A Champion’s Resiliency

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Perspective can be an amazing thing sometimes.

We can look back at some great accomplishment and figure out all of the things that went into reaching that pinnacle. We can do the same with failure, and determine how and why the wheels fell off the bus. In both cases, our experiences into what was help prepare us for what may be down the road, knowing exactly what worked and what didn’t.

Perspective on our 2017 season with the Greenville Drive was indeed a beautiful thing. We won the first South Atlantic League Championship in the 12-year history of the franchise and set a regular-season record for wins with 79 along the way. We had some incredible wins. Extra inning marathon wins. Great, competitive wins. Perfectly played, all-around wins.

And we had some losses as well…62 of them, to be precise.

Looking back now, there were four specific games over the course of the season that clearly shaped us as a team. Not a single one of them was a win. Some clubs create their team identity behind improbable comebacks. Our Major League club in Boston seems to have built theirs in extra innings, just finding a way to outlast their opponent late into the night. Meanwhile in Cleveland, the Indians, in the midst of their own historic run, have done so by pummeling teams from the very first pitch of the game, rarely ever trailing over the course of nine innings. The 2017 Greenville Drive? Our identity was born from potentially debilitating defeats. Our lifeblood was our unbelievably consistent ability to respond to them.

May 30: Rome Braves 10, Greenville Drive 7

The first of these identity-building losses was quite possibly the worst. Not only the worst of the season, but it just might have been the worst loss I have ever experienced personally in my entire career on a baseball field, as a player or coach.

In the first game of a doubleheader against a Rome Braves team that was nipping at our heels in second place, we took a comfortable 7-0 lead into what should have been the final inning of the game. The frame opened with three hits, a walk, and a hit batsman; the score was 7-3. A base hit sandwiched in between two outs drove in another run with one out to go. 7-4. With the tying run at the plate, and us now clinging nervously to a three-run lead, we got the game-ending strikeout that we needed…but our catcher was unable to get a glove on the ball, and the pitch went to the backstop as the batter reached first with another runner crossing the plate. 7-5. The next hitter doubled off the wall to complete the unthinkable comeback, driving in two to tie the game at seven. We had just blown a seven-run lead in the last inning of a game, and eventually lost after giving up a three-spot in extras. This was the kind of loss that could stay with a team for a long time.

It was my job as manager to make sure it didn’t.

Very rarely would I ever address the team after a game. Over the course of the regular season, it might have happened five times – maybe. Post-game speeches just weren’t my style; we would generally talk about the previous night’s game before stretch the following day. But after a loss like this, with another game to start 30 minutes later, it was a no-brainer to speak to the group about what had just happened, as I had to make sure the guys got that game out of their system and move on. With players shell-shocked, sitting quietly in front of their lockers in the clubhouse, most with their heads down wondering what had just happened, my quick team address went something like this:

“This was bad, there’s no sugarcoating it. But it’s not one person’s fault. We win as a team, and we lose as a team. We move on as a team. Right now. The best part about that game? It’s over. In 30 minutes, we get the opportunity to right the ship.”

And we did…

Not only did we win game two of the doubleheader – we went on to win four games in a row, part of a run in which we would win seven of our next 10 games, putting ourselves in a great position to close out the first half of the season on top of our division. June 15: Columbia Fireflies 7, Greenville Drive 2

The 140-game South Atlantic League season is broken up into two, 70-game halves. The winners of each division in each half go to the playoffs. With four games to go in the first half, we were clinging to a half-game lead over Columbia, who came to town red hot, winning something like 12 of their previous 13 games. We had played extremely well over the course of the first 65 games of the half, pacing the division in first place from Opening Day on. If we took care of business on our end, we wouldn’t have to worry about what anyone else was doing below us, and that playoff ticket would be ours.

Well, we didn’t take care of business that night, and for the first time in more than two months, we found ourselves in second place with three games to go, on the outside of postseason baseball looking in. A three-game series awaited us on the road in Rome to play what was arguably the most talented team in the league. A thrilling comeback win on the final game of the half gave us a series win, and – with some help from Charleston against Columbia – the division title.

We were going to the playoffs.

July 7: Lexington Legends 5, Greenville Drive 2 (PPD, eight innings)

We stumbled a bit out of the gate in the second half of the season. Perhaps we were tired from the way we had to play the final two weeks under pressure to win the first half; but while playing the same brand of baseball we had been the entire season, we just couldn’t find ourselves on the winning side of the scoreboard like we had so often in the months prior. Our record, which stood at 4-10 going into this game, wasn’t a huge concern for me because we were going about our business professionally and competing in a similar manner as we had all season long… that was, until this game.

As we sleepwalked into the eighth inning, we found ourselves down 5-2, playing with very little energy, and even less focus. As a team, we had just one hit for the game, and it certainly wasn’t Clayton Kershaw or Corey Kluber who was on the mound. It wasn’t “just one of those days;” we flat-out were not competitive. Unfortunately, these days are bound to happen over the course of a 140-game season. In the bottom of the eighth, as the skies opened up and the ocean began to fall from above, our players’ enthusiasm was renewed. As I sat on one end of the dugout, I thought to myself, had we had this kind of life when the game was actually being played, we’d probably be in a better position. The energy that this rain delay brought out in our team frustrated me.

And then, when the game had been officially called, a few guys thought it would be a good idea to go tarp sliding. After we had just lost a game. After we had gotten just one hit. Well, needless to say, this prompted a post-game “speech.” That “speech” had a clear message: even if it’s just for one day out of 140, a lack of energy, focus, competitiveness, and professionalism was not acceptable. Not even for one day.

The next day would be the start of a seven-game winning streak, and a stretch of winning ten of our next twelve contests.

August 22: Columbia Fireflies 14, Greenville Drive 7

In one of those days that was, truly, “just one of those days,” we were getting beat handily by Columbia, down 14-0 as we went to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. A Rome-like, miracle comeback was hardly in the cards in a game where two touchdowns would merely tie things up. But from the third base coach’s box, I witnessed something pretty incredible during our last two times at bat, which spoke volumes about who we were as a team.

Down 14-0, with six outs to go and everyone – myself included – tired and hungry, as the post-game spread was getting cold, we didn’t give away a single at bat. Our competitiveness in the box during those final two innings was as good as it had been all season long. We were disciplined and made the pitchers work. We found ways to get on base beyond just base hits. We got clutch hits to keep the line moving, and the game going. Eventually, the last out was recorded, and we had lost the game by seven runs when the dust had settled. But despite the box score that would show us losing, I remember thinking to myself how awesome it was to witness our guys truly play all nine innings, which was our Modus Operandi all year long.

In a game where we were dead in the water, the life we showed in those last two frames carried over to the next day, which put us on a run of eight straight wins and got us on a trajectory to peak at the exact time of year when we needed to: right into the playoffs. If someone asked me to describe this collective group of 49 players in one word, that would be simple: resilient. Time and time again, we got knocked down, and time and time again, we got back up, and responded.

As we moved through the playoffs, I had my “back against the wall,” or, “world against us” speech all ready to go, with those four aforementioned games as its backdrop. This team was battle-tested and as well prepared to respond as any group of players I had ever been around. It was who we were; it was what we did. And I was ready to give that speech to make sure every single guy in our clubhouse knew that.

But in the end, these guys played so well that I would never have to give it.

The natural ebb and flow of our game will always present adversity. Often times, we cannot control how, when, or even why that hardship will hit. What we can control is our response. When many others would have been crippled by it, in 2017, the Greenville Drive used adversity as a springboard that enabled us to leave our own mark on a franchise’s history. We responded better than any coach could ever hope for. We responded all the way to a ring.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.