaching/managerial hire in the Bay Area in, well, possibly forever.
There was skepticism when the 49ers elevated Jim Tomsula in 2015, hired Chip Kelly the following year and (admit it!) brought in college coach Bill Walsh in 1979, and when Tom Cable got to keep his interim job with the Raiders in 2009. Steve Kerr had a lot of doubters when he replaced the semi-popular Mark Jackson in 2014. None of them experienced the sort of outrage and enmity that has greeted Kapler.
My colleague C.W. Nevius, who has covered Bay Area sports longer than I, tells me Jim Davenport immediately led with the wrong foot when the Giants hired him as manager in 1985. I imagine a certain segment of the population revolted when the A’s hired the deeply troubled Billy Martin in 1980. I don’t know that either of them faced a negative consensus to match Kapler’s.
It isn’t just his ham-fisted treatment of that hotel-room incident in 2015, or the other systemic problems in a Dodgers farm system that included both Kapler and Zaidi. The manager’s on-field performance in Philadelphia left much to be desired, too. They did fire him after two years.
Granted, the Phillies were considerably worse before Kapler got there in 2017. He lifted them to mediocrity, going 161-163 over two full seasons. But Kapler’s managing moves, especially his bullpen usage, was so perplexing early on that his players threatened a mutiny. And even when he put that behind him, he failed to produce a winning record despite the team signing free agents like Jake Arrieta, Andrew McCutcheon and the pearl of the Class of ’19, Bryce Harper.
On top of all that, Kapler is a kook. His blog posts have advised men to tan their testicles and to use coconut oil for their self-abuse, and a Sports Illustrated story noted his habit of licking ice cream before spitting it into a cup, presumably to preserve his chiseled physique.
These are harmless quirks and, hey, I like kooks. But I suppose they make Kapler less relatable to the common man and his pale, non-coconutty nether-regions.
It all added up to produce a strong chorus when it was reported that Kapler was a finalist for the Giants job, and that chorus called out, “Don’t hire this guy!”
Zaidi did, though, setting up the first crisis of his presidency.
To this point, we have largely handled Zaidi with kid gloves. He inherited a Giants team that was bad and boring, and we equipped him with an incredibly long leash. When he set about frantically rearranging the bottom third of the SF roster, we nodded our heads. When he introduced us to Connor Joe and Michael Reed, we were like, “Sure, why not?”
And lo and behold, the Giants generated some excitement. They had an improbable .500 record as late as August 25. The bargain-basement production of players like Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson only added to Zaidi’s aura of genius.
In retrospect, though, a lot of his moves backfired. Guys such as Joe and Reed, Eric Kratz and Scooter Gennett came and went like stray cats. And did you happen to catch the 2019 MLB league championship series? There was Gerardo Parra playing for the Nationals and Cameron Maybin playing for the Yankees. Men deemed expendable by Zaidi wound up producing for other, better teams.
There is no such thing as an endless grace period in professional sports. But Zaidi would be less vulnerable if he had hired Joe Espada or Matt Quatraro, one of the other finalists for the job, to manage the Giants. We would have demanded proof of Espada’s or Quatraro’s suitability during the coming season, for sure. But we might not have been holding pitchforks as we did it.
In hiring Kapler, Zaidi has forced himself onto an upper limb. I have to say I admire his resolve. Kapler was the difficult choice, and Zaidi made it, trusting his own inner convictions and assessments more than popular opinion. Props to him for that.
“I felt and we felt that it was our responsibility to select the person that was right for the job,” Zaidi said Wednesday. “You’re asking about a certain set of perception issues that were out there. For us, I think it was a question of whether we were gonna judge someone based on some of those perception issues or what we knew to be true, by the firsthand experience, by the interview process, by references that we checked. And ultimately we decided that was what was important.”
But if Espada or Quatraro had failed in San Francisco, it could be shrugged off as a learning experience.
If Kapler fails, it will be a direct hit to Zaidi’s reputation. When you go against the grain, someone will always be there with the receipts.