The Uncommon Bond of Common Purpose
By Darren Fenster
This was different.
It was transformational.
Three letters, a flag, and a goal changed everything.
The first time you see those three letters across your chest, you realize the magnitude. That flag takes on greater significance as a unifying symbol and constant reminder of who and what we were representing. When you hear the National Anthem, it hits you; the song isn’t being played for the game; it’s being played for your team. And it gives you chills every single time.
The United States Olympic Baseball Team was unlike any team I have ever been a part of because we truly had one common purpose: an Olympic Gold medal. That was it. That was it for me and everyone else; that gold medal was the only thing on our minds and the only thing we cared about. For 24 players, six coaches, and the other ten or so support staffers, this common purpose amongst every single member of our baseball delegation gave us an uncommon bond that is near impossible to find in the world today. How many times have you ever been a part of something where you could feel that every single person was genuinely on the same page, indisputably pulling the rope in the same direction? Uncommon indeed…
Of the six nations competing for gold, we were the only team who didn’t have our names on the back of our jerseys. Those three letters on the front were all we needed to say exactly who we were. We were not 24 different players, six individual coaches, and some random USA Baseball personnel. We were all on the same team: Team USA.
In this age of individuality where people are encouraged to have their own voice and motivated to build their own brand, never before has it been more challenging to get a group of individuals to think beyond themselves for the greater collective good. But that’s what we did. And we did it by beginning with only the end in mind, nudged with a handful of symbolic reminders along the way.
On our very first call together as a coaching staff months before the Olympics and the qualifying tournament, manager Mike Scioscia talked about the gold medal and tattooed that image into our minds as our ultimate goal. We hadn’t even punched our ticket to Tokyo at that point, yet that was the vision. In our first meeting in Florida with our group looking to qualify, the message was about earning the opportunity to win gold. At our first gathering as a team, that same message was crystal clear: we were going to Tokyo to win an Olympic gold medal, and within our club, we weren’t scared to talk about it. When your leader believes in something so strongly and communicates it so consistently, a funny thing happens- everyone else starts believing it too.
In subsequent team get-togethers, we were taught things like appropriate decorum when standing for our opponent’s anthem compared to ours, and the meaning behind the backward flag, how it marked going into battle. Martin Dempsey, the retired Army General who served as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed his life experiences in the military and left us with an incredible perspective about teamwork and how our collective result would depend on our individual actions. In a ceremony before an exhibition game before leaving for Tokyo, members of the North Carolina National Guard presented every member of our traveling party with a flag patch… THEIR flag patch, pulled right off of their uniforms. Those patches- with that backward flag- accompanied us overseas with one always attached to each game’s lineup to keep front and center who exactly we were playing for. Outfielder Tyler Austin bought belts for the entire team. I know what you’re thinking; a belt isn’t that big of a deal. But when that belt has a gold buckle, all of a sudden, we were reminded of our goal every time we put our pants on. During workouts or in batting practice, before that last double-play ground ball or in that final round of batting practice, you’d often hear “for gold” right before that play or pitch.
Everything was for gold. And everyone was for gold. A medal, a flag, and three letters. That’s what made our team go.
Societal norms today have become more individualized than ever, and the landscape of sports is no different. High school athletes showcase themselves in hopes of catching the eye of a college recruiter. College baseball players often have one eye on their team and the other on getting drafted. Minor Leaguers are not playing for that Carolina League ring as much as they are playing to move up to the next level and the level after that, eventually reaching their pinnacle of the Major Leagues. And Big Leaguers? Some might just be playing simply to stay there, while others may very well be playing for their next big contract. At just about every rung of the athletic ladder, there is almost always that next rung to reach for, often reaching an individual free-for-all.
For our club at the Olympics, our ladder only had one rung, and we were hand and step reaching for it together.
Going back to our first days together in late May to our last in the gold medal game, there wasn’t a single thing that we did that was individually driven; everything was about our team and that medal. But if there were ever an appropriate time for the spotlight to be on an individual, we had it in the form of Eddy Alvarez.
You see, Eddy was our second baseman. And a pretty good one at that. But his backstory is what captivated an entire nation. A first-generation Cuban-American, an undrafted professional signee turned Major Leaguer, and oh yeah, a silver medalist as a speed skater in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Eddy Alvarez was the epitome of the American Dream. His story, so impressive that the athletes of Team USA voted him to represent Team USA- all 613 Olympians- as official flag bearer.
With that honor came the well-deserved attention in a seemingly endless media junket. But Eddy, in true Team USA form, always directed the conversation back to the team and often used the words honor, privilege, and sacrifice when he spoke. When everyone wanted to make it about him, he made it about everyone else. There was no better person to represent who we were and what we were all about.
We are currently living in the age of the trademarked buzzword and catch-phrase. The coach-speak soundbites are everywhere to be “all-in,” “where your feet are” and put the “we before me” to “play for something bigger than yourself.” We hear this stuff all the time. Many know the popular words; however, very few know the accompanying action. Our U.S. Olympic Baseball Team never said any of this stuff, but we lived it in every sense.
Some believe in the Olympics, teams play to win gold, they play to win bronze, and are just *given* silver. While we may not have reached our ultimate goal, our fun-loving collection of “has-beens” and “have-not-yet-beens,” as many described us, left Tokyo proud having won the silver medal, and probably even prouder for the manner by which we did it. Some guys didn’t see any game action in the Olympics or played poorly when they did. Even those players- like most of the rest, some who have won World Series and played in All-Star games mind you- left saying this was the most fun they have ever had on a team. That’s the kind of team this was.
People come and go, and teams get built up only to get torn down, but when there is truly a common purpose to drive an entire group, it’s incredible what you can accomplish thanks to an uncommon bond will never break.
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.