Fundamental Skills Resources

 When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself
(7/15/2021)
 
   

When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Pop quiz: who was the star of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team?

You know, the Miracle on Ice Team...was it the team captain, Mike Eruzione? Maybe it was Jimmy Craig, the goalie? How about their coach, Herb Brooks? Not sure? When thinking back on that team of college hockey players who shocked the world by beating the Soviet Union en route to winning an unlikely gold medal in Lake Placid, it’s really hard to pinpoint one person when the entire team is who everyone remembers. The team did the unthinkable. The team itself was the star.

Fast forward 40-plus years, move off the ice and onto the diamond. Another team represented the United States where again, it wasn’t any individual player who stole the show but rather a collective team who stole the show. With the Tokyo Olympics less than two months away, four nations had already qualified to compete in the sport of baseball. The US was not one of them. Our opportunity to do so came last month in Florida at the Americas Qualifier, a tournament where eight teams would fight for one of the remaining two spots.

A part of US manager Mike Scioscia’s staff as our third base coach, collectively with extraordinary help, communication, and organization from USA Baseball personnel, we spent the better part of three months constructing a roster that we hoped would be good enough to compete for the Olympic bid. One of the unique aspects of putting this team together was the vast player pool we had to choose from; anyone who was not on the 40-man roster of a Major League club was eligible to play. With hundreds of names to consider, we looked at everyone from guys who had never been out of A-ball to former Major Leaguers who were seemingly at the tail end of their careers to everyone in between.

And that’s exactly how our final 26-man roster shaped up; a club made up of guys from every end of the experience spectrum.

When the team convened for the first time at old Dodgertown in Vero Beach for training camp, our players and staff shared introductions during our initial team meeting in the clubhouse. Major League All-Stars like Todd Frazier talked about why playing for THIS team was important to them. World Series Champions such as Edwin Jackson viewed winning a gold medal in the same light, and some of baseball’s top prospects who had previously worn the red, white, and blue as amateurs, excited to do it again. We also had a few journeymen who played almost everywhere, near and far, not to mention a former Olympic silver medal winner on our club...in speed skating!

But most importantly, in that entire clubhouse, we had zero egos.

When the room turned to Jon Jay, a ten-year Major League veteran, his message finished with a simple directive to everyone on our team. “No complaining…” he stated. “…About anything. This isn’t what we are all used to (as professional baseball players), and we are going to have some bumps in the road, but nothing gets in our way of doing our job and winning this thing.” It set the perfect tone for the next two weeks to come.

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From the first pitch of the first game, we knew this was different. Facing Nicaragua in Port St. Lucie, Florida, it felt like we were playing in Managua, the country’s capital, with their entire nation in the stands. Nicaraguan fans were into every pitch as if each was the 9th inning of a World Series game. As coaches, we often preach to our players how every pitch matters, but over an entire season of 100-plus games in professional baseball, you will overcome some hiccups where teams don’t take that approach. In the format for this qualifier, we didn’t have that luxury. Every pitch DID matter, and we all felt it.

We wound up winning that first game 7-1, but it was much tighter than the final score would indicate. The intensity of that environment was different than anything most of us had ever experienced on a baseball field before. Mike Scioscia described it as having the same feel as an elimination game in the Major League postseason. By the end of that first game, our lens had clearly changed from what we were all accustomed to in professional baseball. No one was playing for a promotion to the Big Leagues. Not a single player was playing for their next big contract. No one was trying to build their brand. It wasn’t about what was next for each individual player; it was about what was right in front of us as a team and what the team needed in that very moment to push us closer to a win. And everyone was on that proverbial bus.

The Dominican Republic would go down next in a tight contest, 8-6. Then Puerto Rico, 6-1, in a rain-shortened affair. In the Super Round, we needed a seven-run 8th inning to break the game open against Canada, on our way to a 10-1 win. And in the clinching game over Venezuela, Todd Frazier morphed back into that Toms River Little League star we first met in 1998, carrying us to a 4-2 win with a 4-4 day at the plate.

Five days. Five wins. One Olympic ticket punched.

