Cultivating a team identity
For four years as a player and another six as a coach at Rutgers University, “play all nine innings” was a consistent theme under our hall of fame head coach, Fred Hill. It wouldn’t be until years later, when I had my own clubs as a minor league manager, when I would truly understand the impact of that message year in and year out.
At Rutgers, we prided ourselves on our competitive drive. I thought it was the chip on our shoulders as a result of our New Jersey roots. While growing up in the Garden State did give us a unique predisposition, the reality was that coach Hill instilled that competitive mindset in us every single day. “Playing all nine innings” was repeated like a broken record.Coach Hill rarely talked about winning. He believed that if we played to our abilities and executed the fundamental skills that we practiced daily, the wins would take care of themselves. What he did speak about — before, during and after games — was the importance of competing for the entire game. Baseball is unique in that there is no clock. No matter the score heading into the last inning, the losing team has a chance to win. And whether it was a walk-off grand slam by Todd Frazier to overcome a late seven-run deficit against UConn, or a 1-0 complete game from pitcher Bobby Brownlie to clinch the Big East title, we won more games out of sheer competitiveness than most could ever dream.
As coaches, we are a product of those who we played for and worked with. I am no different, as much of my approach to developing players and teams is a result of coach Hill. Unlike college, where the core group of players is together for years at a time, I am handed 35 to 40 players each season at the professional level before receiving an entirely new crop the following year. The makeup of each team during each season constantly changes, with guys ranging from college educated to high school draftees or players making their first trip to the United States.
As different as our roster looks each season, before long every club takes on a familiar look. We play the game the right way and play with intelligence. Above all else, we play the game with a competitive drive that makes our staff proud. While the wins vary from year to year, opposing managers in the South Atlantic League know what to expect when playing against the Greenville Drive. It’s the same way rival coaches in the Big East probably knew they were in for a fight when competing against Hill’s Rutgers teams.
Every September, while recharging from a long season, I’m able to look back with some perspective on the year. Every time, I’m amazed at how each team, with its own unique personality, managed to take on the same look as it had in years prior. It wasn’t until a couple years ago, after my third season as a manager, it hit me — it comes from consistency.
For 10 years, I listened to Hill preach about the importance of playing all nine innings. Ten seasons, with one singular message. The consistency of that message resonated with our clubs and it became a staple of who we were as a program and our identity as a team. My message, though different from Hill’s, comes with that same consistency: “What is the best part about yesterday? It’s over.”
Good or bad, win or lose, yesterday’s results have no bearing on the present. If we were coming off a perfect game, today represented an opportunity to do it again. If we were pounded by double digits, tomorrow gave us a chance to right the ship. We would not allow the past to affect the way we approached the game. And because everyone on our staff was on the same page, our players couldn’t help but fall in line.
Players appreciate that consistency. When they were sky high, we made sure they were grounded with the understanding that their work wasn’t finished. When licking their wounds, our players knew that they wouldn’t walk into a firestorm the next day when they arrived at the park. Over time, consistency will shape your players and your program into whatever you want it to be.
While the results make some days better than others, the model of stability that we offer our players will soon be what they become — consistent with their work, and consistent with their play.
Darren Fenster is manager of the Greenville Drive (S.C.), a Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Following a six-year professional playing career with the Kansas City Royals where he was twice named a Minor League All-Star, he spent six years on the baseball staff at Rutgers University, where he was a two-time All-American shortstop. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.