When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself
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.
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.
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.