Darren Fenster Resources

 Coach To Win Life, Not Games
(4/19/2019)
 
 
   

Coach To Win Life, Not Games


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Last month, a legend was laid to rest.  

A legend whose impact goes far beyond words; a legend who, through countless others, has impacted people he never even had a chance to meet. 

A couple years ago, a friend of mine had a pretty profound thought about what life was all about. He said, “we spend our entire lives selling tickets to our funeral.” Let that sink in for a second. For as somber as death can be, a funeral shows the lasting impact of how someone lived, through those to attend the services to pay their respects to the family.

Well, last month, Fred Hill sold out his funeral. 

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In September of 1996, I set foot on the Rutgers campus as an immature freshman baseball player who thought he had the game of baseball and the game of life both figured out. And then I started being around Fred Hill just about every day for the next four years who made sure, many days louder than others, that I got to know how much I truly didn't know.

When I had originally committed to go to Rutgers and to play for Coach Hill, I did so without really having any idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that I was going to embark on a life-shaping journey with a man who, aside from my parents, would have the greatest influence on my life. He was a second father to me.

Over the past month since his passing, my mind has been flooded with the memories of the twenty-plus years that I was blessed to have this man in my life. Some have me laughing out loud just as easily as others bring tears to my eyes, knowing how much of his life he invested, in mine. What all of these memories had in common was how he was teaching us life through the game. He was ALWAYS teaching us life. And we didn’t even know it. 

When he was always on our case about this or that, he was teaching us the importance of always doing things the right way.  Every time it was above 32 degrees and he had us playing an intersquad game in the University’s basketball arena parking lot, he was teaching us to take advantage of what we had, rather than complaining about what we didn’t.  When he kicked someone out of practice for showing up on time, he was teaching us accountability… and to always be early! When he benched someone for not hustling, he was teaching us that we owed it to ourselves and our team to give our best effort, all the time, in everything we do. 

When he would be the last one to leave the field because he was picking up garbage in the dugout he was actually teaching us how to be humble without ever feeling like we were too good to do something. And every time this ridiculously successful guy who won championships, coached All-Americans, and developed Major Leaguers asked US questions about the game and how HE could get better, he taught us how we should always be learning, no matter how much we knew. 

He is THE reason why I am a coach today. Coach Hill saw something in me before I was even ready to see it in myself upon the sudden end to my playing career. He gave me a second life in baseball, but more importantly, he gave me purpose to my life beyond baseball. If I can have just a tiny fraction of the impact on others that Fred Hill has had on me, my life will be a resounding success.

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Fred Hill turned me into a decent baseball player. And Fred Hill mentored me to become a pretty good baseball coach. But above all else, Fred Hill took me in as an immature 17 year-old kid, and over the course of the next 23 years right up until his passing, helped shape me into the man I am today.

Coach Hill may no longer be with us physically, but he will forever live inside of me, and countless other former players, coaches, friends, colleagues, and most importantly, family members whose lives he profoundly impacted, just by being Moose. While his coaching tree is impressive, it pales in comparison to the size of his life tree which has roots that go deep into the center of the earth and branches that can be seen for miles.

Over the course of his Hall of Fame coaching career, Fred Hill picked up over 1,000 victories on the diamond.  Without question, he taught us how to win games.  But for as successful he was as a coach; his true measure can be found in how well he taught us how to win life.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently 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.


 Help Your Players Find Their Voice
(3/15/2019)
 
   

Help Your Players Find Their Voice 


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Baseball is very much a game of routine ; those routines, an integral part of a player’s individual development as well as a team’s culture and environment. Hitters get in the cage every day to get their swings right.  Pitchers work in the bullpen every day to perfect their delivery.  Teams take batting practice, get defensive work in, and run the bases.  Every.  Single.  Day. 

Those routines become a habitual part of the professional player’s day .

Over the course of my six years managing at various levels of our minor league system, beginning in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2013, followed by four years in A-Ball, and finishing in AA last year before transitioning to my new role as our outfield and baserunning coordinator, I saw the value of using the previous day’s game as a teacher for our players to learn from.  When reviewing the games in my own mind, I knew what I saw, and the countless coaching points that could be taken from each contest.  But after discussing those points, almost like a teacher lecturing a class, I became curious to see what THEY actually saw.  So I changed my approach a few years ago.

