Creating Your Team's Culture

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Blood, Sweat, and Beards.

Those three simple words represented everything that the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox were all about. It was their unofficial mantra. Those three simple words invigorated a team who inspired a city that desperately needed inspiration following the tragic marathon bombings on that dreaded April 15th.

BLOOD was their sign of battle. The team’s competitive drive that would have them fighting to win every game…every inning…every at bat…every pitch.

SWEAT signified the work. The attitude that no one would be more prepared to succeed than the guys playing for their bruised and battered city of Boston.

And BEARDS. Ah yes…those famously out-of-control beards. Those beards were, in fact, their very favorite and most meaningful representation. It was their sign of unity. It was their way of showing they were together as one, a part of something that, collectively, was much bigger than themselves, individually. It didn’t matter whether it was a guy like Mike Napoli whose five o'clock shadow arrived at two in the afternoon, or a twenty year-old rookie like Xander Bogaerts with scant and patchy whiskers: if you were a part of the Boston Red Sox, you grew your beard, plain and simple.

Blood, sweat, and beards was not just some catchy saying around the Red Sox clubhouse that looked pretty cool printed on t-shirts. It was who they were, and it was how they went about their business. It was the core of their team culture, that just one year prior, was so toxic that a significant roster overhaul was necessary. To have a true appreciation of the grand success that was the 2013 Red Sox, one must take a look back at the failures of the club’s thirteen months prior to them hoisting the World Series trophy last October.

Flashback to September of 2011. The Red Sox had a nine-game lead on the second-place Tampa Bay Rays on September 3rd and proceeded to lose 18 of their final 24 games to miss out on the playoffs. Following that historic collapse, a number of controversial stories began to trickle out about the clubhouse environment that was portrayed by the media to look more like a frat house than a professional baseball club. In part, as a result, Terry Francona’s contract as the team’s manager was not renewed, and General Manager Theo Epstein left Boston for Chicago.

Spring Training of 2012 was supposed to be the sign of new beginnings for the Red Sox. Ben Cherington had taken over as GM, while Bobby Valentine returned to the Major Leagues as the club’s new skipper. Still with an immensely talented roster, the team broke camp at the end of March with high expectations, fully intent on putting last season’s painful ending behind them but did nothing more than tread water well into the summer. The problems that troubled the team during their September swoon hadn’t really gone away, making it apparent to the club’s front office that the Red Sox team culture needed a change.

That August, out went three of their most talented players, including pitching ace Josh Beckett, all-star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and newly-signed $142-million left fielder Carl Crawford in a trade with the Dodgers. While the move did net the Red Sox a number of prospects in return, what it really did was allow the team to reset its roster with some much-needed payroll flexibility.

As Spring Training opened in 2013 with first-year manager John Farrell now at the helm, in came the new-guard of sorts for the Red Sox in the form of Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Stephen Drew, and Ryan Dempster. They all had a number of things in common. First, they were good, but not great, established Major League Players. Second, and more importantly, all were highly-regarded amongst baseball circles as great clubhouse guys who could help improve that poor clubhouse environment that plagued the club for the bulk of the 2012 season. It was a clear statement by the front office when signing each one of these guys, that without the second trait of who they were as people, that first of what they were as players didn’t matter.

An incredible team culture evolved within the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, but it was hardly something that happened overnight. In fact, it wasn’t something that developed in the seven-month period with everyone together. That culture was a result of many players’ many years in the game. Early on in their careers, they learned how to play. They learned how to prepare. How to compete. How to be a professional. How to be a great teammate. Their 2013 championship season was a collection of all of the influences they’ve had over the years- parents, coaches, teammates- all coming together as one. Those who helped set their foundation at various levels of the game hopefully took a great sense of pride in watching their former players thrive on the game’s grandest stage.

To most, what these guys were able to accomplish on the field is well known, but those things off the field which played in to that success is something for all coaches of all sports to take note of. John Farrell did not walk into the clubhouse one day with Blood, Sweat, and Beards t-shirts to hand out to his club. He did not come up with the saying, nor did he suggest to the team that they all grow out their facial hair. He welcomed the work, coveted their preparation, and admired their competitiveness- all the things he knew it would take in order to be successful…all the things the represented HIS standard for guys to live up to. By allowing his players to embrace their individual personalities, and by giving them the ownership that enabled a team culture to grow, before he knew it, Farrell’s team became just that, setting the stage for a season for the ages.

