VU Wins It All: Hope Is No Longer Dangerous

Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and an April of agony. South Carolina, the SEC Tournament, and a May of mumbling and might-have-beens. The 2014 Vanderbilt men's baseball team walked through the darkness of doubt. It trudged through the valley of vexation, wondering why in the world it couldn't put all the pieces together. Now look at where coach Tim Corbin's team stands.


Hope is a very dangerous thing.

The saying isn't new, but boy, is it true. The human person doesn't have to suffer, after all. If one accepts the limitations of a transitory life and the brokenness of a complex world, one isn't disappointed or crushed. The mind doesn't create despair. The deepest part of the self doesn't feel weighed down by a burden which falls upon the heart. If one embraces everything that's hurtful and miserable and black about this earthly sojourn, reality will never fall short of expectations. If expectations are always met, the human person will calmly and matter-of-factly move through life, no matter what the circumstances.

Yet, the human person was made to hope, to be an aspirational creature. Human beings were meant to strive, to dream, to do things better than the previous generation, to advance the great ship of society in some way during this precious pocket of existence in the larger run of time. Human beings were meant to love, to be in relationship. The attempt to forge a relationship with another person always and unavoidably invites risk-taking and failure, but those shadows are always accompanied by the angels known as hope and possibility. We wouldn't be human – in the fullness of what it means to be human – if we didn't try to make things better, if we didn't want things to be better than they currently are.

Rene Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." On a broader level, it is accurate to say, "We hope, therefore we're human." We try to do what we can, knowing that the larger human project is an unfinished symphony and that what we start, we might not get to finish – future generations might have to bring our work to its natural conclusion, and in many ways, a lot of what we do will go on for millions of years. We will want to love others. We will want to play catch with our sons and daughters. We will want to leave a legacy worth passing on to our friends. We will want to create a useful example or invent something, be it an idea or a device, that future inhabitants of Earth can benefit from.

Yes, to hope is to bring disappointment and suffering to the table, right alongside us. Yet, the risk of the suffering is the price we pay for wanting to do as much as possible in the time we're given. This is how life works. It is why former MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti said – in our pre-College World Series commentary – that "Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart."

The many heartaches that are part of being a sports fan – especially for a team (Chicago Cubs) or a sports program (Vanderbilt) with a relentlessly tortured history – are poured out to the skies in the hope that someday, one day, someway, the investment of emotion will be rewarded. All the "almost" and "maybes" and "could haves" and "so closes" are muttered with great exasperation and pain, all because the desire to finally reach the mountaintop is so intense.

The shattering of one's sports dreams creates a sick feeling in the stomach. Waking up the morning after a devastating loss reminds the sports fan that, yes, the horrible events of the previous night really did happen. The encounter with disappointment sticks and the sensation is truly awful, but the awareness of that awfulness is not entirely bad.

Why? It tells the person that he or she cares, and cares deeply, about something. That's as healthy a human instinct as we can have, provided that the object of our enthusiasm is an appreciably wholesome or innocent one. Caring is a manifestation of our life force, even if the effort involved in caring leads to a stomach-punch loss against Kentucky in basketball, South Carolina in football, or Tennessee in women's basketball. Knowing that our energies can get swept up in something, even if an ultimately trivial pursuit – our moral wholeness doesn't depend on who wins or loses sporting events, after all – lets us know that we're alive, that we possess vitality, that there's something to live for.

We live with the reality of loss because, as beings capable of love, we always feel there's a possibility of the perfect marriage, of the happy ending, of the moment when, no, the story doesn't progress the same way it always did in the past.

* * *

Wednesday night in Omaha, Nebraska, the story of Vanderbilt athletics – not just the baseball team – finally found that one blessed occurrence, that blissful and beautiful union between hope and reality. Finally, in baseball but also in men's athletics and major team sports of either gender, Vanderbilt was able to say to the United States that it was number one.

Number one. In the country. At the end of a national postseason tournament. In an event televised to the whole nation on ESPN. With a major segment of American sports fans watching and live-tweeting.

Yes, it finally happened, and now, all the pain that has gone before the Commodore Nation can be appreciated that much more. It was all a precursor to this moment when, for once, the things that went wrong weren't able to upend all the things that a Vanderbilt team did correctly. The standard plotline is that Vanderbilt witnesses something which sabotages its plans, but this time, a plot twist intervened.

It's not what any Vanderbilt fan of any age, race or creed is used to… but it's real. It's real, and it can never, ever be taken away from these Dores or from the VU family around the globe.

It's only fitting that this title came from the depths of disillusionment and drift, two very familiar relatives for this community known as Vanderbilt athletics.

