Lost Minor League season leaves Jersey guys longing for games

By Bob Behre | July 3, 2020

Rutgers grad Darren Fenster is a Minor League Coordinator with the Red Sox.

It never truly looked that hopeful in regard to a Minor League Baseball season being played at any level.

But hopes and dreams were officially brought to heel on Tuesday when Major League Baseball announced it would not provide any players to stock Minor League rosters this summer. COVID-19 had won yet another battle in its on-going war against baseball.

While Major League Baseball opened camps this week with the hope of a truncated 60-game season beginning on July 23, clubs’ minor league staffs scramble to put together some semblance of a developmental plan to keep their prospects both on task and on a discernible path to the major leagues.

“In the last month or so, reality set in,” said New Jersey native Darren Fenster, a minor league coordinator with the Boston Red Sox. “There are only so many days on the calendar. We knew at some point the idea of having a season wasn’t going to be viable.”

Fenster and his staff and minor league players throughout the country continued to work and prepare for a season they knew may never happen. They are now faced with finding a way to stay fresh while hoping their organizations find a way to get them back on the field before too long.

“We are hoping to put together some type of instructional league in the late summer or early fall,” says Fenster, who had a remarkable career at Middletown South High School and Rutgers University before the infielder reached Double-A in the Kansas City Royals organization. Each year, Major League organizations run an end-of-the-season three-week Instructional League, which is more of a mini camp for teams’ best prospects.

But, perhaps, a more comprehensive instructional league, one that rivals the 65-game league that ceased in the early 1990s, would reignite the developmental process for hundreds of minor leaguers. “Guys have completely lost a year of development,” says Fenster. “Hopefully we can get them back on the field in some capacity before too long.”

(See Feature story on Darren Fenster from Jan. 22).

The Red Sox, like the rest of 30 Major League teams, have had nothing but remote contact and introductory communications with their 2020 draftees, already a month into their professional careers. Imagine being drafted by a Major League team and having nowhere to report?

“In our case,” says Fenster, “we had an intro via Zoom calls to welcome our draftees to the organization. There is no handbook on this kind of stuff.”

The job of a minor league coordinator is a busy one and entails formulating instruction that expedites the development of a team’s prospects with the ultimate goal of their ascension to the Major League team.

Former Diamond Jack Anthony Volpe, like all minor leaguers, longs for a game to play.

“We are putting together an eight-week online developmental program specific to each player’s area of need,” says Fenster.

Minor League players will have to get past what Fenster calls the “deflating news” about their canceled season and find a way to continue their development as best they can.

“You’re hoping guys are self motivated and we will do everything we can from our end under difficult circumstances,” said Fenster. “Once the Major League season gets going it will help the guys, knowing they have a game to watch. And we’ll be able to use examples from those games to further their instruction and development.”

Anthony Volpe, a former Diamond Jack out of Diamond Nation, hasn’t played a baseball game in nearly 11 months after being drafted in the first round last June by the Yankees. Volpe, who helped lead Delbarton to the NJSIAA Non-Public A state championship in 2019, played 34 games with the Rookie League Pulaski Yankees of the Appalachian League. He was sent home with mononucleosis in mid-August, a week before the league playoffs.

The pandemic has hit home for Fenster, who battles asthma, as does his 76 year-old father. “I like to think I”m in good shape, but who knows how the virus would affect me if I got it.” 

Fenster said he was deeply affected by the news of Ben Luderer’s death. Luderer, a Don Bosco Prep grad recruited by Rutgers when Fenster was an assistant there, died on March 30 at the age of 30 after a short battle with COVID-19. “Luderer, the baseball coach at Cliffside Park, was the catcher on the 2008 Don Bosco team that was ranked No. 1 in the country. Luderer also played for NJ Super 17 out of Jack Cust Baseball Academy and later played for Marist College.

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