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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Kapler's Career Has Received a Big Lift

September 02, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Those teenage girls who lose all sense of sanity by worshiping the likes of Hanson might soon adopt Gabe Kapler as their pinup poster boy.

On the cover of this month's issue of Men's Exercise magazine, a shirtless Kapler is holding a dumbbell while dressed in thin yellow shorts, which he admits "is something you don't want your mother to see."

Classmates from Kapler's days at Taft High would hardly recognize the 23-year-old Detroit Tigers' farmhand who has become one of the hottest prospects in the minor leagues.

His appearance as a magazine cover model caused his agent, Paul Cohen, to joke about negotiating a clause in Kapler's contract that would pay him a bonus for "how many 14- to 18-year-old girls" show up to Tiger games next season.

With muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger and bat speed like Mark McGwire, Kapler won't ever be mistaken for Gabe Kaplan, the comedian.

The question is, what's the real story behind this bulked up Jewish boy from Tarzana who is the talk of the minors?

At double-A Jacksonville this season, Kapler has driven in a Southern League-record 140 runs, tops in the minors. He hit two more home runs Monday, giving him 28 and is batting .321. He continues to display startling skills for someone who was a 57th-round draft pick in 1995 out of Moorpark College.

The day is nearing when the Tigers call up Kapler and make him their starting right fielder.

"All I want is to be there one day, but I'll guarantee you when I get there, I'll want to be there two days, then I'll want to start, then I'll want to be an All-Star, then in the Hall of Fame," he said. "Where does it end?"

The Tigers are likely to promote Kapler this month as soon as Jacksonville completes the Southern League playoffs. His arrival in Detroit would make him the third member of the region's talented high school class of 1993 to reach the majors, joining Brad Fullmer (Montclair Prep) and Jeff Suppan (Crespi).

Kapler's journey has been anything but smooth.

In 1993, Kapler's senior season at Taft, he drove in a mere 14 runs and hit below .300 while starting at shortstop for a team that made it to the City Section 4-A semifinals. He received a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton even though his performance didn't stamp him as one of the region's better players.

"I was a child," he said. "When I left high school, I wasn't ready to play at Fullerton. I wanted to be home with my girlfriend. The timing was terrible. I was an average high school baseball player, and I knew it."

Kapler dropped out of Fullerton, gained maturity and became a weight-lifting fanatic. His body changed as much as his outlook on life. He enrolled at Moorpark College and made himself into the baseball player he always envisioned. Then he got his chance to play professionally.

"Adolescence is a tough time," he said. "There were several times I was miserable. They stem from not being able to handle school, feeling I wanted to separate myself from my parents . . . I didn't know where I fit in and I wasn't sure I wanted to fit in."

Kapler was trying to understand where baseball belonged in his life.

"I played at Reseda Park and I loved it," he said. "I was a stud. The biggest mistake I made was going to Encino Little League. I'd go to games and come home crying. I never once cried at Reseda Park. That's where I loved the game. I would wake up at 7 o'clock on Saturday morning and be there all day long."

Maturity and experience have given Kapler a new perspective on his teenage years.

"How can you judge success by what you're doing when you're 16, 17 years old?" Kapler said. "At that point in my life, I had no idea what I was doing. I was so caught up in the stuff that went on in Little League and high school. I learned so much from my experiences.

"I'm still struggling to remember baseball is not the most important thing in the world."

The perfectionist instincts in Kapler's personality drive him to excel. He has transformed his body from a 150-pound high school sophomore into a 6-foot-2, 210-pound athlete with a model-like physique.

"I learned how hard I had to work to make myself not only a better player but a better human being," he said. "When I'm home, it's pretty much a seven-day-a-week thing.'

The Tigers are thrilled with Kapler's development, but he knows there is work ahead to reach the top.

"I'm learning every day," he said.

Kapler has found someone to share his life. On Jan. 17, he's marrying his girlfriend, Lisa , who he met with one month left in his senior year at Taft. She is his love alongside baseball.

The many years of playing baseball has taught Kapler an important lesson.

"This is a game of heart," he said.

Kapler's heart has kept him moving toward the major leagues when others dismissed him.

He's so close now. And once he makes it, watch out. He's a marketing manager's dream. Just ask the teenage girls ready to line up for his autograph.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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