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We had 26 guys on our club. Each one of them did something to help us, even if it didn’t show up in the box score. Luke Williams ignited a game-winning rally…with a bunt. Jarren Duran changed games…with his baserunning. Catcher Mark Kolozsvary had a standout performance with the bat, but we lost count of how many runs he saved with key blocks behind the plate. Three-time All-Star Matt Kemp went hitless in just four at-bats but brought a veteran presence to our dugout that could not be measured. David Robertson hadn’t pitched in a game in almost two years since elbow surgery and managed to close out two wins for us, including the clincher. Anthony Carter left his team in Mexico to pitch in just one inning for us, a huge shutdown inning that kept momentum on our side in our win over the Dominican. A’s prospect Nick Allen finished the tournament going just 1-17, but without his Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop, we don’t even sniff winning this thing. The list can go on for all 26 guys.

This collection of relative strangers had just six days to become a team and prepare for what essentially was five game sevens. We won every single one and qualified for the Olympics. Mission accomplished; we earned the privilege and honor to represent the United States of America in Tokyo. Over the course of my 15 years coaching baseball, I’ve never been around a more incredible group of players, coaches, and support staff where everyone involved was truly pulling the rope in the same direction, all working towards accomplishing the same thing.

On a team full of stars, we made the real star, the team itself. Amazing what can happen, when that happens…


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 What Does Your Team Need From You…Right Now?
(6/18/2021)
 
   

What Does Your Team Need From You…Right Now?


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


In the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Yankees, Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was slated to start Game Four. Those plans quickly changed when New York took a 10-6 lead in the 4th inning. Sox starter Bronson Arroyo was knocked out of the game after just two innings. Two relievers didn’t fare much better over the next couple of frames, and it looked like Boston was about to use every single body in their bullpen. That didn’t happen because of Wakefield, who selflessly gave up his start in order to take a chunk of the middle innings of the game.

The Yankees wound up winning the game 19-8, and Wakefield gave up five runs in his three-plus innings of work; not exactly an outing to write home about. But when he volunteered to work out of the pen in what turned out to be a blowout loss for the Red Sox, Wakefield essentially saved his team’s bullpen, allowing closer Keith Foulke and high leverage relievers Mike Timlin and Alan Embree to be fresh for the next night. And that may very well have been one of the biggest reasons why the Sox were able to turn the series around and make their historic comeback after being down three games to none.

What Tim Wakefield did in Game Three of the 2004 ALCS was exactly what his club needed him to do at that very moment.

I doubt a pitcher out there today dreams of being a middle reliever in a lopsided loss; most see themselves being on the mound for the final out of a thrilling win. Position players don’t envision themselves getting mop-up at-bats in a blowout; they picture the game-winning hit or the game-saving play. By all means, players should be working towards and thinking about their ultimate goals. But the reality is that the game needs players for every single moment, regardless of whether it is good or bad, game-changing or not, from the very first pitch of the game to the last. All of those moments should be approached with the same focus and drive as if they were going to be the most important play of the game, even if they weren’t.

The game today has become so individualized where coaches have the ability now more than ever to cater their approach to help maximize each player’s ability to the fullest. Players are more talented than ever in large part because of that specialized means of training. In the process of doing so, what has gotten lost for many is where that player may fit in the grand scheme of a season or a specific moment of the game.

At the end of the day, the entire purpose of all of the blood, sweat, and tears that players invest in their careers is to do their part to help their team win; that is, after all, the point of the game. Sometimes, that will call for a strikeout on the mound or an extra-base hit in the box. But more times than not, the game doesn’t need the player to be the hero; it simply requires them to do what is needed at that moment to keep things moving towards a win. It may mean doing something that won’t get a headline, like limiting damage as a middle reliever or having a productive ground out that moves a runner as a hitter.

There’s a reason why Major League teams have 26 guys on the roster. There’s a reason why colleges are able to carry 35 players in their programs. It’s not to have an entire club full of stars, but rather an entire team ready, willing, and able to do the specific job that the game needs them to do—nothing more, nothing less.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 It’s Far More Than Just Putting the Ball in Play
(5/20/2021)
 
   

It’s Far More Than Just Putting the Ball in Play


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


A few weeks ago, in an early-season game between the Red Sox and Orioles, Boston found themselves with runners on first and third and one out when Boston’s first baseman Bobby Dalbec came to the plate. With the count 2-1, he hit a potential inning-ending double play ball to Baltimore’s shortstop Freddy Galvis. The ground ball was fielded cleanly, thrown to second for the first out, then flipped over to first a split-second too late to get a hustling Dalbec. The inning continued, and a run scored. In the box score, the at bat went down simply as an RBI groundout to short. But it was far more than just any old RBI ground out.

As mentioned, that ground ball was a potential inning-ending double-play ground ball. Well, the inning was the ninth. And because Dalbec beat the play, a run scored. And that run just happened to be the tying run. The game went to extra innings, and the Red Sox wound up winning. They might not have ever had that chance had their slugging first baseman not put the ball in play.