Prior to giving any of my own thoughts, I’d survey the group, “Alright guys… whatdya got from last night?”

The first few times I did this, as I looked across the fifteen or so position players gathered in the group, I was surrounded by blank stares. Heads down. Crickets. No one saying a word. No one wanting to be called on.

Our team environment , at that time, was not one that encouraged input from players.  So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that these players- who we had good relationships with mind you- were apprehensive to speak in front of the group.  Some were timid to open up for fear of saying something wrong, while others wouldn’t open their mouths perhaps they were too cool to do so.  

Slowly but surely, as we changed the approach, we were able to create an environment where giving our players a voice became the norm, and they became more comfortable in talking the game, and using one another as an additional way to get better.  Even in A-ball with those inexperienced kids who truly didn’t know the game. 

In 2018, I managed the Portland Sea Dogs, our Double-A, Eastern League affiliate. Coming on the heels of my previous experience largely with inexperienced players, last year represented my first opportunity to work with guys who had a career under their belt and knew what it meant to be a professional.  We had a good sense of what made them tick individually, and they had a pretty good feel for the game at that point.  Additionally, the majority of them had played for me at some point and time previously, and were familiar with my style of engagement.  That combination, while being at a point in the careers where they were comfortable in their own skin and their understanding of our organizational standards embraced this style of coaching as a conversation.

Part of managing at the Double-A level last year included spending a week with our Major League team in September as a means to get a feel for how our staff and players were doing things in Boston, and figuring out what exactly we can mirror in the Minor Leagues to best prepare our guys for when their time comes.  What blew me away far more than anything else was the interaction between players and the manner by which there was non-stop communication about the game. Coaches would start our advance meetings, and then the players would essentially take over.  Then later, in the cage, around the dugout, or out in the bullpen, there were constant conversations that were completely player driven, a clear part of the culture that helped us win the World Series in October.  Some of our most inquisitive players, not coincidentally, were also some of our biggest stars.

For players, it’s OK to ask questions.  It’s OK to give feedback.  It’s OK to talk the game.  It’s all in reality, a necessary part of development.  We need to embrace the input from our players to know what they actually know, which in turn will help us learn what they don’t.  By encouraging questions, feedback, and game-talk, we can make coaching a conversation, not a lecture.  For coaches, it’s up to us to help our players find their own voice so they can develop in their own game. 


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and currently serves as the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In 2012 he launched Coaching Your Kids LLC, an organization dedicated to assisting coaches, parents and leagues in developing young players and improving their experience within the game. Previously, Fenster served as the Manager for the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Fenster is a two-time All-America from Rutgers University where he established school records in hits, doubles and at-bats. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals and played in the minor leagues for seven years. 


 Get to Know What You Don't Know
(2/15/2019)
 
   

Get to Know What You Don't Know


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Every off-season, I am afforded the opportunity to travel all over the world to share my love for and knowledge of the game in various capacities.  Whether it be working with a local organization near my New Jersey home, running a camp in Taiwan for some of the country’s best players, organizing a coaching clinic in Kuwait for the nation’s only Little League, or presenting at the American Baseball Coaches Association’s (ABCA) national baseball coaches convention, chances are, I am detailing something that has to do with infield play. That is where my greatest passion in the game lies.  This incredible journey I’ve lived on the diamond, everything that I have ever been able to accomplish in our game either as a player or coach, has a foundation that was built on infield dirt.

Most of my infield talks actually begin with my history as a hitter, where I tell the story about a scrawny player who hit .272 as a junior at Middletown South on the Jersey Shore.  Not many careers go beyond high school with an average like that, especially not in a cold weather state that isn’t exactly considered a baseball hot-bed. But I was lucky enough to be a good-glove, bad-hit shortstop in a state where the head coach of our state university valued defense above all else up the middle.

Fred Hill is an ABCA Hall of Famer who helped turn Rutgers University into one of the best programs in the northeast, able to compete on a national level during his 30-year tenure on the banks of the ‘ole Raritan.  He welcomed me to come on board as a Scarlet Knight almost entirely because of my ability to field the baseball.  While I graduated in 2000 with a handful of offensive records, rest assure, it was my defense that enabled my hitting to come along later on in my career.

My glove gave me the chance to play at a pretty good NCAA Division I program.

My glove got me in the lineup from day one as a freshman.

My glove afforded my bat the opportunity to develop.

