Voice Male - Fall 2005
Double Play: Gabe and Lisa Kapler
Take the Field Against Domestic Violence
by Rob Okun
Gabe Kapler has been saying no to domestic abuse for a long time. Taking that stance, the Boston Red Sox outfielder says, was a natural outgrowth of the values he was raised with by activist parents in Los Angeles. Earlier this year he put his beliefs into practice, establishing a foundation committed to supporting victims of domestic violence and modeling for boys a healthy brand of masculinity. He is committed to seeing the foundation's vision grow.
Followers of baseball probably know that in mid-September, in the thick of the American League East pennant race, Gabe ruptured his left Achilles tendon rounding second base in a tie game against Toronto. His season ended abruptly. While he returned home to Los Angeles for surgery and recuperation, his injury has not sidelined him from pursuing his commitment to the mission of the foundation that bears his name.
Projects the Kapler Foundation is currently supporting include procuring playground equipment and additional childcare for a Los Angeles battered women's shelter and piloting a collaboration between a Massachusetts shelter, Safe Passage of Northampton, and the Men's Resource Center for Change, publisher of Voice Male.
"The grant," foundation co-founder and administrator Judy Kapler says, "will allow men from the Men's Resource Center to serve as positive role models, spending time with boys in the shelter who have witnessed or experienced domestic abuse. We want to facilitate all children growing up with healthy ideas about men." Judy Kapler, who is Gabe's mother, holds a master's degree in child development and has been teaching, directing, counseling, and advocating for children for a quarter century. (See sidebar and www.kaplerfoundation.org.)
Gabe Kapler began to seriously think about the issue of dating violence when he was a senior in high school and had begun dating his future wife, Lisa. They were both 17. With great difficulty, Lisa had recently extricated herself from a relationship in which she'd been physically and emotionally abused by an older student. Meeting Gabe, a star on the school's baseball team, was eye-opening, she recalled. Even though she was vulnerable and in the early stages of recovering from her ordeal, she recognized that Gabe represented "a role model for what a healthy relationship could be."
Lisa and Gabe married in 1999 and have two sons, ages three and six. They live in Los Angeles, but during the season lead a baseball family's nomadic life. Since becoming a major leaguer, Gabe has played for the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and Colorado Rockies. He was traded to the Red Sox halfway through the 2003 season. Gabe was in right field when Boston recorded the final out against the St. Louis Cardinals last season to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. He started the 2005 season as the center fielder on the Yomiuri Giants in Japan but was unhappy there. He was able to return to the Red Sox at the end of July, playing frequently until he was injured.
The idea for the Kapler Foundation, something Gabe and Lisa had been considering, got a jump start in June 2004 when the Red Sox Wives were preparing a "Picnic in the Park," an annual event raising money for a non-profit organization and the Red Sox Foundation. When Lisa learned that the recipient organization was Jane Doe, Inc., the Massachusetts coalition of battered women's shelters and sexual assault prevention centers, she decided the moment had arrived to share her secret. Prior to the picnic, a representative from Jane Doe met with the wives at Fenway Park. During the meeting the Jane Doe official caught everyone off guard, revealing that one of their own had been a victim of dating violence. That was Lisa's cue. It was the first step in telling her story.
She didn't offer details then, a story in The Boston Globe published last summer reported. But as she thought about it more she felt a strong pull to go public. Lisa says she wanted to show "that this can happen to a girl from a suburban family with two parents." Popular, a member of the high school drill team, a student with good friends and good grades, she says she "was raised by a mom and stepfather who were loving with each other. I never witnessed abuse of any kind."
At the picnic I met Lisa and described the work of the MRC, including giving her a video about the organization. After going home and watching the tape, Lisa says she was excited about the center's work. Five days later she and her two young sons drove out from Boston to visit the MRC. "When I first started to speak out I was aware that I didn't have any information about what men were doing to challenge domestic violence," Lisa said recently. "I knew there was something missing. When I watched the video and met with the folks at the MRC, I knew I had another important piece of the puzzle. Gabe and I have been really glad to be collaborating with the MRC." That collaboration has included Gabe and Lisa's sponsorship two years in a row of the MRC's annual Men's Walk to End Abuse, including facilitating publicity for the walk on radio and television broadcasts of Red Sox games, as well as postings on the video message center that hovers above the Fenway Park outfield.
For its part, the Boston Red Sox, along with its many involvements in the local community and with groups around New England, has found a place for continuing to pay attention to the domestic violence issue. The Sox had to deal with the issue in 1997, when former outfielder Wil Cordero was arrested on domestic assault and battery charges. They ordered him to attend anger management classes and let him go at the end of the season (see Voice Male Fall 1997). More recently, Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society began offering their Mentors in Violence Prevention program (MVP) to Sox minor league players, an effort piloted last March at the club's spring training headquarters in Fort Meyers, Florida. MVP teaches strategies players can employ to handle challenging social situations without resorting to violence. The New England Patriots have been using the program for more than seven years.
