Just a couple of weeks ago, we were on the edges of our seats, watching enthusiastically as baseball teams from the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University headed to Omaha for the College World Series.
Unfortunately, UT was eliminated early. Then, when North Carolina State had to forfeit because six players tested positive for COVID-19, Vanderbilt was hit with negative press and social media before losing their final two games and the championship to Mississippi State University.
I feel for Vanderbilt’s coach Tim Corbin and his Commodores. Despite their loss, this is still a great team — one of the last two teams standing in 2021! That is an amazing accomplishment. Of course fans in Nashville would have liked to see them perform better, but in the team’s defense — and as Coach Corbin had noted early in the season — being touted as the 2019 “reigning national champions” was not the best thing for this group. Many of his younger players lacked experience, especially after most of the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic. Kumar Rocker was the only starter from the 2019 championship in this year’s series — and as Corbin stated after the loss, “getting through the Regional was emotional … the Super Regional was emotional. And then as we got through this, we had to navigate certain situations. And I think it caught up with us.”
One of those situations was NC State being pulled from the tournament by the NCAA. In bizarre fashion, Vanderbilt was villainized for the NCAA decision, and with media outlets making comments that a Vandy win would be marked with “an asterisk,” it’s little wonder they weren’t on top of their game when they took the diamond.
Add to that pressure the fact that Mississippi State had so many Bulldogs fans in the stands — it appeared more like a home game in Starkville, Miss., but louder, in Omaha’s larger facility. Coach Corbin referred to it as a “groundswell,” and even Mississippi State’s coach Chris Lemonis said he had to stay in his hotel room because Mississippi fans had “taken over the city.”
This loss is a hard one for Vanderbilt. Despite the disappointment, Coach Corbin realizes that his players will grow from this experience, that they’ll get better. He also recognizes they didn’t always play well — even if they played hard. “We played a lot of tough baseball games out here,” The Tennessean quoted him as saying. “Didn’t always play well, but we played tough baseball. And that certainly is going to help the kids moving forward.”
Let’s revisit some moments that were great — moments that illustrate why Vanderbilt has a baseball program that is very much worth talking about these days. Prior to 2002, the school’s baseball program was not a hot topic of conversation. That changed when Charlie Hawkins generously donated $2 million to Vanderbilt so they could start to work on what is now Hawkins Field. That new stadium was a turning point for Vanderbilt. With this great facility, Vanderbilt had a foundation to attract great talent — and great coaches like Tim Corbin. In my mind, Hawkins Field was the beginning, and helped Coach Corbin create the great program he has now.
Since Corbin took over the program in 2003, he has taken the Commodores to every NCAA tournament but one. I love the opening of Corbin’s Wikipedia page: “Since becoming the coach of Vanderbilt in 2003, Corbin has transformed the Commodores from a perennial Southeastern Conference doormat to an elite program.”
That elite program is being fostered by a coach who cares about his team, not only as a whole but as individuals — and that can be seen in how hard the team works to get the job done. And though they didn’t win this year, the Commodores still have two CWS Championships under their belt, with more likely to come.
The controversy around NC State does not diminish the fact that Vanderbilt has a great deal to be proud of. They can be proud that they have one of the best baseball programs in the country. They can be proud that they worked hard and made it all the way to CWS once again. They can be proud that they weathered the media beating and showed true class even in defeat. Their show of character, even in their heartbreaking loss to Mississippi State, is the true demonstration of what winners they are.
Congratulations, Commodores! We’re still proud.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.