Knowing how much of my career I owe to the defensive, I have always been enamored with the tiny details of a side of the game that is secondary to most and absolutely love breaking down those parts and teaching them to players, especially those whose bats aren’t necessarily where they want them to be.  Every player has their own individual development, and sometimes it can be discouraging when our game largely revolves around hitting if that happens to be a weak point of someone’s skillset.  My path, I hope, should serve as a source of inspiration for those to understand that there are other roads to success on the diamond outside of the batter’s box.

I give this background on my love for the glove so you may be able to appreciate what is in store for me in the very near future.  This coming season, my responsibilities with the Red Sox will take me to a new place where I am not quite as familiar: the outfield.

This past December, I was promoted to Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator with the Red Sox. Put simply, the position places a responsibility on organizing and implementing an approach and process for developing our outfielders and baserunners throughout the entire Minor League system, from AAA all the way down to our academy in the Dominican. From this position, we will set a foundation over the course of Spring Training with our staff and players while all together in Fort Myers, and then to have our boots on the ground at each affiliate build from there to help prepare our players to become Major League outfielders and baserunners.

We are drawn to what we know, and what we love.  That’s a completely natural part of human behavior, but in the process of constantly planting our feet in our usual box of expertise, we often unknowingly create blinders to other aspects of the game where our understanding falls short. 

This promotion helped open my eyes to my own personal blinders, forcing me to get out of my normal comfort zone to best prepare for this new job at hand.

So, when attending these coaching conventions over the winter months, I took a bit of a different approach to becoming a better baseball coach than years prior: I chose to seek out what I didn’t know.  Rather than trying to further my own knowledge on infield play as was usually the case, I looked to find that same type of detail from others on outfield and baserunning.

In doing so, I learned about the minute details of one part of the game that weren’t even on my radar, like where the ideal spot is to exchange the ball into the barehand.  I learned specific drills that break down and isolate those parts to help build a solid outfielder.  And I learned more about what things are truly important to focus on in that outfield grass, like getting on the ball quickly and developing a quick release, and what things don’t need any of our time, such as the old-school crow-hop when throwing.  

When first being offered this opportunity, I think my exact sarcastic response to my boss was something along the lines of, “you do know I’m an infield guy, right?”  But as we dove deeper into conversation, he made me realize that this promotion was an opportunity to grow as both a coach and leader, the combined result of eventually turning me into a more well-rounded BASEBALL guy.  For all coaches, that should be our ultimate goal.  

By becoming as knowledgeable as we can be, in as many areas of the game as we can think, our impact on players and coaches will be far more reaching than if we were all just infield guys.  And it’s the game that will grow in the end, thanks to how we made the conscious decision to grow ourselves, by getting to know what we don’t know.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and currently serves as the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In 2012 he launched Coaching Your Kids LLC, an organization dedicated to assisting coaches, parents and leagues in developing young players and improving their experience within the game. Previously, Fenster served as the Manager for the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Fenster is a two-time All-America from Rutgers University where he established school records in hits, doubles and at-bats. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals and played in the minor leagues for seven years. 


 The Ball Has A Voice
(1/18/2019)
 
   

The Ball Has a Voice. Listen to it.


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Every Spring Training as Red Sox players and staff descend upon Fort Myers like we will here again in a few weeks, there is usually one of two specific points of emphasis that will largely become the theme of camp that year.  Generally speaking, that focal point is determined based on something that our system as a whole might not have done well in the previous season or something that the Major League staff wants us to get better at as players get called up.  One year it was getting our infielders locked in on the tiny details of their position with things like where to setup on the base for tag plays or making sure they were lined up and out far enough for cutoffs and relays from the outfield.  Another spring stressed to our baserunners anticipation on balls in the dirt when on base to be in a better position to advance, while to start a different camp, our attention was placed on backing up bases and plays.

A few years ago, our emphasis was placed on aggressiveness to get the lead out on our bunt defense.  We wanted our pitchers to dart off the mound to be ready to make a play at 3rd.  We wanted our infielders to cheat, creep, and crash on top of the hitter in order to get what could be a key out in a key spot in the game.  And we instructed our catchers to take charge and direct traffic loud and clear.  Emphatically, that year we simply hammered the point to our players to give themselves a chance to get the lead out when a bunt is put down, and if that lead out wasn’t there, then we’ll just handle the ball cleanly to take the out the opposing team is giving us at 1st base.

