What the heck is going on here? Great Scott, is this Corbin guy trying to turn Vanderbilt into a (gasp) baseball school? (Hey, when Joe Biddle is actually writing something positive about Vanderbilt, you know something's got to be up.)
Last weekend as Coach Tim Corbin's Commodores were taking yet another SEC series from a nationally ranked team-- in this case the No. 8 Auburn Tigers-- Vandy fans universally seemed to be rediscovering the joys of the national pastime. On a positively splendiferous Sunday afternoon, 1,433 gathered at "The Hawk" to see the Commodores outduel the Plainsmen in the rubber game, 3-0.
For a brief two-and-a-half hours, those 1,433 patrons thought they had died and gone to baseball heaven. John Kaye and Zach Simpson blasted solo homers. Three Commodore hurlers-- all freshman, duly noted-- combined to shut out the Tigers, who hadn't been blanked all season. Plenty of promotions by the Vandy's much-maligned Athletics Department kept the crowd entertained and the afternoon atmosphere lively.
Just after reliever Jensen Lewis got Auburn's Bobby Huddleston to fly out to clinch the win and the series, a fired-up Corbin turned and tipped his cap to the crowd, who roared its approval-- a crowd which had been a big part of the series win. For one heady, electric moment, Charles Hawkins field was transformed into a Field of Dreams, and an SEC East pennant was in sight.
Who deserves credit for this remarkable resurgence?
Certainly the hiring of the fiery Corbin has infused needed energy to a program that has languished in the SEC basement for years. Let us not forget that coaching the baseball Commodores may the most difficult job in the SEC. With baseball's scholarship limitations and Vanderbilt's steep tuition, Corbin must not only manage the team's day-to-day operations-- he must manage his 11.7 annual scholarships in much the same way NFL and NBA GM's manage their salary caps. On top of that, he must contend annually with pro teams trying to lure away his best recruits.
But hey, at Vanderbilt it's always been that way. At Vanderbilt, a coach must fight just a little bit harder, eke just a little more effort out of his talent. Corbin welcomes the impossible. He approaches his quixotic task with a contagious enthusiasm that's more than refreshing-- it's downright inspirational. (After Sunday's win and Corbin's tip of the cap, the fans around me were just about ready to come out of their seats and suit up for him.)
Vandy's rookie bench coach has built his team around defense and a stable of capable pitchers, all the while holding out hope that the hitting would eventually come around. Of late, it has.
In Charles Hawkins Field, the baseball team has been given a park that well suits its home team. It's a fan-friendly park that's light years ahead of the afterthought that sat on the same site for years prior. In the sport of baseball, unlike any other team sport, the atmosphere surrounding the ballpark is as much a part of the fan experience as any other aspect. In "The Hawk", the campus finally has an edifice that's conducive to winning, and that can lure in the sidewalk fan.
Used to be, you could drag into the old park any time you pleased, and sit just about anywhere. The home field advantage was next to non-existent. Nowadays, with the improvement of the team that calls it home, and a crowd that's catching on rapidly, it's fast becoming a nasty place for opposing teams to visit.
The surprising SEC Tournament championship by Vandy's men's tennis team, coupled with the welcome arrival of Corbinball, has given Vandy fans reason to stick out their chests as the weather turns warmer.
The Commodores (22-20, 10-11) head to Athens this weekend for a three-game series with the last-place Georgia Bulldogs (22-22, 5-16). In fact, all three of the Diamond Dores' remaining opponents appear vulnerable-- Vandy finishes the SEC slate with nine games against Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. (A word to the wise: better call McGugin today about tickets for that Vols series.) Not to jinx anything, but with a bounce here or there, a first-in-the-East finish at this point appears eminently do-able.
That would be a wonderful feather in Corbin's ball cap, but for a team that hasn't qualified for the league tournament since 1996, the more meaningful goal this year is to get to Hoover, Ala., site of the SEC Tournament. Anything beyond that would be gravy. To do so, the Dores probably have to finish no lower than second in the East.
Then what? The giddy excitement of postseason play in baseball is something Vandy fans haven't experienced in a long, long time.
One wouldn't think Vandy has the type of team to do much beyond getting to that tournament-- but hey, get there, and who knows? "That Corbin Guy" is slowly making believers out of a lot of us.
Photos courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics and Neil Brake