PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Jan. 10, 2014) - Over the years, Rutgers baseball has seen many great players and people come through the program. ScarletKnights.com caught up with some alums to see where they are now and how they look back on their time with the Scarlet Knights.
A member of the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame and a two-time All-America shortstop for the Scarlet Knights from 1997-2000, Darren Fenster starts off the series. The program leader in career hits (315), doubles (65), at bats (818) and season single hits (101 in 2000), he was a four-year starter and part of two BIG EAST conference regular season and tournament championships as a player.
As a senior in 2000, Fenster was a consensus First Team All-American, hitting .433. That year, Rutgers posted its first-ever 40-win season and was ranked as high as No. 14 nationally. The 2000 BIG EAST Player of the Year, NCBWA District II Player of the Year, and captain and MVP of a team that featured three future Major Leaguers and a first round draft choice, Fenster was also a finalist for the prestigious Dick Howser Trophy, presented annually to the nation's top collegiate player. Drafted in the 12th round by the Kansas City Royals in 2000, Fenster advanced to the Double-A level in the Royals system before he suffered a career-ending injury.
Following his playing days, Fenster returned to Rutgers to become Director of Baseball Operations for head coach Fred Hill and helped the program win the 2007 BIG EAST title. He then became an assistant coach for RU before moving to the professional level in the Boston Red Sox system. In 2012, he was the hitting coach for the Greenville Drive and was given his first managing opportunity in 2013 for the Gulf Coast Red Sox. He took advantage by leading the team to the championship series, earning a promotion back to Greenville as the manager for 2014.
Rutgers Baseball Alumni Q&A
1 . How would you describe your first season as a manager in professional baseball? What did you learn?
My first year managing was a great experience on so many different levels far beyond just our won-loss record. While we did have a lot of success in our league, winning our division along with the first round of the playoffs before falling in the championship series, the focus in the minor leagues is more on player development than it is wins and losses, so to witness our guys progress over the course of the season was very special to see. Being around the a group of very diverse players from completely different backgrounds for as many as six straight months, one of the biggest challenges was finding a way to connect with each one of them on a personal level, to build a trust that will enable us to help them develop as players. I was very fortunate to have a great staff around me, who collectively helped create an environment where guys wanted to work, wanted to improve, and ultimately found success in doing so both individually but also as a team.
2. How did your experience at Rutgers as a student and athlete help prepare you for life?
Without question, I would not be where I am today had it not been for the four years I spent at Rutgers as a student-athlete. My core values as a person (and coach) were either first instilled or strengthened from the culture that was a part of the Rutgers baseball program when I arrived on campus. Playing for coach Hill helped me understand the true meaning of hard work, to go along with working with a purpose, and his belief in teaching responsibility with accountability is something that will stay with me the rest of my life.
3. What advice would you give someone considering playing baseball at Rutgers?
Put simply, Rutgers is a special place for special people. Having been a part of some of the best years in the program's history, I have witnessed first hand everything that the program can be, and there's no reason why it cannot return to that level in the future. While the program might not necessarily have the glitz and glamour of other schools around the country, my teammates and I always played with that chip on our shoulder that came from being a Northeast team, and we prided ourselves on coming out of the cold weather to be able compete on a national level. The program has everything in place not only to be successful as a team, but also to develop individually, as evidenced by the many who have moved on from Rutgers to professional baseball.
4. What are some of your best memories as a player and coach at Rutgers?
As a player, winning BIG EAST titles in 1998 and 2000 still remain some of the best memories of my life. That team in '98 was a great group that was led by upperclassmen who had been a part of the program for four, and some even five years, and those guys set the tone for our success by the way the went about their business each and every day. We wound up winning our opening game over Seton Hall in the conference tournament that year in 18 innings, where our third string catcher Joe Waleck - who had something like 30 at bats on the year - hit a walk-off home run, which actually bailed me out from being the goat in that game, after making an error with two outs in the ninth that would have ended the game. We then went to a Regional at Florida State, and beat SEC-power Auburn in the opener there by scoring six runs in the ninth, shocking just about everyone in college baseball besides ourselves. Being around those older guys in 1998 enabled myself and others to lead in the same way two years later in 2000, where it became our responsibility to continue that same culture of hard work and winning above all else that the Mike Mundy's, Paul Gallucci's, Shawn Williams' and Keith Connolly's of the program instilled in us, and allowed guys like Kenny Ulrich, Jeff Marciniak and Barry Walsh to pass the torch on to the younger guys in a very similar manner. We won the conference tournament that year over Seton Hall, 1-0, behind then-freshman Bobby Brownlie's complete game in what was one of the best pitched games I ever had the privilege of playing behind. Anyone who ever has been a part of a championship pile-on probably holds those memories as high as I do.
From my six years as a coach, our 2007 club had a special season. While everyone will remember Todd Frazier's unbelievable year, that team was eerily similar to those I played for in 1998 and 2000, led by upperclassmen who placed winning above all else. Without guys like Mike Bionde, Dave Williams, Tim Querns, Steve Healing and Sean Spicer, we don't come close to winning the league. We did have one incredible comeback win that year over UConn, which is a story I still love to tell to this day. After being down 9-1 going into the seventh, we had drawn within one with the game 10-9 heading to the bottom of the ninth. With the tying run already on, one of the slower guys on the roster, Nick Stravakis, drew a walk as the go-ahead run with Todd Frazier coming up. Coach Hill wanted to put in a pinch runner, and was scanning the dugout to put someone in, as Todd stepped into the box. Everyone in the dugout - including coach Hill - was yelling at him to step out so we could get a runner in for Nick, but Todd either didn't hear, or more-likely just said to himself that Nick's speed wouldn't matter if he hit the ball over the fence, which is exactly what he did in the very first pitch he saw. All season long, guys had a knack of coming through in the clutch, and Todd was the epitome of that.
Above all, the things that last from my time at Rutgers - whether as a player or coach - are the relationships. There will always be a great sense of pride that comes with being a part of the Rutgers baseball program, as it's a common bond that connects so many from different times and different eras.
5. What are your goals moving forward?
Being a part of the Boston Red Sox has been a very surreal experience for me over the two years, and much like during my time at Rutgers, there is a true sense of community with everyone working towards the same thing, which for us, is winning the World Series. Needless to say, this past season was amazing on so many different level, culminating with that championship run in October. For as far as some spots in the minor leagues may be from Boston - both geographically and metaphorically - our GM, Ben Cherington, and our Major League staff has done an incredible job of making everyone in the organization feel like a big part of what was being accomplished at the Major League level, which is not an easy thing to do. With that in mind, I look forward to continuing my role in developing players that will eventually be able to help us win in Boston. As a coach in the minor league, the impact we can have early on in a player's career is great, as we are the ones responsible for setting their foundation as professionals, which is a very empowering role in the grand scheme of what these guys all hope to accomplish. For 2014, I'll be managing the Greenville Drive, our A-ball club where I began my career with the Sox as hitting coach two years ago, and am excited about the new challenges that will come with working at a higher level than where I was last season.