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Kapler continues his pursuit of a return

Kapler continues his pursuit of a return

PHOENIX -- Gabe Kapler doesn't question his decision to quit baseball more than a year ago, and he certainly doesn't question the decision to come back.

The thoughtful 32-year-old outfielder is attempting a return to active duty with the Brewers this spring after spending last summer managing in the Minor Leagues. He's in camp on a non-guaranteed contract.

"Personally, I don't believe in wrong decisions," Kapler said. "I believe every decision is the right decision, and that some just take you down a different path. Sometimes you may go back and say, 'That was an emotional decision.'"

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His decision to call it quits fell into the "emotional" category. The announcement came in December 2006, when Kapler was coming off a difficult season spent recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He headed the following summer to Greenville, S.C., to manage Boston's Class A South Atlantic League affiliate.

Now that he's back in the game, is he back for good? Or is this a one-year experiment?

"It's foolish for me to make predictions," Kapler said. "I have a history of trying to predict things, and I'm not going to do it this time. I'm just going to enjoy the process.

"I am 100 percent confident that I have the athletic capability to do this and not just get by. Once I am comfortable, I feel I have the ability to really make an impact."

Kapler insists his brief retirement was not the wrong decision, even though he was only 31 years old and knew he could probably still play. He looked at it as a business plan, and plotted ahead where he would move in the managerial ranks.

He enjoyed the experience, especially the off-field interaction with young players. They talked about baseball, of course, but also about movies, books and life.

One problem. By the end of the season, Kapler still felt the itch to play.

"I think I always knew I could still play. I had offers to go play," he said. "It wasn't about that. Toward the end of the year I started thinking about, 'Do I still want to play?'"

He did. When Brewers general manager Doug Melvin learned Kapler wanted to play again, he showed interest. Melvin had tried to lure Kapler before.

"Every year," manager Ned Yost said with a laugh. "Doug likes him. I can see why. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played."

Melvin and Kapler have a history. In November 1999, the 24-year-old Kapler was among eight players swapped between Detroit and Texas in the Juan Gonzalez blockbuster. Melvin, who was the Rangers' GM at the time, also picked up Francisco Cordero, another player he would later bring to Milwaukee.

Kapler was a 57th-round Draft pick for Detroit in 1995, but by the time of the trade he was a bona fide prospect. Kapler had a monster year for Double-A Jacksonville in 1998, batting .322 with 28 home runs and 146 RBIs, then spent most of 1999 with the Tigers and hit .245 with 18 homers.

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"He was probably as highly regarded as Corey Hart is now," Melvin said. "He had one of the best Minor League seasons ever."

New Rangers GM John Hart traded Kapler in 2002 to the Rockies, who sold him to Boston midway through the 2003 season. He became one of the emotional leaders of the Red Sox in 2004, when that team exorcised its postseason demons on the way to winning the World Series.

His journey continued to Japan after Kapler inked a two-year contract that would last only two months. He was released, and signed back with Boston, but ruptured his left Achilles' tendon in September on a funky play on the basepaths. Tony Graffanino hit a home run, only Kapler, who was on base, didn't know it, and was chugging hard before pulling up lame between second and third base.

Kapler played only 72 games in 2006 after returning to action. A year and a half later, does he show any rust?

"I would have never known he took a year off," Yost said. "He doesn't show any signs of it to me."

Kapler played in all of the Brewers' first eight Cactus League games and ranked second on the team with five RBIs while hitting .308 (4-for-13). He has seen action in all three outfield spots including center field, where he started on Wednesday against the Rangers.

He has the "good clubhouse guy" reputation, but by design Kapler has mostly kept to himself so far.

"I'm focusing on getting warm here," Kapler said. "I'm trying to be a little bit quieter than my normal personality. Even quieter on the field and in the dugout. I feel like it's my job to earn some respect before I implement my brand as a teammate and on the field. It takes some time. I'm being an observer right now."

Kapler is among three candidates to start in center field during the first 25 games of the regular season, while Mike Cameron serves a suspension for a banned stimulant.

Gabe Gross and Tony Gwynn, Jr. are the other candidates, though Kapler is the only right-handed hitter of the three. Center field is Kapler's preferred spot, but his Major League experience has been split evenly among all three outfield positions.

He's ignoring talk of the Brewers' outfield battle and keeping his focus on his own preparation.

"It's been a nice, steady progression," Kapler said. "Every day has been a little more comfortable, both in the clubhouse and on the field. The best news is that my body feels good. I feel healthy and mentally strong."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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