* * *

You recall all the series the Dores lost in April. You remember the limp finish to the regular season, closely followed by the spirit-sapping SEC Tournament that left Vanderbilt players shaking their heads. How was this team even going to get to the College World Series, let alone win it? You wouldn't have gotten strong odds on the Dores at that point. Yet, the regionals created as many surprises as they have in quite some time. Bats that had been contained for much of the SEC season erupted against Stanford in a home-field super regional. In Omaha, the lead-up to the three-game CWS Final was completed by that most precarious of survival acts in baseball, the extra-inning triumph in a low-scoring one-run game. Just one big bop or blast from the Texas Longhorns in the final few frames of that 10-inning contest would have sent Vanderbilt home, but the Commodores – no longer the team that fell short for much of the spring – persevered. They had become the different team they always knew they could become.

Then, against Virginia, the team's often-elusive mixture of fortune and excellence – the formula for any championship season – turned into sweet and real substance on the field.

Had John Kilichowski not redirected a comebacker in the top of the eighth inning of Game 1, Vanderbilt might not have hoisted the trophy. That was the stroke of good luck the team needed. Yet, great teams don't just receive luck – they make use of it and multiply its benefits. Vanderbilt's bullpen held onto its lead following that eighth-inning out on Monday night. The Commodores shut the door on Virginia and enabled Tuesday night's loss to be a season-prolonging event instead of a season-ender.

Whereas Game 1 against Virginia was aided by a big break, Game 3 was more about players carrying each other and doing their jobs.

Adam Ravenelle doesn't hit home runs. John Norwood doesn't get huge ground-ball outs. Baseball is like that – it's a team game, but it is built on the back of individual feats and contributions in the heat of specific, contained confrontations. Norwood crushed the eighth-inning home run that put the Dores in position to make history, but Ravenelle then made the dinger stand up by getting two massive ground balls from Virginia hitters with the bases loaded. Ravenelle was placed in a save situation because of Norwood, but Norwood's bomb made the difference only because Ravenelle preserved the scoreboard lead Norwood created. Baseball – played more often than our nation's other foremost team sports – demands the ability to win the one-run game, especially since postseason baseball magnifies the value of each and every pitch, regardless of the level of competition.

Vanderbilt's three final wins in Omaha – the one that punched the ticket to the finals; the one that gave the team a leg up in the finals; and the one that brought home the national championship – were all by one run.

It was – and is – perfect.

It was perfect because nothing about this championship was ever supposed to be easy, especially when it emerges from the misery of late April and the nothingness of an entire university's scarred and snake-bitten sports history.

It is perfect because it places Vanderbilt on the right side of the conspicuously small margins that are part of big-time competitive athletics. For generations and generations, Vanderbilt fans have hoped to get the bounces and breaks to go their way, with a VU team doing just enough to turn good fortune into a great result.

Now, all those hopes and what-ifs and "one day, it will be different" yearnings have been met with sweet victory. It IS different. It IS rare. It IS indeed something that Vanderbilt fans don't know how to process or react to. When you've been there before, you know how to act, but Vanderbilt fans haven't been there.

Three one-run wins, two of them in elimination games? Does that really happen to a Vanderbilt team in a major college sport?

Yes, Virginia – there is a Santa Claus… for Vanderbilt sports.

Yet, that Christmas-morning feeling VU fans have right now – and will continue to enjoy throughout the summer – isn't just something that's chalked up to the fates. It was made with toil, sweat, and a great deal of composure from the entire roster. It was made with patience in the bad times and confidence in these good times over the past four weeks. It was made within the course of one season, yes, but it was also made over the course of the 11 years in which Tim Corbin has transformed everything about Vanderbilt baseball.

In many ways, that last point is the one which should bring Commodore fans the greatest and most lasting kinds of satisfactions, when generations of Vanderbilt alumni share this story with their children and grandchildren. Vanderbilt baseball didn't just emerge from the rubble of the midseason mess and the SEC Tournament stumble. VU used to be a nobody as a program before Corbin came along. Now, Vanderbilt is not just an individual somebody, though. It is THE somebody in college baseball, the team that stands on the top of the heap.

King of the hill.

A-number one.

There's no suffering, no unfulfilled expectations, no gap between the promise of the future and the reality of the present. Not this time. Not for Vanderbilt baseball. Not for the university, as it basks in a moment of unique – and total – triumph.

Hundreds of baseball teams believe and trust and work and sweat and endure the ups and downs of a supremely perplexing sport, one in which a batter who fails seven times out of 10 is great at what he does, and a batter who fails six times out of 10 is a top-tier immortal in the annals of history. It's not as though Virginia and Texas and other College World Series competitors didn't try really hard or put everything into this season. Vanderbilt, though, got the extra big knock and the final few precious outs that separate a dugout celebration

The Dores did that extra one percent which is required to win baseball championships, the extra one percent a community of VU fans had been hoping for over the course of many decades.

Hope is a very dangerous thing, but in that rare moment when hope is fulfilled, it becomes the greatest feeling a human person can possibly have. Vanderbilt – the baseball team, the school, the global family – is absorbing that feeling right now. Nothing is left to be done but to celebrate… and to slowly savor why it is that all the heartbreaks of a million past seasons across all major team sports, men and women, were worth it.

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