Peter Roby, the center's executive director, cited Lisa's story and Gabe's role in her healing when he approached the Red Sox about working with MVP. "That was a perfect example of how guys, sensitive and loving, can change lives," he told The Boston Globe's Gordon Edes. "She was in a relationship that was bad, she met [Gabe], and he helped to turn her whole life around."
To find out more about his views on masculinity and the new foundation, among other questions, I interviewed Gabe Kapler just after Labor Day, before he headed to Fenway Park to prepare for a game.
Can you talk about what you see as the responsibility of athletes to speak out against domestic violence?
Pro athletes have a responsibility, regardless of the cause, to help people in less fortunate situations than they are in, whether financially, donating time, giving autographs, whatever. There are many important causes--domestic violence just happened to hit home with my family. It's an incredible platform for me as a positive role model, presenting myself as a male who is a strong advocate of having a healthy relationship.
What was it in your makeup in high school that led you to respond the way you did when you met Lisa and learned about her previous abusive relationship?
It's tough because there are so many facets. I had two parents who have open communication in their relationship. Like anyone, their relationship may not have been perfect. But there was never any lack of verbal communication--that was always present in our house. I noticed with Lisa that was a hurdle early in our relationship. I knew the relationship she had prior to me was a violent one, and that she was a little bit violent herself. I think that was an eye-opening experience for me. I had parents who would not let emotions simmer, they got everything out right away. I watched that as a child growing up. From what I saw it was always verbal, and more times than not in an effort to resolve an issue they would use words rather than being abusive.
A year and a half ago came the Picnic in the Park, and Lisa began speaking out. How do you feel about what she's doing, about her voice as an empowered woman and the road she's been traveling?
I think it's great that she has the courage to tell her story. Because she is very charismatic--when she speaks, people listen. She has that gift. It was so important for her to tell her story. She was always very emotional about it, which is great. It's powerful--the sadness, anger, emotion coming in, telling her story to teenage girls or whoever may be listening. I think we both realize that it's our responsibility to be able to share, not only financially, but to have a hands-on experience with it, which becomes so rewarding. It makes our lives better.
Talk about the idea of organizing the Gabe Kapler Foundation.
We had talked many times over the course of the last three or four years about how we could contribute financially, kicking around the idea of working with several different organizations around domestic violence, and we realized this was a perfect fit. We wanted to be a part of [domestic violence prevention work] in an ongoing way for hopefully the rest of our lives, making, number one, a financial contribution, and definitely making it our number-one time commitment. We got my mom involved working on the project. When I have time away from baseball I'll ultimately have more time to spend on it.
What do you see as the role of fathers, teaching their sons to respect girls and women--and other boys and men?
To me, that is the most important question, the most important aspect of all of this. When people ask me "What can I do to help?" I say, if you have children, you're going to teach them--just set a good example. That's more important than anything else--having a good relationship with your spouse in front of your child--not to be separate, or try to guard them from it, but let them watch that--when there's a conflict, great or small, in the house. I watch my older son, almost six, he hears everything, every conversation. His internal computer is firing away, and I have a responsibility, and his mother has a responsibility as well, to work through problems, verbally, not to give up, not hide from them, but to be responsible. Kids are exposed to so many unhealthy images in this culture. What could professional athletes do to model something different? Since changing our ideas about men, redefining masculinity, is often seen as too "soft" for the public to accept, how do pro athletes walk that line? It's tough. I have some very strong feelings about this particular issue. I don't claim to be an expert. It's important that we maintain our masculinity. I think it's great to present a strength. It can be dangerous to present too soft a masculinity. There's a way to balance strength and intelligence and nonviolence. I'd point to Martin Luther King. I think he presented a strong masculine, nonviolent, positive role model for men.
How do you walk that line as a father with your own sons? One is in kindergarten and one is in preschool, right?
Yes. If I'm playing with my boys and one falls and gets hurt, my first initial reaction is to be nurturing--"Are you okay?" And then, if I feel there's manipulation involved, getting a little bit more attention out of this, that's where the strength comes in. "I know your finger hurts, but it's time to move on." That's what we're trying to find, there is a balance, there's both sides.
What kind of influence do male pro athletes have off the field?
From a celebrity standpoint, I believe there are a lot of positive male role models. I don't know that you see a lot of interaction between a father and son on TV, though. I watch [father and son interaction] on a daily basis in the clubhouse, the different approaches the guys take. The music that's always on in the clubhouse is interesting--and how the guys try to shield their sons from the [harsher lyrics] or just say that's what it's like in the clubhouse and I don't want you using these words outside. There's a lot of very strong lyrics in our clubhouse, whether it's hip-hop or rock. From a male role model standpoint I think we've had generally bad, terrible role models. But a good parent far overshadows those models. I don't think a kid is going to listen to 50 Cent, a big rapper, over their father and how he talks in front of them.