When we first practice our bunt defense- or any other team fundamental for that matter- on the back fields at Fenway South, we do so with no baserunners in a very controlled environment, making sure everyone is where they are supposed to be on the diamond.  In many ways, it’s very much like an NFL team doing its walk-thru on a Saturday without any defense in preparation for their game on Sunday.  We then roll bunts at varying speeds at varying spots to give everyone on the field different looks as they will likely see over the course of the long season.  With the emphasis on being aggressive towards the lead out, the first few rolled bunts were sure-fire plays to 3rd; hard pace, right at one of our fielders in a position to make the play we were looking for, all with the catcher yelling, “THREE! THREE! THREE!”  The next few reps were what we would consider tweener sacs, bunts that our defense would have to execute to perfection in order to even have a chance at the lead runner.  Again, with our attention on aggressiveness, every single tweener bunt went to 3rd base.

We then move on to the well-placed sac; that bunt when laid down in the perfect spot at a perfect speed, where it is near impossible to get the lead out, and just as challenging to get the batter at 1st.  Well, that first rep went to 3rd base.  Our staff spread around the field then instructed that the play should have gone for the sure out at 1st.  The next rep went to 3rd.  As did the one after that.  And the one after that.  At this point I realize what we had done:  with our constant stressing of aggressively going after the lead out, we had taken a group of what was, at the time, relatively inexperienced A-ball professional baseball players, and created bunt defense robots.

Stopping the drill right then and there, we gathered as a group on the mound to address this issue.

“Guys… we have to listen to the ball,” I started.  “The ball has a voice and it will tell you what to do with it.  We want that out at third, but sometimes it just might not be there.  So, stop memorizing the game, let the play develop, and make our decisions accordingly.”

The more they learned how to “listen to the ball,” the more they were able to slow things down and trust their eyes, as their decisions got better and better.  This mode of thinking the game doesn’t just apply to bunt defense; it can and should additionally be implemented with baserunning (the ball will tell you when to go 1st to 3rd, when to go back to tag, etc.) and defense (where to throw the ball from the outfield with a runner advancing, when to create a short hop by coming in or a long hop by going back in the infield).  When players can constantly look at the ball and ask themselves what is it saying to them, they will begin to see the game in a different, clearer light.

The idea of listening to the ball also can aid in individual player development.  Some of the best players in the world are likewise some of the most self-aware players in the world with an astute knowledge of who they are, what they do, and how they do it.  When a player can effectively become his own coach without the constant need for feedback from someone else, they put themselves in a great position to get better all the time, not just when a coach or teammate is watching.

Hitting and pitching are two facets of the game right now that have historically been incredibly mechanically driven.  Many players think internally, based on the feel of their swing or delivery.  Putting a focus externally on what the ball is doing can offer a different way for them to perfect those mechanics without necessarily thinking about them.  

For instance, when a hitter is working to improve his ability against velocity, they may initially think about shortening their swing to get the barrel to the ball. But if they instead listen to the ball, and see how everything is going to the opposite field or foul, they may very well then make an adjustment in their timing to make contact to the middle of the field, fixing an internal flaw by listening to what the ball is saying off of the bat.  A pitcher can use the same train of thought with regard to things like arm angle, release point, break, or command.  When they try to make the ball do something else, the mechanics have a chance to fall into place.

Baseball is very much a thinking man’s game , where two identical balls in play may require two completely different decisions based on the variables that come up over the course of nine innings per day, five-plus months of the year. While some decisions are no brainers, others require instincts and intellect just to have a chance at collecting an out, taking the extra base, or having a productive at bat.  Those decisions don’t have to be made alone; let the ball help you. That ball indeed has a voice.  Learn how to listen to it.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently 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.


 Game Three: A Classic That Taught Us So Much
(12/14/2018)
 
   

Game Three: A Classic That Taught Us So Much


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


The game’s first pitch was thrown at 5:10 PM local time in Los Angeles.

Its final pitch was delivered at 3:30 in the morning back on the East Coast in Boston.

What happened during the seven hours and twenty minutes in between that was Game Three of the 2018 World Series was nothing short of baseball history. It had everything. And if you somehow had the motivation (or caffeine in your system) to stay awake for the whole thing that culminated with Max Muncy’s walk-off home run, you couldn’t help but go to sleep with just a little more baseball acumen than when you woke up.

