SAN FRANCISCO — It has been an emotional 48 hours for the Giants, especially those in the coaches’ locker room. Gabe Kapler spent years thinking about what his ideal staff would look like, and when Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris gave him the autonomy to make interesting choices in 2019, he went bold.
Kapler plucked hitting coaches from the low minor leagues. He raided the player development groups of other organizations. He made history with Alyssa Nakken. He also surprised many around the game by naming Kai Correa — who had no experience in a big league dugout — his bench coach. Correa was less than a decade removed from joining the staff at the University of Puget Sound, but he worked tirelessly to get up to speed.
Correa put the MLB rulebook on tape so that he could listen to it while driving or running errands. He spent 10 hours a day that first winter putting together spring training schedules and defensive graphics that played on a loop in the clubhouse. In just about every way, he validated the belief that Kapler had in him when he interviewed him in Philadelphia years earlier, only to be nudged toward a more experienced staff.
On Friday, Correa was faced with perhaps his most difficult task in the four years since he was named the game’s youngest bench coach. He had to step in for Kapler, a friend and mentor who gave him a life-altering opportunity.
“The overarching feeling for me is about Kap and gratitude,” the 35-year-old said. “You’re grateful for the person who creates the opportunity for you, grateful for the person who decided that you were the one to have that role. I think for many of us in the clubhouse, players and coaches alike, he created a ton of opportunity for us to have autonomy and to succeed.”
Correa is in an awkward position, but this is also an important weekend for him and the rest of the coaches. Almost all of them have expiring contracts and they know a new manager might clean house, but they are operating like nothing has changed.
Before Saturday’s game, Correa talked about what the team’s young infielders need to work on over the offseason. He spent some time putting together an exit interview for third baseman J.D. Davis, and he plans to send players like Marco Luciano and Casey Schmitt into the winter with a detailed script for how they should attack their workouts.
After Saturday’s game, Correa was forced to put the work aside for a moment. Sean Manaea searched the clubhouse, and when he found Correa, he dumped him into a laundry cart. About 20 laughing players and coaches filed into the shower in the manager’s office so Correa could celebrate a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Rookie coaches get beer showers, too.
“It means a lot,” Correa said of the win. “The circumstances are unusual or suboptimal, but I think the longer time passes, the more I can have separation from it, the more I can be more excited about it. More than anything else, it meant a lot to me how excited the players were in that handshake line.
“We’ve spent a lot of time, in some cases four years, side by side. To have those guys be excited for me and for us in that moment, it meant the world to me.”
The win was Correa’s first as a manager, and came a night after he joined Dave Roberts as the first managers/coaches of Asian descent to face off as leaders of a team in one of this country’s four major sports.
Correa spent some time Friday thanking Roberts for helping to pave the way, but the following few hours were as unkind as the afternoon. The Giants lost Correa’s first game in charge, but on Saturday they rode a strong start from Tristan Beck and a homer from Tyler Fitzgerald to a win over Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers.
“(For him) to take Clayton Kershaw deep, that was pretty cool,” Beck said of Fitzgerald. “I’m not going to lie.”
Fitzgerald admitted the blast meant more because of who threw the pitch. Kershaw buckled him with a curveball last weekend at Dodger Stadium, so he spent extra time in the cage on Saturday working on attacking similar pitch shapes.
The work hasn’t stopped, even if most in the Giants clubhouse don’t know where they’ll be doing it next year. It’s possible that Farhan Zaidi hires a veteran manager who decides to bring in all of his own people. It’s possible that an internal candidate emerges and keeps many of Kapler’s hires in place. Correa himself could wind up in the mix.
Regardless, the coaches are auditioning just like players like Beck and Fitzgerald, who showed they should be right in the mix next spring. Correa has seemed comfortable on the top step, and while he ruffled some feathers in the opposing dugout by challenging an obscure rule on Friday, that didn’t keep him from coming back a night later and again arguing that a Dodger had violated the spirit of one of this season’s new rules.
Correa has looked comfortable in front of cameras, too, which is a huge part of the job. Before the game, he told a lengthy story about Brandon Crawford’s commitment to the details of playing shortstop. After the win, he smiled as he recalled an early meeting with Kershaw.
“You try to be stoic, you try to not get caught up by the bright lights and the famous people, but there are certain people that stop you in your tracks,” he said. “There’s no overcoming that, and I remember one game in pregame a handful of years ago, I’m hitting groundballs to a guy, and Kershaw is out doing his walk and he goes, ‘Come on, Kai! Give this guy some topspin.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hey, he knows my name.'”
A few years later, Correa was tasked with beating Kershaw, and he added that to his resume. Perhaps that will help lead to an opportunity elsewhere one day, or perhaps to something further with the Giants. On Saturday, all that mattered to him was that he won, a fact his players were all too happy to celebrate near the end of what has been a draining week.
“Winning can be a nice escape from everything else,” Correa said. “It’s a reminder that that’s what we’re here for.”
Christine Lake is a sports fanatic who lives and breathes athletics. With an extensive background in sports journalism, he covers everything from major league championships to grassroots sports events. When she’s not on the field or at the stadium, you’ll find Christine coaching youth sports teams.