Get Out of Your Usual Bubble

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

October 10 marked Opening Day for the 2017 edition of the Arizona Fall League, a “polishing-off school” of sorts for some of the game’s top prospects who are on the brink of the Major Leagues. The 32-game schedule allows for a select few players from the upper-level Minor Leaguers of all 30 MLB clubs to get just a few more at bats or innings before heading into the offseason. The AFL provides an incredible opportunity for development not just for those players fortunate enough to be selected to play, but also for the coaches chosen to coach. This fall, I have the privilege of being one of those coaches.

Six teams make up the circuit, each based out of various Spring Training facilities surrounding Phoenix, with players and staff from five different Major League organizations comprising each team’s roster. As a part of the Peoria Javelinas, our players from the Red Sox will be joined by those from the Padres, Mariners, Braves, and Blue Jays. And by nature of this unique setup, therein lies the awesome opportunity.

From the start of Spring Training in the middle of February to the end of the Minor League season in September, I live inside of the Red Sox bubble. Just about everything that we do over the course of the year comes at the direction of our coordinators and front office. As an organization, we are incredibly consistent in our daily approach that has helped develop countless Big Leaguers not just in Boston, but around the entire league. While we have a formula that we believe works, it’s a formula that always gets tweaked slightly from year to year; a formula that, no matter how good it may be, can always be better.

The Arizona Fall League offers me a rare chance to live outside of my usual baseball environment for a month and a half. While the players and coaches from the other four clubs who will make up our team in Peoria will get a glimpse into the way we do things with the Red Sox, we will equally get to see how those other four organizations go about their business. By the middle of November, as the league is finishing up, I am sure that I’ll have plenty to bring home with me that will help make our players and organization better, just as the guys from the other four organizations will feel the same.

This won’t be the first time I escape my usual bubble, and, based on similar experiences outside of my normal comfort zone, I sure hope it won’t be the last.

My coaching career began at Rutgers University, my alma mater, where I played for and later worked under American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Hall of Famer Fred Hill. He is the number one reason why I am a coach today, having seen something in me far before I was ready to see it in myself at the abrupt end of my playing career because of injury in 2006. At a time when I had a degree, but no plan B for my life, he literally created a position for me on his staff because he thought I would make a good coach. The rest, as they say, is history. Fred Hill’s style of Rutgers baseball was all I knew. It’s what helped build me into the player I was back then, and more importantly, the person I am today. From swing mechanics to practice organization, accountability to discipline, work ethic to bunt defense, offensive philosophy to strength and conditioning, recruiting to coaching, upon the start of this second life of sorts in baseball, my approach and beliefs in the game really weren’t mine at all – they were his. Now, some 11-plus years into my own coaching career, it’s easy to see how much of my foundation with my own clubs is a direct result of my ten years with Coach Hill. But that’s much of my foundation, not all of it. The rest is a product of my time spent away from the only thing I knew…

The position that Coach Hill created for me back in the spring of 2006 was that of Director of Baseball Operations, one that was just beginning to make its way around to the bigger programs across the country. While I was on the Rutgers coaching staff, technically, by NCAA standards, I was not a coach, and was not permitted to be on the field, actually coaching players. I had a wide array of responsibilities, from helping our organizational recruiting efforts to compiling scouting reports, coordinating camps and their daily schedules to assisting in travel logistics. This position enabled me to learn everything it takes to run a college program from top to bottom, except one vital element: coaching. So, in an effort to get a uniform back on, and to see if this coaching thing was truly for me, I looked to hook on with one of the many collegiate summer league teams that played around the nation.

In the summer of 2007, fresh off a Big East Title at Rutgers, I shipped off to Minnesota, where I’d be an assistant with the St. Cloud River Bats of the Northwoods League. Head Coach Tony Arnerich, a former Minor League teammate of mine with the Royals who was an assistant at the University of California at the time, saw a good fit for me on his staff to work with infielders and hitters, while coaching first base. It was interesting for me to be a part of a team that didn’t bunt most times when the situation called for it, like we did at Rutgers. It was eye-opening to see how many different things went into the decision-making process over the course of a day, from setting the lineup to organizing the pregame schedule to using our in-game strategy, not to mention daily concerns including travel times, team meals, and hotel rooming lists.

I honestly had no idea how much responsibility fell on a head coach’s plate. That summer in St. Cloud made me realize how much more there was to coaching, than just coaching. Those two-plus months helped me learn how much I truly needed to learn.

A year later, I was off to the Cape Cod League as part of the Orleans Cardinals coaching staff, where longtime skipper Kelly Nicholson afforded me what is still to this day one of my biggest breaks and best opportunities to develop as a coach. He would have me make out the lineup every day, organize batting practice, coach third base, and run the in-game offense as I saw fit. For the first time in my coaching career, I had to think on my own two feet. He gave me responsibilities that I never had and put me in a position to make decisions I previously never had to make.

With the perspective that almost ten years offers, I can honestly say that it was during that summer in Orleans when my coaching career truly took off. That time spent with Kelly as a mentor along with the duties he put on my plate helped me grow more than I could have ever hoped and helped prepare me for the day when I would be promoted to an assistant, on-field coach at Rutgers and later, as a hitting instructor and manager in professional baseball.

Having just completed my fifth year as a Minor League manager with the Red Sox, I have my own personal pillars and beliefs that I have seen first-hand yield some incredible results both on the individual and team levels. But over the next month and a half out in Arizona, being surrounded by those from four other organizations, I am excited to learn from them new ways to make those pillars and beliefs even better.

Comfort is one of the biggest obstacles to growth. Get out that comfortable bubble of yours…because that’s where our personal development truly lies.

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.