Eighteen innings. One game needed two to finally be decided. It was the longest game in World Series history by four innings in length and by one hour and 19 minutes in time. Both teams combined to use 46 players, meaning only four guys between the Red Sox and Dodgers did not appear in the game. There were 561 total pitches thrown over the course of 118 at-bats, both new records for baseball’s Fall Classic.

But it wasn’t all of the shattered records that made this game so incredibly great; it was everything that happened between the lines, that enabled those records to be shattered. The game, put simply, was a coach’s dream, with countless teachable moments that every single one of their players could benefit from, truly exemplifying the value of learning from watching.

In the top of the 13th inning, Brock Holt showed outstanding anticipation on a pitch in the dirt and was able to advance to second on an impressive dirt ball read. He would later score the go-ahead run on an error by the pitcher who threw the ball away on a soft ground ball up the first base side. In the bottom half of the inning, Max Muncy alertly tagged up from first to second on a foul pop out along the third base side. He would then score the tying run from second with two outs on a throwing error by the second baseman that the first baseman couldn’t keep in front of him.

The Red Sox put runners on first and second with nobody out in the 15th when Christian Vasquez laid down what appeared to be a good bunt on the third base side of the mound. But it didn’t get the job done after Kenta Maeda made a great play to nab the runner at third. The game also had instances of players not hustling out of the box and not getting an extra 90 feet on the bases because outfielders backed up misplays and got the ball back in quickly and accurately. How could this game have possibly changed had those guys gotten to second base? An answer we will never know…

So, the next time your coach gets on you for not hustling or backing up plays; obsesses about tiny details like perfecting cutoffs and relays; spends time focusing solely on baserunning; teaches you how to bunt; and consistently works to get pitchers better at fielding their position, thank him. That is a coach teaching you how to be a baseball player. And baseball players win.

But it wasn’t just the fundamentals of our game on display that this game taught us. In Nathan Eovaldi, we learned all about selflessness and competitive drive. In Alex Cora, we got to see true leadership. And in the Boston Red Sox, we saw first-hand the true meaning of team. I honestly believe that the Red Sox won the World Series when they lost Game Three.

The game itself was an instant classic that neither team deserved to lose. And it was the individual effort by Eovaldi that most assuredly had no business tagging an “L” next to his name. Pitching on one day’s rest after appearing in the first two games of the series in Boston, Eovaldi toed the rubber for seven innings out of the bullpen, more than any pitcher in the game besides Dodgers’ starter Walker Beuhler. With essentially no one else left to come into the game for the Red Sox, he emptied his tank, inning after inning, for his team, extending the game into the wee hours of the morning with every zero he put up. It was a performance that had some of his teammates inspired to the point of tears. It was a performance that all of his teammates knew deserved a better fate. And it was a performance that Alex Cora couldn’t help but recognize following the game’s heartbreaking end for his club.

Minutes after the game ended, Cora witnessed each of his starting pitchers from the first three games of the World Series offer to start Game Four. Chris Sale insisted he was available. David Price, on two days’ rest, volunteered to take the ball. Even Rick Porcello, who started the very game they had just lost, told his manager that he, too, would be good to go. And yes, even Boston’s folk hero Nathan Eovaldi and his seemingly bionic arm wanted his name up for game four.

Not one for post-game speeches, Cora gathered his band of brothers in the clubhouse after what had the potential of being a debilitating, Series-swinging loss, wanting to make sure his team knew two things: first, how proud he was of the effort displayed on that field, and specifically how incredible Eovaldi’s performance was; and more importantly, that his club still had a two-games-to-one lead in the Series. Cora managed to get his team to leave a clubhouse that they had entered demoralized, completely inspired as they looked forward and turned the page.

“By the end of (the meeting), we felt like we won the game,” said shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

And it was that feeling of confidence, fueled by Cora’s speech and motivated by Eovaldi’s outing, that the Red Sox collectively took into games four and five of the World Series. The rest, as they say, is history.

The 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox may very well go down as one of the best teams of all time. But their success was far from a sure thing, having entered the postseason with countless questions about how they would be able to neutralize the power of the Yankees formidable lineup; how they were going to deal with the Astros’ big three arms of their rotation. Their success was a product of everything we as coaches strive for not just on the field, but off the field as well. And all we needed was Game Three to show us all of those things in one place and one time, for 18 long and glorious innings.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently 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.