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.