December 11, 2020 • BaseballCoaching

It’s Not Just Players Who Need to be Who They Are

As coaches, we often talk about the importance of our players being who they are and doing what they do. 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 and to do what they do to enable them to help maximize their players’ and their teams’ full potential. Last winter, HBO aired a documentary profiling the relationship between two football coaching legends, Bill Belichick and Nick Saban. Unquestionably, coaches across America watched intently with pen and paper in hand, feverishly taking notes and fully prepared to be the next Belichick or the next Saban by the time credits rolled. Unfortunately, that is impossible. There is only one Bill Belichick. There is only one Nick Saban.

Photo: Wesley Sykes / Great American Media Services

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 and no plan B in life. 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 for the job they do. An assistant coach has to be an extension of the head coach. In order for the relationship between the two to thrive, both must be aligned in their organizational standards as well as their strategic beliefs so that their players will get a single, 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, a new coach with NO experience as a coach, to be the same as an ABCA Hall of Famer with more than 1,000 career wins. 

The process of finding yourself as a coach can be as long of a journey as it is to find yourself as a player. The funny part was that baseball was the least of my worries, as I was pretty confident in my foundation of knowing the game. It was actually the coaching in general where I was all over the map. It was a challenge at times to understand how to handle players on the field and off, how to create cohesion on a staff, or how to disagree with something 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 over the previous six years. But as the new guy in the organization as an A-ball hitting coach, I was much like a rookie in the clubhouse, unsure exactly of my place in this new environment. The general rule was the same in professional baseball, where hitting coaches and pitching coaches are not only an extension of their club’s 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. The more comfortable I got in my own skin, the better I become as my own coach. But I wasn’t entirely me. I wasn’t THAT comfortable. I was getting there, but I wasn’t there.

Then came the ground out that marked my arrival.

About one month into the season in early May, one of our best hitters came up with a runner on third and less than two outs. His job, plain and simple, 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 both as a player and now as a coach, it’s playing selfish. As I’m watching him come down towards me in the dugout, my blood is starting to boil. By the time he was standing next to me, he started complaining to himself. I snapped. “WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM,” I politely asked. “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.”  

What I didn’t realize at that impulse was that Chad Epperson, one of our roving coordinators from Boston, was in the dugout at the time. Had I been conscious of his presence, I would have been much more guarded with my words, as I had been to that point, if I said anything at all. I was still the new guy. Still finding my way.  Still finding my place. 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 absolutely loved the way I handled it, reassuring me that sometimes players need some messages louder than others. 

That meant everything to me, and not because he was ok with me getting on a player who acted unprofessionally. But rather because that was the moment when I knew I could truly be who I was as a coach. 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, yet 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.