Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2020

@CoachYourKids: Be Who You Are

By Darren Fenster, Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator, Boston Red Sox & Founder/CEO, Coaching Your Kids, LLC
Darren Fenster

As coaches, we often talk about the importance of our players “being who they are.” We want them to use their gifts, play with their personalities, and not try to be someone else. Players who truly know themselves have the best chance to maximize their unique potential.

It may be just as important for coaches to be who they are as well. Last winter, HBO aired a documentary profiling the relationship between two football coaching legends, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Unquestionably, coaches across America watched with pen and paper in hand, taking notes and fully prepared to be the next Belichick or Saban by the time credits rolled. Unfortunately, that is impossible. There is only one Bill Belichick. There is only one Nick Saban.

And there was only one Fred Hill.

In the spring of 2006, upon the sudden end to my playing career, Coach Hill created a position on his Rutgers staff for me because, 1) he thought I would make a good coach, and 2) I had nothing better to do. At the time, I thought this would be a simple stopgap as I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Little did I know that this would be the start of my second life in the game.

Assistant coaches are the unsung heroes of a coaching staff. They are the epitome of the behind the scenes worker who gets little reward and even less recognition. An assistant has to be an extension of the head coach; in order for the relationship to thrive, both must be aligned in their organizational standards and strategic beliefs so that their players will get a consistent message. With all that in mind, when I entered the coaching profession, I thought I had to be the next Fred Hill.

Being able to work under the guy I played for in college – and who immensely helped me develop as a player – made for a pretty natural transition at the start. I knew his sayings, I knew how he coached, I knew what he believed. But as I began to find my own voice as a coach, I quickly learned that it was impossible for me to be the same as an ABCA Hall of Famer with more than 1,000 wins.

The process of finding yourself as a coach can be a long one. The funny part was that baseball was the least of my worries; I was pretty confident in my foundation of knowing the game. It was the coaching in general where I was all over the map – it was a challenge at times to understand how to handle players, create cohesion on a staff, or disagree without causing dissension.

By the time I left Rutgers to join the Red Sox in 2012, I had grown leaps and bounds both personally and professionally, but as the new guy in the organization as an A-ball hitting coach, I was much like a rookie in the clubhouse, unsure of my place. The general rule was the same in pro baseball, where hitting coaches and pitching coaches are not only an extension of their manager, but also a vital branch of an entire organizational philosophy. I was hired to coach hitters in Greenville and I needed to figure out the best way to do that. How hands-on did I need to be? Could I implement different things with different hitters? What would our daily routine be?

There was no handbook to answer all of my questions, but it was clear that experience through trial and error would be my best teacher, along with leaning on my colleagues who had been in my shoes before. Slowly but surely, I started to settle in. But I wasn’t entirely me. I wasn’t that comfortable.

Then came the groundout that marked my arrival.

About one month into the season, one of our best hitters came up with a runner on third and less than two outs. His job was to drive that run home. We preached situational hitting and the value of getting the job done when it came to developing into a productive hitter. The result of this particular at bat was a roll-over, ground ball to the second baseman. The run scored. The job was done. And I was pumped. Our hitter…not so much.

He sulked off the field. Banged his helmet on the bench. Slammed his bat back into the rack. If there was one thing that always got under my skin, it’s playing selfish. As I’m watching him come down towards me in the dugout, my blood is starting to boil. He started complaining to himself. I snapped. “What is your problem? You just did your job. You helped your team. Now stop being a baby, grow up, and pick up your teammate who is hitting right now.”

Chad Epperson, one of our roving coordinators from Boston, was in the dugout at the time. Had I been conscious to his presence, I would have been more guarded with my words, as I had been to that point. I was still the new guy, still finding my way. After the game, Eppy came up to me and said that if I didn’t address that situation in the dugout, he would have himself, and he loved the way I handled it.

That meant everything to me. I didn’t have to be cautiously filtered like I had been to that point. Eppy gave me that freedom to be me. That moment – so small in the grand scheme of everything, baseball or otherwise – was, still to this day, one of the most defining moments of my entire coaching career. A coach who knows who he is and does what he does is in the best position to help his players do the same. 

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