As John Farrell’s club was well on its way to winning the AL East title down in Ft. Myers, Florida, some 1,456 miles away from Boston, I made my managerial debut with the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox with a roster made up of guys who were several years away from reaching the Big Leagues. Roughly half of my team came from our Latin American academy in the Dominican Republic, many of whom were making their maiden voyage to the States. The rest of my club was mostly newly signed players, the majority of whom were coming right out of high school.

While the make-up of our 35-man roster was as diverse as could be with guys from different backgrounds and different walks of life, it was my job as their manager to create an environment where they wanted to be. It would be within that environment where not only would we enable their development as professional baseball players, but a place where they could live their own Blood, Sweat, and Beards.

In order for us to have that kind of positive team culture, we as a coaching staff, needed to give this group of relatively new professionals some structure and direction. We did that in the form of a team standard, rather than having team rules, which I hoped would help set a foundation from which our team culture would be built. Generally speaking, I saw rules as a compilation of the things players can’t do. With this idea of a standard, I wanted to put together a list of things they can do, in an effort to create a constant frame of mind to living up to our principles, as opposed to living in fear of our rules.

The GCL Red Sox team standard was simple, yet all-encompassing of everything we wanted to stand for:

Be where you are supposed to be before you are supposed to be there. If you are on time, you are late.

Of the game. Of your teammates. Of your coaches. Of your opponent. Of the fans. Of the anthem. Of the umpires. Of your support staff. Of yourself.

Work with a purpose. Play the game the way it was meant to be played. Stay grounded in success and humbled in failure. Wear your uniform correctly. Dress with thought to the ballpark. Take care of the clubbies.

One of the most vital keys to a standard working is by holding the players accountable to it. The importance of this cannot be understated, as so much of a team’s culture comes from what is expected by the coach. Accountability and discipline are often difficult for coaches to deal with because, with both, come the potential sacrifice for the team. They can act as a double-edged sword of sorts, when the positive message being sent to the team that all must live up to the standard- regardless of talent- contradicts that of hurting everyone else who is doing everything they are supposed to. Sometimes that sacrifice may be in the form of a game, or if serious enough, an entire season. Is it fair to the guys who are everything you want them to be? No, but accountability doesn’t necessarily have to come from a coach.

If there wasn’t discipline by the staff to those who didn’t live up to the standard, then it will be a challenge for players to hold one another accountable in their culture. And therein lies the great part about the players looking out for one another and making sure they are taking care of business without a coach hovering over them. Often times, peer pressure is far more powerful than that of a coach, and when that pressure comes from a fellow teammate, then good things are sure to follow because that’s the sign of everyone getting the big picture that will last far longer than just a season.

While I doubt that our team standard was responsible for us winning our division and the first round of playoffs - good players are reason for that - the transformation we witnessed over the course of the season was incredible. Guys who, at the start of March, didn’t know what “on time” meant, began to push others by June to be down on the field early with them. Players who entered pro ball thinking they had already made it, left for home following the season with the full understanding that they still had a ton of work to do.

As our season ended after falling in the GCL Championship series, our staff made it a point to make sure these guys went home proud, and feeling great not only for what they’ve accomplished, but for what they had learned. This collection of players from all corners of the globe now had a great foundation of the things needed in order to be successful in the game. A foundation that may, in fact, put them in high demand down the road when some other troubled Major League clubhouse needs fixing.

While the players and beards were the stars of the Boston Red Sox team culture, Ben Cherington and John Farrell deserve much of the credit for its creation. As the off-field and on-field leaders of the organization, they were the ones responsible for putting together this group of players, all from different backgrounds, who they felt could mesh together in the positive environment they provided to thrive in.

In an age of statistical analysis, seemingly with numbers for everything, the sabermatricians (numbers crunchers) will argue that something is not real unless it can be measured. Despite not having a means to quantify its impact, a team’s culture is a very real thing, and it’s a coach’s responsibility to establish a standard from which that culture can be built by the players. It is never too early to instill responsibility, accountability, and good habits within a group, and then give them the opportunity to run with it, and make it their own, unique to them. As the Boston Red Sox showed us in 2013, the result might just be a championship…

This article appeared in the June 2014 edition of Coach & Athletic Director magazine.

Darren Fenster 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.