A couple of days later, it was Alex Verdugo’s turn. With two outs in the top of the eighth inning and Boston down 3-0 to the Twins, the Sox energetic outfielder battled in the box for ten pitches before knocking a game-tying, bases-loaded double down the left-field line.

“I was not going to let him beat me,” said Verdugo after the game.

Then came a road trip to New York against the Mets, with the Red Sox facing the best pitcher on the planet in Jacob deGrom. During the TV broadcast, a three-second clip captured what may very well have been the difference in the game. It simply showed Boston catcher Christian Vazquez choking up on the bat.

Why was that such a big deal? Because it showed a hitter making an adjustment based on what the game required of him in that particular moment. It was a scoreless game in the second inning at that point, with Vazquez up to bat with a runner on 3rd and one out. At that moment, his job was to get the run in. Period. And in order to drive in that run, that may mean emphasizing contact over power.

That’s exactly what it meant to Vazquez.

With the count 0-2, by choking up and shortening his swing to make sure he was able to put the ball in play and do his job, as the situation dictated, he won the AB, driving an RBI double into the right-centerfield gap. That turned out to be the game’s only run in a 1-0 win for the Red Sox.

The strikeout is the most unproductive out in the game, and for some reason, it has become in many ways an accepted practice in the game today. Many hitting coaches mock the idea of taking an approach to just put the ball in play, arguing that swinging for the downs and the possibility of doing damage trumps a less aggressive swing that may only yield weak contact, regardless of the situation. Some freely admit that a strikeout with intent behind the swing is better than the defensive swing aimed just to get the bat on the ball. That is a misguided approach.

What might happen when a hitter ‘just gets the bat on the ball’?

If the Red Sox first month of the season is any indication, their focus on putting the ball in play has yielded some pretty big wins here in the early going. To the hitters in their lineup, they aren’t trying to ‘just put the ball in play.’ It’s far more than that; they are competing in the box to find a way to get the job done, move runners, score runs, and win games. It’s not that they are giving up by wanting to put the ball in play, but rather it’s the contrary. They are not giving in.

So far, it’s working.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 When No One Is Watching
(4/15/2021)
 
   

When No One Is Watching


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The ball was squared up. Red Sox centerfielder Jarren Duran broke back on a beeline straight to the wall. Unable to make the play, he quickly recovered the ball on the warning track, threw it to the cutoff man who unsuccessfully tried to gun down the batter who finished standing on 3rd with a triple. That’s what everyone saw on television.

What very few saw, or even cared to look for, for that matter, was Marwin Gonzalez and Hunter Renfroe, Boston’s left and right fielders during the play. As the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator, my eyes don’t always follow the ball. Sometimes I will watch a baserunner’s route down the line from home to 1st. Other times, I may lock in on an outfielder’s approach to the ball. Often, I look to see if guys are moving into their correct backup position, a foundational staple of our culture among outfielders with the Red Sox. During this play to Duran, I didn’t purposely take my eyes off the batted ball. Rather it was the sight of both Gonzalez and Renfroe running across the entire outfield in a dead sprint to back up the play that was headed off the wall in center that grabbed my attention. Neither touched the ball, but both were there just in case they needed to.

Just in case. Even though no one (besides me) was watching.

Flashback to the fall of 1996. As a wide-eyed freshman just weeks into my first year as a member of the Rutgers University baseball program, I would often get to my locker where a newspaper or magazine article was waiting, courtesy of our head coach, Fred Hill. One stuck out in particular; a New York Times article about Derek Jeter, who was about to finish up his Rookie of the Year season with the Yankees.

In the article, he noted the impact that then-star first baseman Don Mattingly had on him regarding developing his professionalism to go about his business the right way. One previous Spring Training, before Jeter had even made his Major League debut, he told a story about how he and Mattingly were the last two guys on a backfield getting some extra defensive work in to finish their day. As they started back to the clubhouse, Mattingly said to Jeter, “let’s jog it in. You never know who is watching.” I carried that article with me for years after graduating and still think of it often when trying to get our players to be pros, whether someone is watching or not.

You never know who is watching, even when no one is.

The player was an intriguing prospect. We had gotten reports from some local coaches who we trusted that this second baseman might be a really good fit for what we were looking for at Rutgers. So, as our recruiting coordinator, I began the process with him and planned to watch him play. Wanting him to know of our interest, I made sure that he knew I was coming to his game that day. He was indeed a very good player, had some passion to play the game, and hustled everywhere on the field. I reported back to Coach Hill that this was someone we needed to stay on.

