The Winning Loser

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

“Just win, baby.”

“You play to win the game.”

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

The quotes are everywhere, printed on t-shirts, plastered all over locker rooms around the world. Winning. It’s what we play the games for. It’s the root of one’s competitive fire. And it’s something that is much bigger than sport- life is a competition, with people constantly trying to better than the person next to them.

Competition is seen in all walks of life, and minor league baseball is no different…or is it?

Contrary to most competitive sports, the environment found at Minor League ballparks - especially at the lower levels - is not one where coaching staffs are doing everything they possibly can to win every single game, but rather doing everything they possibly can get their players better. Our primary focus is on player development …winning is secondary.

A couple years ago, when we broke from Spring Training at the start of April, our 2014 Greenville Drive roster oozed with potential, combining a mix of young, high-ceiling (but unproven) prospects to go along with a handful of experienced, older players who knew how to play the game and go about their business. Here in 2016, five of those players have already made their way to the Big Leagues. Our hope was that this group would mesh together and turn the potential into performance, where winning games would be a byproduct of each player’s individual development. Plagued by inconsistency in the early weeks, as we turned the calendar from May to June, our collective progress was clear as day, and we had some tangible success that gave us quite a bit of optimism heading into the final few months of the year.

The first half of the season finished with us playing our best baseball of the year, as we took three of four from the top team in the league, and knocked them out of a playoff spot a day before the All-Star break. Our young pitchers who, early on, sometimes didn’t know where the ball was going out of their hand were developing into reliable strike-throwers, while our lineup consistently was putting together quality at bats as the weeks went on. As is the case in baseball, you are only as good as your pitching, and with the way that first half finished, we truly believed this club could make the summer months something special.

The second half started as we had expected, splitting a series against Savannah, the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division first-half winner before hitting the road for an eight-game road trip to Asheville and Hickory. Following a convincing win in Asheville to start an eight-game road trip, we dropped a one-run game the next night. Then lost the next two. Then got swept in Hickory. When the dust settled, we would end losing 17 games in a row. Seventeen games. Two and a half weeks without winning a single game. Even though there were still 48 games left, we had dug ourselves such a big hole that our post-season aspirations essentially were done before the month of July even ended.

Going through such a long struggle, you learn a lot about your players individually, your team as a whole, and perhaps most importantly, yourself as a coach. Despite our focus continuing to stay on our guys improving over the end result, the losses tested our resolve as a staff, because we wanted to win every time we take the field. That drive to beat the team in the opposing dugout was a part of our DNA, and this streak forced us to harness that competitive fire a bit. It’s easy to come to the park every day when things are going well. The challenge, as we would quickly realize, would be finding a way to stay positive and upbeat when things were going poorly.

We were used to looking at each game individually, where every day was truly a new day. Throughout the year, we experienced the gamut of results, from blowout wins, to tough, walk-off losses. At stretch the very next day, we’d question our players, “What was the best part about last night’s game?” Putting up 18 runs? Nope. Competing the whole game? Incorrect. Playing great defense? Wrong. The answer was always the same: the best part about the previous day’s game was that it was over with. Good or bad, whatever happened yesterday would not affect the way we went about our business moving forward. If the previous day was an impressive win, then today represented a chance to do it all over again. If we laid an egg and failed to play the game the way we knew how, then the present day was our opportunity to right the ship.

We made the conscious decision to control what we can control, and embrace the process of getting better every day, regardless of the result. Now this was nothing new for our guys, as from the start of the season, we ingrained the importance of the work, and whether we looked like the ‘27 Yankees, or we resembled a JV club, we would not allow the previous day’s box score affect how we worked. That message was sent to the team, but it was geared more to each individual, as to teach them how to stay grounded in success and humbled by failure. As the losses mounted in this prolonged losing streak, it became clear that we- as a staff- needed to practice what we preached.

We also made the conscious decision to keep calm, and not panic. A team takes on the personality of its coaches in many respects. A hardworking staff with competitive personalities is likely to rub off on its players in the same way that one who doesn’t pay attention to details or lacks work ethic will experience a lot of frustration on the field. The game is hard enough as it is, and if our stresses with each loss were to surface, chances were that our team would feel our panic, and play with an added pressure that we could prevent from putting on their shoulders.

On July 11th, we finally broke through with an incredible come from behind, walk-off win to break the streak. After the game, we gathered as a team, and made it a point to celebrate a much-deserved victory that was a long time coming. For the 25 guys in our clubhouse who had endured two and a half weeks of straight losing, this was hardly just one win in a 140-game season. Not only was this night a reward for getting through such a tough stretch, but it was also a valuable learning experience for each player to understand the importance of staying the course and treating each day as a new opportunity to do something great, and for us coaches to understand our role in getting those guys to still learn how to become winners even while they may be losing.

Spend enough years coaching, and you are bound to enjoy the euphoria of a winning streak where your club seems invincible, as well as the helpless feeling of an extended string of loses where no matter what you do, the other team gets to shake hands in victory at the end of the night. But whether you are at the helm during the high of highs, or the low of lows, your team will feed off of your ability to stay consistent with them, each and every day, regardless of the results.

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.