How do you see consciousness raising efforts like the MRC's Men's Walk to End Abuse? Is it effective as a way to get men involved, to show that domestic violence is not just a women's issue? It's true that most men are decent and not abusers, but what's their responsibility?
That is my dad [you're describing]. That is what he preached in my house. "This is our issue"--nonviolence, sexism, racism were huge issues in my house. My dad is, or was, a political activist and still has very strong feelings and gets involved. Growing up, those are things my dad preached--he walked the walk also. He was involved in men's groups, talking about feelings, men's issues, sexism... Growing up, I never realized the importance of listening to my dad talk about this stuff. As an adult, you realize how important your parents are. My son Chase may not care that much what I'm talking about, but from a subconscious, subliminal standpoint it sinks in. From my dad, it was all subliminal, but now I get it, and I'm more compassionate without even knowing it, because of that. I have so much respect for that, and appreciate it so much. I think a lot of men are close-minded because they saw their dad beat up their mom, they saw an abusive relationship, whether verbal or physical.
Your father was a music teacher...
He was a piano teacher, always writing music, always playing the piano. I remember him starting a company to do performances for kids, birthday parties, and he taught at the elementary school. That was difficult for me. It's always difficult for a kid to have their mom or dad be a teacher at their school.
The line between being tough and strong and compassionate is challenging to walk. Do you think your dad integrated that?
I think he talked more about compassion than anything else... He wasn't always the most patient man [so] I saw both sides of it. If it was up to him, he may not have shown me that impatient side. He has a real strength to him. I watched him in a classroom setting. He could get mad. When he would talk and he was serious it was time to listen. But there was always compassion.
Was that modeling in any way a plus for you as a pro athlete?
As I grew up in the sports world, it made it easier. In the beginning it was very difficult for me, playing baseball in the minor leagues and then in the majors. Baseball taught me how to have a thick skin. In my house I was taught to have a thin skin. I'm really grateful to baseball for teaching me to have a thick skin. I want my kids to have thick skin. I remember getting really bent out of shape about stuff at home--that was fine in my house. As an adult, I'm grateful that baseball--it's such a failure sport. In the clubhouse, you have a constant barrage of ridicule and banter that includes tearing each other down on a regular basis. As crazy as it sounds, it's been really good for me personally. It's the real world, it's the way things work. If you're too sensitive it affects you. I want my child to be able to handle what goes on.
When you hear racist or sexist stuff in the clubhouse, what do you do?
When you hear something racist or sexist you might say, not in an aggressive way, but a light way, "That was the worst possible word you could use in my house growing up." It would be self-destructive to be confrontational. Internally, you have people brought up in different ways. There's not a public forum with an open conversation about it. You may talk about it with guys who are sympathetic, or not. Generally speaking, baseball is a melting pot of races and financial backgrounds and upbringing, some people who have never been around somebody from a large city, only guys just like them. People handle it in different ways--like the swearing in the clubhouse or [lyrics] on the radio. Some guys don't want their son hearing it, they only want Christian music; others say if you don't like it, take your son out of here.
Baseball players like former Sox outfielder Wil Cordero, José Canseco, Milton Bradley, and others have been charged with domestic assault and battery. How is that kind of issue seen from inside the clubhouse? What about now, if it happened with one of your teammates? You have some authority because of Lisa and what happened to her. What would you say?
Certainly, in my mind [domestic abuse] is unacceptable. How I would address that with a particular player is a completely different story. The right thing to do isn't always to say something to the person about it. The person has to be ready to talk about it, ready to listen. If I didn't think somebody was ready to listen I would never approach him. I wouldn't understand how that would be my place to do that. But their respect level would drop immediately from other players. We kind of police ourselves. When somebody does something that's not just embarrassing to the club but to themselves, you lose respect, and that's the worst thing you can possibly lose in our clubhouse. Without that, you don't have a platform, you don't have the respect.
You know about New York Yankees manager Joe Torre establishing the Safe at Home Foundation, also aimed at addressing domestic violence. Are you interested in working together with him?
I'm so jealous that he has that name! I think it's great--you talk about a guy with a platform and power, it probably doesn't get much bigger than he has. He's so respected in baseball and in New York, and it's amazing and wonderful and we're all very proud of what he's doing. Do I see an opportunity for a collaboration? I would love that. He's a busy guy, and [our foundation is] not completely off the ground. At some point in the future I would love to find a way to put it together and work with him.
What is your vision for the foundation in the next seven to eight years?
I'd like [the foundation] to be in shelters all over the country. I want to be making an impact improving women's shelters, improving relationship skills for women and children, including boys and young men, in shelters, everywhere. We're starting in a small area of Los Angeles County and with the shelter in Massachusetts. We have the Internet, we have our website, but I'd like to branch out all over the country. I'm playing baseball all the time, so my mom is hopefully going to share my vision, and we'll see how much money we raise.