Moorpark College, a 13,756-student community college nestled into the rolling green hills of southeastern Ventura County, certainly doesn’t look as if it would have any real importance to one of Major League Baseball’s most storied franchises.
Since the school was founded 52 years ago, it has produced seven major-league players, only three of whom have appeared in more than 100 games. The most famous is a former Division I washout who arrived at Moorpark in August 1994 hoping to resuscitate his career and prove to himself that he wasn’t a failure.
“Moorpark was a turning point of, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,’” Ryan Briggs — the starting shortstop on the 1995 Raiders — said of his former teammate, new San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler.
At least once a year, Kapler returns to Moorpark’s baseball facility — a batting cage, metal bleachers and well-kept field wedged into a dirt hillside on the western edge of campus — to thank his old coach Mario Porto, now in his 29th year with the Raiders.
Without Moorpark, Kapler might not have gone from an immature 18-year-old to a 12-year major leaguer to, ultimately, the successor to future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy in San Francisco.
Though Kapler spent just 10 months with the Raiders, he considers Moorpark a core part of his identity. In the more than two decades since he left the two-year school in a bedroom community of 36,576, Kapler has struggled to find stability, playing for six major-league teams — as well as one in Japan — before controversial stints as the Dodgers’ farm director and the Phillies’ manager.
With the Giants, Kapler seeks the same acceptance that makes him come back to Moorpark annually. In August 1994, when Kapler first approached Porto and then-head coach Ken Wagner hoping to try out, they didn’t know he’d lost a near-full-ride scholarship to national powerhouse Cal State Fullerton.
“We start Aug. 22, Gabe,” Porto recalled telling Kapler. “We line them up, and the best guys play.”
Thanks in part to the recommendation of a local scout, Cal State Fullerton head coach Augie Garrido had recruited Kapler, an athletic outfielder from Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley, more on potential than production. The offer was a surprise: Thinly-muscled, Kapler had a good eye and quick hands, but lacked power.
“It was going to require him to be very organized and get his work done,” said Judy Kapler, Gabe’s mother. “He was going to have to be a student and a baseball player, and he just wasn’t ready.”
During his lone semester in Fullerton, Kapler spent most evenings driving more than an hour one way to see his first serious girlfriend, Lisa. He spent most other nights partying. The late hours he kept led to weeks of blown-off classes and missed morning workouts.
As Kapler — now a noted health freak — wrote on his personal blog in 2014, “My go-to meal was a Double Del Cheeseburger (from Del Taco), those special wrinkly fries and a big ol’ Coke with a lot of ice. … I quickly developed an affinity for beer, malt liquor in particular.”
When Garrido pulled Kapler’s scholarship before the end of that first semester, it wasn’t without warning. Said Judy: “He knew he screwed up.”
Kapler packed up his room in shame and drove home that night. Over the next eight months, Kapler lived with his parents in Reseda and delivered pizza in his black Ford Mustang convertible.
“He didn’t do anything except try and explore and think about what had happened, and what he wanted to do next,” Judy said. “He was pretty introspective.”
His baseball future in jeopardy, Kapler re-prioritized his life with the singular goal of being selected in the Major League Draft. He became a regular at the Mid-Valley Athletic Club in Reseda, where he found much-needed structure and discipline in weightlifting.
Instead of enrolling at nearby Pierce College or Los Angeles Valley College, he chose Moorpark and its much less prestigious baseball program because he wanted to get away from those who knew of his embarrassing failure.
Then, as now, Moorpark’s talent base is hyper-local, with players coming from Ventura County and Simi Valley. Kapler — who grew up a 40-minute drive south in Reseda — was an unknown to both players and coaches.
“He looked like a specimen,” Porto said. “You look at him, and you go, ‘Holy cow, this guy’s put together.’ You hoped his talent matched his physique.”
Kapler tried out for shortstop, and the first time he took batting practice with the Raiders, he put on a show with his new muscle. Briggs, the team captain, turned to Porto and asked, “Do I need to start trying out for second base?”
“He was going to hit third,” Porto recalled thinking. “It was just a matter of where he was going to play. … Our third baseman ended up hurting himself, so we put Gabe at third base.”
Moorpark’s no-frills isolation allowed Kapler to quietly and meticulously focus on his work. He hit until his hands blistered and he lifted weights alone long after his teammates had gone out partying, before he made his nightly drive back to the San Fernando Valley.
“He was there first, and he was the last one to leave,” Briggs said. “I would tell him to lock up.”
Kapler credits a Moorpark nutrition class for teaching him the importance of eating right. When his team stopped at McDonald’s on the way back from a game at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Kapler, having forgotten to pack his usual tuna-on-rye sandwich, peeled the skin off of all 40 of his Chicken McNuggets.
“I’m going, ‘Dude, that dude is real,’” said Briggs, who was in the same car. “He puts his money where his mouth is.”
“Gabe was serious about it, and I think it affected the players around him,” Porto said.
Initially reserved during his time at Moorpark, Kapler slowly became more comfortable, speaking up at the Raiders’ weekly meetings at a Round Table Pizza in Simi Valley. It didn’t take long for even the team captains to start following his lead.
Kapler delivered in-game scouting reports to his teammates and demonstrated good instincts for situational baseball, knowing just the right time to bunt or steal a base. This is a side of him foreign to those in Philadelphia who derided Kapler for his overreliance on advanced analytics.
During his lone season at Moorpark, Kapler hit .337, with seven home runs and 52 RBIs, for a 27-15 team that finished second in the conference and reached the playoffs. The habits Kapler built with the Raiders were a driving force behind him becoming the only player signed out of the Major League Draft’s since-eliminated 57th round to make the big leagues.
When Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi hired Kapler in November, he banked that the leadership, diligence and discipline Kapler first flashed at Moorpark would allow him to shepherd the team back into playoff contention after three straight losing seasons.
This was a calculated risk: After accusations that he mishandled assault allegations against his Dodgers minor leaguers and a sub-.500 tenure with the Phillies, Kapler has become a polarizing figure, especially when compared to his predecessor, Bochy. Like when he enrolled at Moorpark after a disappointing stop in Fullerton, Kapler is eager for a measure of redemption.
He has met with season-ticket holders multiple times to address their concerns and talked with Bochy about managing’s nuances. Two days before his hire became official, Kapler took a walking tour of San Francisco, going from Oracle Park to Nob Hill to the Financial District.
He felt the same sense of belonging he still feels at Moorpark as he acquainted himself with his new home.
“I connect with the city,” said Kapler, who was inducted into Moorpark’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. “I believe it to be one of the most diverse and accepting cities on the planet, and that probably excites me more than anything else about coming to San Francisco.”