In June 2013, I made my managerial debut, skippering our rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox. Before that point in my coaching career, managing wasn’t something that was truly on my radar; I had just completed my first year with the organization as an A-Ball hitting coach. A job that I enjoyed in an area of the game in which I fully expected to progress. When the opportunity to manage was presented to me, it was a chance to have more of a leadership role and one that offered me a great way to grow both personally and professionally with the responsibility of coaching more players, and in a bigger picture.
Hindsight being 20/20, when it came to being prepared to do the job I had just been promoted to do, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. While I am sure there is a handbook on how to manage a baseball team, much of learning how to best navigate through a season comes from trial and error more than anything else. Like most, I did the job the only way I knew how at the time and did it to the best of my ability. At various points of the season, I mishandled everything from game strategy, to discipline, to communication, to schedule logistics, and probably a lot in between.
But there was one thing I didn’t mess up: a very detailed approach to teach the game where everything mattered. At one point during that summer, a player lamented to a coach on our staff his frustration. “Fenster is on us about every little thing,” he said. “Why can’t he just let us play?” Looking back, that maybe was one of the best compliments I have ever received as a coach.
For the last two and a half years, the following tweet has been pinned to my profile on Twitter:
“Hate that coach who works you too hard, always on your ass? Wait until you play for a coach who doesn’t care. You’ll realize how lucky you were.”
Those 140 characters are at the core of who I am as a coach, thanks entirely to the influence that Fred Hill, the coach I played for and coached with at Rutgers, had on me; it was the foundation of who he was as a coach. I have always held my players to a higher standard than they hold themselves to because that’s exactly what Coach Hill did for me.
As a player, I learned the hard way how valuable this approach was for my personal development. About ten games into my freshman season, we were getting crushed by UCF, in large part because of what seemed like 15 pull-side hits down the left field line. While playing shortstop, Coach Hill put the responsibility on me to tell our third baseman when off-speed pitches were coming. I didn’t relay one all game and got completely ripped for it after the game in front of half the team. I was literally in tears, ready to transfer.
When we got back to the hotel, he called me into his room. It was there where he said this: “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the reason I am riding you so hard is that I think you have a chance to be a great player for us. You shouldn’t be upset when I get on you; you should get worried when I’m not.” From that day forward, I was completely transformed in my ability to handle criticism, no matter how loud that message was communicated.
Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with my players similar to that one Coach Hill had with me back in the spring of 1997.
Thanks to the many coaches that I have had the privilege of playing for or coaching with, I’ve come to realize that a team will always, in some way, shape, or form, take on the personality of its coaching staff. That goes not only for the positive elements but also just as much for the negative aspects as well. Our teams have always had a good sense of being aware of the countless little things that take place throughout a game because we make them a consistent part of what we teach. There is no doubt that many players don’t necessarily like a coaching staff that consistently gets on them about not doing some of these little things right. The devil may very well be in the details, but that devil wins a ton of games.