Coach Hill was happy to hear that I liked the kid, and then told me to see him again, but this time instructed me NOT to tell him that I was coming; a little trick that Coach Hill did all the time just to see if the player acted any different when he thought no one was there to see him.

This second time I saw him, it was like I was watching a completely different player. He jogged slowly when he should have been sprinting down the line. He walked out to his position in the field between innings as if playing defense was the last thing he wanted to do. And worst of all, he was a horrible teammate, showing up his double-play partner on an error, which came after yelling at his pitcher following a walk. Though he had the ability to become a Scarlet Knight, his attitude wasn’t one that we wanted in our program, and the only reason we saw that was because he thought no one was watching.

When he thought no one was watching, he wrote the end to his story with us.

There is a term amongst baseball circles as it relates to only doing something because someone else is watching. It’s called eyewash, and it is not a term of endearment. It’s easy to do the right thing when you know that all eyes are on you. But it’s when people aren’t watching that it’s that much more important to do the right thing because that’s what is truly inside of you. It’s when no one is watching that players are truly made.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 Making It Safe...Even When They Are Out
(3/19/2021)
 
   

Making It Safe...Even When They Are Out


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


A few years ago, during Spring Training, Brian Butterfield, then a part of our Big League staff with the Red Sox, led a discussion amongst Minor League coaches about the nuances of coaching third, a role he has had at the Major League level for more than 20 years. He detailed everything from how he gave signs to where he positioned himself on the field to what he looked for when deciding whether to send a runner home.

He also discussed the importance of body language.

Using the example of a baserunner who got thrown out by a mile because of a poor decision to go or a missed sign, Butterfield said that he always made it a point to help the player up off the ground and give them an encouraging pat on the butt, regardless of how bad the play. He said plainly that giving that simple pat on the backside might just be the most important thing he does in a game. It tells everybody in the ballpark- including sometimes 50,000 fans booing them off the field- that he had his player’s back, even though they were out. His support for his players essentially made it safe to mess up. That left a lasting impression on me.

Spend enough time coaching in baseball, and you will see some incredible things happen on the field- many that you can’t believe just happened and many that you CAN’T believe just happened. One euphoric, the other, maddening. In those instances that make your blood boil, it is easy to react without thinking. It is easy to give a death stare to someone across the diamond who just missed the hit-and-run sign. It is natural to throw your hands up in the air and yell without even thinking when your defense makes a dumb mistake. It is completely normal to get mad when things don’t go as planned. But when players see those reactions, inherently they can become scared to make a mistake. And when players play scared, the end result is usually not a good one.

While managing in A-ball, the first full season of professional baseball for many on our roster, we had an infielder who had a bad habit of constantly playing back on ground balls. He could get away with it while playing second base, but with the longer throw across the diamond at third, he would routinely play what should have ground ball outs into infield hits. Coming in on the ball was a challenge for him. He was that player who played scared, afraid to make an error by doing something he wasn’t used to doing. We worked on it all the time during his pre-game defensive routine, but the old habits crept back in when the lights came on.

Then, it happened. On a ground ball that he would typically back up on, he finally came in aggressively to field the ball. The ball clanked off of his glove for an error. I have never gotten more excited about an error in my life. When the inning ended, he came back to the dugout dejected after mishandling the play, and I think I gave him a hug, so pumped that he went after it the right way. He looked at me like I had three heads. The end result wasn’t what we wanted, but it was a distinct moment of progress. And from my reaction to his making an error, it was almost as if he had permission to screw up. He wasn’t scared to make a mistake by trying something new. So, he kept trying until he figured it out.

One of the many unique aspects of professional baseball is witnessing each player’s journey as they progress over time. We get them at various points of their development, each guy at their own individual stage. Some may already have polished skills and great habits from day one and simply need to keep doing what they are doing, while others might ooze potential with their raw athletic ability but make a lot of mistakes and need to turn that talent into a useable skill that works on the field. But regardless of where a player may start, we want them all to have the attitude they will never finish, constantly pushing the envelope to get better. More times than not, that improvement comes from failure. So as a coach, when you find ways to encourage and embrace failure, especially in practice, you are breeding the exact kind of growth you want in your team where success will eventually follow. It’s not accepting failure; it’s creating an environment where it is okay to fail; it is making it safe for your players…even when they are out.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.