Manager Gabe Kapler, left, talks with Bryce Harper, whose signing capped a major makeover of the Phillies.
When the Philadelphia Phillies lost their ninth consecutive game toward the end of last September, veteran first baseman Carlos Santana felt like he needed to send a message to his teammates who he said spent portions of the game against the Atlanta Braves playing video games in the clubhouse. Santana grabbed a bat, retreated to the room at Citizens Bank Park where the gaming took place and smashed the TV to ensure there would be no more Fortnite the final two days of the season.
“I see a couple players — I don’t want to say names — they play video games during the game,” Santana told ESPN. “We come and lose too many games, and I feel like they weren’t worried about it. Weren’t respecting their teammates or coaches or the staff or the [front] office. It’s not my personality. But I’m angry because I want to make it good.”
As the Phillies transition to a new era led by their blockbuster signing of Bryce Harper — along with a trade for star catcher J.T. Realmuto and a handful of other big offseason transactions — they do so coming off a topsy-turvy season in which they dropped from first place in the National League East on Aug. 12 to below .500 by the end of the year. The Phillies, who acknowledge that excessive Fortnite games led to the Santana incident Sept. 28, have spent the offseason not just overhauling what was the youngest roster in baseball, but reimagining a clubhouse dynamic that numerous people in the organization believe had grown problematic.
“Our clubhouse chemistry was great when we were winning,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler told ESPN. “When we were losing and fading out of the playoff race, everyone was frustrated and searching for answers. This is common, in my experience.
“We brought in some respected veteran leaders that have been through the ups and downs of a long season. They will help us stay locked in through any tough stretches. Our young players gained valuable experience going through their first pennant race. We saw what worked last year, and we’ve made some adjustments where things didn’t work as well. I’m excited about our group and the culture we have.”
In his first season as manager last year, Kapler established himself as a hands-off type who allows players to police themselves, and as 2018 wore on, the presence of Phillies players in the clubhouse right before the game — and during it — bothered Santana. To avoid a similar situation this year, sources told ESPN, Kapler convened 13 players — a mixture of veterans and others considered leaders — and asked them to outline a policy that will include players coming out for the national anthem and pitchers remaining in the dugout during games.
“You have to set certain rules and boundaries,” veteran starter Jake Arrieta, one of the players involved in setting the new standards, told ESPN. “At a certain point, your focus needs to shift toward preparing for the game. And some people like to lock in on their phone and watch a show. I’m OK with that. I really don’t care if you want to play Fortnite up to a half-hour before the game. If that’s what locks you in, I don’t mind that. But during the game? That’s a different story.”
The overhaul of the Phillies began Dec. 3 when they traded Santana and shortstop J.P. Crawford to Seattle for shortstop Jean Segura and relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos. The Phillies’ desire to move slugger Rhys Hoskins to his natural position at first base — not the Fortnite incident — was the impetus to dealing Santana.
“Carlos is one of my favorite players and favorite people in the league,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak told ESPN. “He posts every day, and I really admire the way he plays the game. It was tough to include him in the trade with Seattle, but sometimes you have to trade good players to acquire other good players.”
The Phillies continued to stock up on good players throughout the winter. They signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson, traded a cache of prospects for Realmuto and capped off the makeover March 2 with the signing of Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal.
Santana saw it all from afar — he’s now with the Cleveland Indians after Seattle dealt him there — and said he was happy for the organization that gave him a three-year, $60 million contract before the 2018 season.
“I liked everybody,” Santana said. “Matt Klentak is great. I don’t have a problem with anybody. They’re great. They worry about their players. Everything is fine, positive. I worry about baseball. I worry about playing hard every day and helping my teammates win.
“I like Gabe because he’s a very strong guy. It was tough for him, especially his first year. But sometimes the manager cannot control the clubhouse because everybody [is] doing their thing.”
Santana is uncertain why Phillies players believed it was acceptable to spend the game in the clubhouse. “I don’t know what happened,” he said, “but I’ve never seen that in my life — during the game, playing video games. It’s not professional. Each team is everybody all together. I understand we’re eliminated for the season, but you have to have pride. …
“There’s 25 men on the roster. We have to stay on the same page. When I see what happened, I was a little bit frustrated.”
Arrieta said he later learned about in-game Fortnite sessions and that “it wasn’t a consistent theme. It may have happened once or twice. If I’d have known people were playing video games during the game, I’d have broken some s— too.”
As a fellow veteran and leader of the pitching staff, Arrieta said he wished he had been consulted. “There was no communication with me to let me know why he was upset or what he was upset about,” he said, “which should’ve happened first.” At the same time, Arrieta said, it reinforced where the Phillies need to improve heading into 2019.
“Leadership and accountability has to come from the players,” he said. “The message can be sent from the manager, but it’s up to the group and the leaders within that group to set those standards, the boundaries, the borders, where everyone understands how it is, and if you do this, there are going to be repercussions. Kap is an amazing leader. He’s a great leader of young men. He does that super-well. It’s up to us — me and McCutchen and Tommy [Hunter] and D-Rob and [Pat] Neshek, Segura, Realmuto — to collectively set standards. It starts with our actions, too. It’s easy to say something, but you have to show them with the way you carry yourself.”
Last season, some Phillies players were busy carrying SCARs, shotguns and sniper rifles through a Fortnite game that had begun a new season Sept. 27. This year, they’re hopeful they can hold off the Washington Nationals, New York Mets and reigning NL East champion Braves and carry champagne bottles into the same clubhouse where the only thing flying late in the season were fragments of a TV.
“Our focus all offseason was on improving the club, and we feel like we’ve done that through a series of trades and free-agent signings,” Klentak said. “For this team to accomplish its goals, we are going to need contributions from our new players, as well as the continued development of our young players. The makeup of the group and the environment in the clubhouse has been outstanding this spring, and we are excited for the start of the season.”