Weathering the Storm
Maintaining perspective, positivity during a losing streak
“You play to win the game.”“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
These quotes are everywhere, printed on T-shirts and plastered all over locker rooms around the world. Winning is why many people play sports, and it’s the root of one’s competitive fire. It’s also something that’s much bigger than the games themselves, as people everywhere are constantly fighting to win battles in their daily lives.
Competition is seen in all walks of life, and minor league baseball is no different. Or is it?
Contrary to most competitive sports, the environment found at minor league ballparks, especially at the lower levels, is not one where coaching staffs are doing everything they possibly can to win every single game. Their priority is doing whatever is necessary to improve and develop their young players. Winning comes second.
When we broke from spring training at the beginning of April, our Greenville Drive roster oozed with potential, combining a mix of young, high-ceiling (but unproven) prospects to go along with a handful of experienced, older players who knew how to play the game and go about their business. Our hope was that this group would mesh together and turn the potential into performance, where winning games would be a byproduct of each player’s individual development.
Plagued by inconsistency in the early weeks of the season, we turned the calendar from May to June and our collective progress was clear as day. We had some tangible success that gave us quite a bit of optimism heading into the final few months of our schedule.
The first half of the season ended with us playing our best baseball of the year, as we took three of four from Hagerstown, the top team in the league and knocked them out of a playoff spot a day before the All-Star break. Our young pitchers who sometimes didn’t know where the ball was going when it left their hands were developing into reliable strike-throwers, while our lineup was consistently putting together quality at-bats as the weeks went on. As is the case in baseball, you are only as good as your pitching. With the way the first half ended, we truly believed this club could make the summer months something special.
The second half began as we expected, splitting a series against Savannah, the first-half winner of the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division, before hitting the road for an eight-game road trip to Asheville and Hickory in North Carolina. Following a convincing win in Asheville to start an eight-game road trip, we dropped a one-run game the next night.
Then lost the next two.
Then got swept in Hickory.
When the dust settled, we would end up losing 17 games in a row. Seventeen games. That’s two-and-a-half weeks without winning. Even though there were still 48 games remaining, we had dug ourselves such a big hole that our postseason aspirations essentially vanished into thin air.
Going through such a lengthy struggle, you learn a lot about your players, your team and yourself as a coach. Our focus continued to be the individual improvement of our players, but the losses tested our resolve as a staff because we wanted to win every time we took the field. That drive to beat the team in the opposing dugout was a part of our DNA, and this streak forced us to harness that competitive fire. It’s easy to come to the park every day when things are going well. The challenge, as we would quickly discover, would be finding a way to stay positive and upbeat when things were going poorly.
We were used to looking at each game individually, where every day was truly a new day. Throughout the year, we experienced the gamut of results, from blow out wins to heartbreaking walk-off losses. At stretch the very next day, we’d ask our players, “What was the best part about last night’s game?”
They would never respond with scoring 18 runs, competing hard for the entire game or playing great defense. The answer was always the same: the best part about the previous day’s game was that it was over with. Good or bad, whatever happened yesterday would not affect the way we went about our business moving forward. If the previous day ended with an impressive win, today represented a chance to do it all over again. If we laid an egg and failed to play the game the way we knew how, the present day was our opportunity to right the ship.
We made a conscious decision to control what we can control and embrace the process of getting better every day, regardless of the result. Now this was nothing new for our guys, as from the start of the season we ingrained the importance of the work. Whether we looked like the 1927 New York Yankees or had a rough game where we resembled a junior varsity club, we would not allow the previous day’s box score to affect how we worked.
That message was sent to the team, but it was geared more to each individual as to teach them how to stay grounded in success and humbled by failure. As the losses mounted during this prolonged losing streak, it became clear that we, as a staff, needed to practice what we preached.
We also made a conscious decision to keep calm and not panic. A team takes on the personality of its coaches in many respects. A hard working staff with competitive personalities is likely to rub off on its players in the same way that a coach who does not pay attention to details or lacks work ethic experiences a lot of frustration on the field. The game is hard enough as it is, and if our stresses with each loss were to surface, chances are that our team would feel our anguish and play with an added pressure that we could have prevented.
On July 11, we finally broke through with an incredible come-from-behind, walk-off win over Augusta to break the losing streak. After the game, we gathered as a team and made it a point to celebrate a much deserved victory that was a long time coming. For the 25 guys in our clubhouse who had endured two-and-a-half weeks of disappointment, this was hardly just one win in a 140-game season. Not only was this night a reward for getting through such a tough stretch, but it was also a valuable learning experience for each player to understand the importance of staying the course and treating each day as a new opportunity to do something great. It was also valuable for us coaches to understand our role in getting our players to learn how to become winners, even in defeat.
If you spend enough time coaching, you are bound to enjoy the euphoria of a winning streak where your club seems invincible. You’ll also experience the helpless feeling of an extended string of losses where no matter what you do the other team gets to shake hands in victory at the end of the night. And whether it’s the high of highs or the low of lows, your players feed off of your ability to stay consistent with them, each and every day, regardless of the results.
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.