We Are the Game’s Stewards

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Many collegiate and professional baseball players spend their off-seasons working camps and giving lessons to kids as a means to keep busy while making a few extra bucks. I was no different as I was scuffling my way through the Minor Leagues in the early 2000s. Working at a small training facility in central New Jersey, I had the opportunity to work with a bunch of players of varying ages and abilities. From elementary school kids just learning the game for the first time, to high school players already signed to play in college, the opportunity to teach the game to others with such different backgrounds actually helped me understand my own personal game when it came time to train myself.

Now in full disclosure, I wasn’t doing this entirely out of the goodness of my heart. I was working clinics and giving instruction because I had to; my $1200 a month Minor League salary (for just five months of the year) didn’t exactly put me in then lap of luxury. The extra money didn’t enable me to move out of my parents’ house either, but it did allow me to have some semblance of a social life, and more importantly, it gave me a place to work out for free as I prepared for Spring Training.

That place where I was able to hit for free was owned in part by John Valentin, who played 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, 10 with the Red Sox and one with the Mets. As my professional career was just getting going, Valentin’s was just winding down. We were both preparing for Spring Training in the winter of 2003 when he asked if I would mind if he watched me hit. A Major League veteran wanting to watch ME hit? Absolutely. In my mind, I was going to show this former Silver Slugger award winner what a future big-league hitter looked like.

And then I started swinging. As it would turn out, I knew very little of what a future Major League hitter actually looked like. It took about three or four swings before Valentin spoke up and made me realize that I had no idea what it meant to be able to hit at the game’s highest level.

“You have a two-strike swing, all the time.”

“Why aren’t you using your legs?”

“You’re swinging to protect…attack the ball.”

“You don’t have to hit everything back up the middle or the other way.”

In a very blunt and matter-of-fact way, Valentin dissected my swing and approach in a matter of about 17 seconds. These were a swing and an approach, mind you, that I had spent 15-plus years perfecting at this stage of my career. By the end of that first time under the watchful eye of someone who was playing at the level I aspired to reach, everything that I knew – and had a ton of success with – about hitting was blown up in a matter of minutes. But soon thereafter, there was a second time when I’d hit with Valentin. And a third time…fourth…and so on. For the next month or so, our time together essentially turned into me getting free hitting lessons from an established Major League hitter.

When it was time to depart for Spring Training that February, I took off for Arizona with a revamped swing and a newfound approach. The result? The best offensive season, by far, of my entire professional career. While there were a handful of factors and a number of people responsible for this, the time that Valentin generously spent with me played a huge role in me understanding myself as a hitter, and would help set a foundation that I could build from a few years later as a coach.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but now with some perspective, I can now see clearly how John Valentin was paying it forward to me, as I am sure many had done for him over the course of his playing career. Currently managing a Minor League team, I see first-hand, every day, how competitive our industry is, full of players working tirelessly to advance to the Major Leagues. I was that player in my previous life. And John Valentin was that player in his, when he took the time to give countless hours towards MY development, rather than into his own.

The things that I learned about hitting in that month we spent together in that small cage in that small facility in New Jersey served me well as a player, and even more so now as a coach. But the more lasting impression that John Valentin left on me had nothing to do with the bat, but rather everything about making our game better simply by sharing knowledge and passion for it to the next generation of players.

We are merely the game’s placeholders. It is our responsibility as its stewards to leave it in better shape than we found it. John Valentin has already left his mark. How will you leave yours?

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.