At the end of the 2006 season, 31-year-old Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler figured it was time to retire from baseball. He had made a successful return from an Achilles' tendon rupture, coming back in June to hit .254 in 72 games, collecting 33 hits, including two home runs, and 12 RBIs. But he was still a role player, a slot he had filled in many of his nine years in the major leagues for Detroit, Texas, Colorado, and the Red Sox.
As much as he loved Boston, whose fans returned the love, he thought it might be time to move on. With his extroverted, thoughtful personality, coaching was the logical next step - everyone said so - and he took a job as manager of the Red Sox' low Single A affiliate, the Greenville (S.C.) Drive of the South Atlantic League.
Kapler enjoyed managing, and typically also got involved in his players' lives off the field. In a Globe magazine article last July, Kapler said, "I have to remember that I'm not a player. That time is over for me."
But in August, he began to feel like a player again. He didn't tell his players, because he felt he owed them his complete involvement, but he talked with his wife about what to do next. At the end of the 2007 season, Kapler figured he was ready to play again.
"I learned my lesson," said Kapler, who returned to Fenway Park last night for the first time since retiring, as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers. "The one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that we all feel different at different times in our life, so maybe try not to predict the next 10 years of your life. Try not to lay it all out in advance, because you don't know how you're going to feel 5-6 months from now. I think that was my biggest learning experience. Now I feel like I understand I'm going to feel differently at the end of the season than I feel right at this very moment."
But this moment seems pretty sweet to Kapler, who said he got a charge out of walking the streets of Boston the last two days, accepting good wishes. "People say the nicest things," he said.
Kapler brought smiles to the faces of many former teammates and fans this season when his gamble paid off. He worked out a deal with Brewers general manager Doug Melvin and went to training camp without a guarantee. He earned a job, and was expected to get some playing time in center field while starter Mike Cameron served a 25-game suspension for a second positive test for a banned amphetamine.
Instead, Kapler was among the best hitters on the team in March and April, batting .286 with a .566 slugging percentage, and smacking four home runs among his 15 hits, piling up 13 RBIs.
"It's been a lot of fun," Kapler said. "That clubhouse is pretty energetic and enthusiastic; it's like a comedy show."
Kapler felt regaining his form was not a problem, though he did admit feeling a generation gap in the locker room for the first time.
"It was probably easier than in '06, when I kind of came back maybe a bit prematurely [from the Achilles' injury] and really wasn't ready," said Kapler. "From my standpoint, the quickness wasn't there, and my reaction time as it related to my Achilles' tendon."
His rapid bounce back doesn't surprise former Sox teammate Kevin Youkilis, who added he was probably more surprised when Kapler decided to stop playing. "He's the type of guy that stays in shape," said Youkilis. "Of all the guys, he's the one who could do it because of the way he stays in shape."
Kapler said the year of managing, making all the decisions that always had been made for him, added to his ability, but no more than each of his playing years.
"All the years of seeing the field have equal value," he said. "I've always seen the field from different lenses - as a utility player or a starting player, now a manager, good teams, bad teams - every year has equally important experience value. Last year was just kind of added to that mix."
With Cameron back on the active roster, Kapler has returned to the role of fourth outfielder.
"Baseball is such a business," he said. "Unless you're on a multiyear contract with a club, and you have a no-trade clause, you don't know where you're going to be in the next couple of days. So I feel comfortable and I'm enjoying myself, but I understand it's a business and it's fleeting."
Barbara Matson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.