Inside Pitch Magazine, January/February 2023

@CoachYourKids: Invest in Others the Way Others Have Invested in You

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

Jeff Garber headshot in Nationals jerseyEveryone wants to feel like they matter. We all wish to have a voice that is heard. People innately desire to be seen by others. There are few things more deflating than being made to feel like you’re invisible, muted or insignificant. Sadly, in sport, the latter is far too common of an occurrence within the dynamic of many teams. It’s one of a leader’s primary jobs to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

Back in the spring of 1997, while a freshman playing at Rutgers University, I was taught a vital lesson that would later become the core of who I am now as a coach. About 10 games into my first season as a college baseball player, Central Florida crushed us one night, behind what seemed like 15 pull-side hits down the left field line past our third baseman. As I was our shortstop, Fred Hill—our head coach—put the responsibility on me to tell our third baseman when off-speed pitches were coming so he would be able to better anticipate when the ball may be hit his way. I didn’t relay a single pitch the entire game.

After the game, Coach Hill completely ripped me for not doing my job in front of half the team. I was embarrassed. I was upset. I was mad. I was mad and upset at Coach Hill for embarrassing me. Literally in tears on the bus ride back to the hotel, I was ready to transfer. When we arrived at the hotel, he was waiting for me to get off the bus when he told me to come back with him to his room. It was there when he said this: “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but the reason I’m riding you so hard about every little thing is because 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 came because I knew it was coming from someone who not only believed in me and what I could become, but more importantly was willing to invest time and energy in helping me reach my potential.

In the world of professional baseball—and specifically in an organization’s minor leagues—high-profile prospects and big money signees generally get the bulk of the spotlight from the outside. Future major league stars grab the headlines from the media and, in many cases, often grab the attention from their coaches as they work their way through the system. The running joke was that you were either a prospect or a suspect. In that light, as an undersized, under-tooled middle infielder who couldn’t really hit or run, I was by all means a suspect as a minor leaguer coming up with the Kansas City Royals.

Two years into my professional career, evident by the nature of interaction with some coaches, the prospect/suspect classes of players were clear as day to me. That was until I got to Wilmington, Delaware in 2002 where I would play for a manager named Jeff Garber. He was different. In his eyes—at least to the player version of myself—there was no prospect/suspect status. To him, if you had a uniform, you were going to get coached. And if he was going to coach you, if didn’t matter if you signed for a million dollars or a hundred, he was going to coach you as if you were going to be a big leaguer one day.

It wasn’t about what Garbs taught me as a player that got me better. Sure, that helped, but it was far more how he made me feel in his approach to doing so. He made me feel like a prospect. He made me feel like I mattered. Because of the attention he always gave me, he always had mine. That is the power of investment. While I didn’t realize it at the time, now in his shoes as a minor league coach myself, I know how truly special that was. In large part because of feeling like I always got the very best from Jeff Garber, I make every effort to give every player the very best from me. 

It’s no secret that the Cape Cod League is the preeminent summer circuit for college players. It’s a proving ground for the best in America to match up against one another with the cream of that crop usually finding itself atop MLB clubs’ draft boards in short order. Since 2001, Kelly Nicholson has spent his summers coaching for the Cape’s Orleans Firebirds, the last 17 seasons as the team’s head coach. In 2008, based solely on the recommendation of a mutual friend, Kelly offered me the opportunity to join his staff that summer in what, still today, I consider one of the most impactful breaks of my coaching career.

Put simply, with this role, Kelly gave me the opportunity to think. Still at the infancy of my own coaching career which had begun just two years prior, I knew baseball, but didn’t know the nuance behind actually coaching it. At the time, I was on Coach Hill’s staff at Rutgers, so my approach to helping our players there was to be an extension of him and his thoughts and beliefs. While in Orleans, I didn’t have to play to Coach Hill and Kelly didn’t want me to play to him either; he encouraged me to think for myself. In charge of making our lineup, running our offense and coaching third base, Kelly gave me responsibilities that forced me to think for myself and oftentimes, in the moment. I got some things right, got some things wrong, but regardless, every single day, had him there for support, insight, and encouragement.

Kelly took a chance on me—a complete stranger when he offered me the job, without even an interview—and spent the entire summer pouring into me, because, well, that’s what he does. His Orleans coaching tree has branches that run high and wide into all levels of the game, from high school all the way up to the big leagues. As one of those proud branches, I feel a sense of duty to plant seeds in other coaches in the same way he planted seeds in me.

The most valuable commodity in the world is time. It’s the ONE thing that every single one of us will eventually all run out of. We show what we value in the time we invest. And when we invest time in those we are charged to lead, they feel valued. And when people feel valued, the possibilities for what they just may become are boundless. As leaders, we are in our positions because someone gave us their time, as Fred Hill, Jeff Garber, and Kelly Nicholson did for me. Now it’s our time to do the same for many others.

Inside Pitch Magazine is published six times per year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt association founded in 1945. Copyright American Baseball Coaches Association. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior written permission. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is impossible to make such a guarantee. The opinions expressed herein are those of the writers.