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Tara Sullivan

How the Olympic experience moved coach Darren Fenster to pause his duties with the Red Sox

Darren Fenster, the Red Sox' minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator, will coach third base for Team USA at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Darren Fenster, the Red Sox' minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator, will coach third base for Team USA at the Olympics in Tokyo.USA Baseball

Amid his current baseball peers, Darren Fenster is the youngster. Though he’s turning the corner on a decade with the Red Sox organization, the 42-year-old is keenly aware he barely touches the years his fellow Olympic coaches have put into the game.

Manager Mike Scioscia was a 1976 draft pick who played for the Dodgers for 13 years and managed the Angels for another 19, winning a World Series in 2002. Bench coach Jerry Weinstein began his coaching career in 1966. Pitching coach Dave Wallace has spent 47 years in professional baseball. Hitting/first base coach Ernie Young, a gold medal winner himself, has been with Team USA for 22 years. Bullpen coach Roly de Armas is in his 11th stint as a Team USA assistant.

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And joining them is Fenster, making his Team USA debut, taking his spot in the third base coaching box with ears and eyes wide open.

“The staff is a bunch of baseball lifers. To be part of that group on a daily basis, the way they see the game, the way they’ve handled situations over the years, I should be recording it,” Fenster said in a recent conversation, an open window of time from when Team USA advanced through qualifying to earn its berth at the Olympics, to the day it would board the plane in time for its first game, scheduled for Friday July 30 at 6 a.m. Eastern time against Israel.

“I’m going back with this wealth of knowledge they poured into me,” Fenster said.

Darren Fenster, after dealing with minor leaguers in the Red Sox organization, is the young guy on the Team USA coaching staff.
Darren Fenster, after dealing with minor leaguers in the Red Sox organization, is the young guy on the Team USA coaching staff.Courtesy of Darren Fenster

And after the obvious — the honor of representing our great nation and the goal of helping to win a gold medal — that experience is what moved Fenster to pause his role as minor league outfield and base running coordinator with the Sox and accept the invitation to join Team USA’s staff. When he returns to his day job, he’s back to being the old guy again, ready to impart all of his knowledge on the organization’s greatest assets, its prospects. That will no doubt include what he absorbs in Tokyo.

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“I love the aspect of so many guys from so many different backgrounds, different teams, coming together for this common purpose, to see it happen the way it did in the qualifiers and how we hope to replicate it at the Olympics, that translates into so many parts of life,” Fenster said. “To see it happen organically here, I hope going back into work with the Red Sox that I can bring something back and it makes me a better coach, makes the organization better.”

Fenster has moved through the Red Sox organization in various capacities, building on a playing career that included two All-America years at Rutgers University and five seasons in the Royals’ minor league system, and a coaching one that began back at Rutgers before joining the Sox 10 years ago, first as a hitting coach for the High-A Greenville Drive and eventually as Greenville’s manager and then manager of the Double A Portland Sea Dogs.

Fenster’s willingness to dive in and learn new things earned him notice. A career infielder who became an outfield expert. An arduous student of the base running game, whose intersection with the famously aggressive Scioscia will surely add to that mental inventory. A dedicated builder of culture, who spent much of his pandemic time working on a book about leadership. Fenster is, at his core, a teacher, one who is so effective because he never stopped being a learner.

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“First things first, he’s amazing, an amazing coach, a great person, not only paying attention to what’s going on on the minor league side of it but with our big league club, as well,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “I’m very happy for him. He’s surrounded by some great people and going to represent the USA. We’re very proud of him. We miss him, but at the same time, that opportunity is not something we would go against. And the fact that we have Triston Casas and Jack Lopez over there too, we’re very proud of them.”

The two Red Sox prospects are in Japan with the likes of former major league stars Todd Frazier and David Robertson, as well as other minor leaguers like themselves. Newly promoted Red Sox outfielder Jarren Duran helped Team USA qualify for Tokyo before joining the big league club. Fenster couldn’t help but enjoy every moment they all spent together in qualifying, when he was struck by just how much every at-bat, every pitch and every routine play carried such weight. They say that’s true all the time in sports, but with Team USA on the front of the jerseys and an Olympic berth in sight, it was truer than ever.

Triston Casas is one of two Red Sox' farmhands playing for Team USA.
Triston Casas is one of two Red Sox' farmhands playing for Team USA.Mark Brown/Getty

“When you’re in the minor leagues or in the big leagues to an extent, in college, guys obviously, they’re playing a game to win, but it’s not always the priority,” Fenster said. “In high school, you’re playing to get a college scholarship, in college you’re hoping to get drafted, in the minors you’re working to move up and get to the big leagues, in the big leagues you’re playing for the next contract.

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“There are a lot of different variables beyond winning that motivate guys. In that qualifier, I can honestly tell you that all 26 guys, the only thing they cared about was winning. Nobody was playing for a contract, for a brand, whatever guys might play for. That was just so different from the majority of environments that sports has. I think Mike Scioscia put it best, where it felt like we were playing Game 7s of the World Series every time out.”

The aim now? To reach another Game 7 atmosphere in Japan, and to bring that experience home to Boston.

“We couldn’t be prouder of Darren,” Red Sox president Sam Kennedy said, “and the experience to coach in the Olympic Games on an international stage will make him, our players, and our organization even better.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.