By BO CARTER
FORT WORTH, Texas, July 10, 2014 — The dust has cleared after the recent College World Series in Omaha, and Mighty Casey (er, Vanderbilt) did not strike out. Amazingly to many, including alumni like myself (I’m a 1974 graduate), Vandy came away with its first NCAA men’s championship in 124 years of intercollegiate athletics.
Ironically, head baseball coach Tim Corbin, who has guided VU to an unprecedented 10 NCAA appearances in 12 years at the helm, gave a “you have to visualize a title” pep talk to Vandy’s only previous NCAA championship squad – the 2007 women’s bowling team.
Yet another historic irony is that one of Corbin’s long-ago predecessors as VU baseball coach was Grantland Rice, who became one of America’s favorite sportswriters in the first half of the 20th century and is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Rice, a Vanderbilt alumnus who also played baseball as a student, was the coach of the 1908 team — which closed the year with a respectable 12-8 record — while he was also serving a hitch as sports editor of the Nashville Tennessean newspaper.
Bo Carter is another writer who is a Vanderbilt University graduate. He has had a long career in college media relations, including time in sports media relations for the Big 12 Conference. He is now at Texas Wesleyan University while also serving as a consultant and correspondent for the National Football Foundation.
On the night the 2014 championship was recently won in Omaha, some 2,000-plus VU partisans lounged at Vanderbilt Stadium on the campus in Nashville, and cheered-on the diamond squad on the big LED scoreboard screen. Somehow the Commodores edged favored Virginia 3-2, one night after the Cavaliers had thumped Vandy and its No. 1 rotation hurler Tyler Beede.
It was a somewhat unexpected upset. UVA had hammered VU pitchers for 28 hits and 15 runs in the first two games in the best-of-three title series, and only two home runs were hit in the first 15 games of the 68th annual CWS.
Enter unsung hero John Norwood of Peapack and Gladstone, N.J. (Where? A borough of 2,582 people in northwest New Jersey, it was once the home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as well as the set for “The Guiding Light” TV soap opera.) Norwood’s monster solo home run into the leftfield bullpen gave the Commodores the 3-2 lead, which lasted from the top of the eighth until the final out, despite a bases-loaded jam with one out in the bottom of the eighth. It was Norwood’s fourth career homer in 200-plus games.
Even more intriguing about the Commodores’ victory was that Vandy lost three games in its Nashville Super Regional and the CWS in Omaha (one each to Stanford, Texas and Virginia). The only other champ with three NCAA postseason losses was Fresno State in 2008. VU was the third school to lose as many as 20 games (51-21 overall with a school mark for wins in season) and capture the trophy.
Corbin almost looked stunned after his starting pitcher Carson Fulmer and relief men Hayden Stone and Adam Ravenelle did a number on hearty Cavalier batsmen. Fulmer, a sophomore, had wept during one ESPN pre-tourney interview when he was telling how he always wanted to pitch in the CWS. Stone, a true freshman, became the winning pitcher in the game, upping his mark for the season to 4-0. And for the new closer Ravenelle, it was just his third save of the season, but what a dramatic save it was, with his bailout during the eighth-inning jam and then a 1-2-3 retirement in the ninth.
“I’m very excited for the kids, the university,” Corbin said. “We played an outstanding opponent. We’re fortunate in a lot of different ways. That was a heck of a college baseball game. The kids, they’re tough. They hung in there. I’m just so proud of how they matured over the course of 72 games.”
Though it came down to Norwood’s dinger (“the best baseball memory of my life” he noted in postgame comments), Vandy’s work in the field with a number or circus catches in the final elimination game – a 4-3 win over Texas – was the difference.
Norwood’s homer could not have come at a better or more surprising time, either, for a power-drought team with no prior four-baggers in the postseason, and only a May 16 circuit clout by Zander Wiel to show for the final 17 games of the 2014 campaign.
Plus, the 2014 CWS had plenty of other intrigue. The two teams in the finals were seeking their first NCAA baseball crowns in history; Virginia owns 20 all-time NCAA team crowns, with 11 combined in men’s soccer and men’s lacrosse. Texas Tech made the CWS field for the first in school annals. TCU made its second trek to Omaha. Then there was Texas making its NCAA-record 35th appearance in Omaha, as well as overcoming a two-year hiatus from any kind of postseason activity to being within one victory of the championship round. Only Louisville repeated from the 2013 CWS field, and now the Cardinals are 0-4 in these last two summers in Omaha.
The suspense and surprise elements were almost more than many poor, long-suffering VU fans could bear. I include myself as one of them. Besides being an alumnus, I have been attending athletics events in Nashville since 1961 – most notably the many low-scoring football defeats in the 1961-’72 era.
My Vandy baseball memories include doing public address duties, when I was working during my student years in the sports information department. I’d sit on top of the third base dugout with a bullhorn and no protection from hard foul balls at old McGugin Field.
And there were the students lolling on the rightfield meadows and drinking and smoking who knows what.
Later, the Army ROTC unit donated World War II-surplus PA system, and the custodial staff built a wooden fence, of sorts, around the makeshift press box atop the dugout.
I think of long-ago players like Jeff Peeples, Bill Winchester, Mike Willis, Duane Donahoo, Steve Estep, Jerry Reasonver, Tommy Powell. and many others, yoked forever in history with personable head coach and later minor league team owner and Texas Rangers official Larry “Smokie” Schmittou. He turned the program around.
It was his 1971 Vanderbilt baseball team that broke down dozens of barriers and met NCAA World Series-bound Mississippi State in the three-game SEC East vs. West divisional playoffs. That groundbreaking ’71 crew probably laid the foundation for Vanderbilt baseball eventually winning this national championship.
So, with apologies and thanks to the 1908 VU baseball coach Grantland “Granny” Rice,” who often included poetry in his columns, here is a brief ode to VU baseball:
There was no Tinkers to Evers to Chance;
In fact, few gave the ’14 Commodores a reason to advance.
The Baylesses, Offenburgers, Olneys, Rices, Russells, Hemkes, Lazares, Schmittous, Whites, Tates, Scobeys, Mewbournes perchance
Finally got to see VU baseball take a first NCAA stance.
Editor’s note: The author of this column, Bo Carter, has more than 43 years in college media relations. He is now an adjunct mass communications instructor and student media advisor at Texas Wesleyan University. He previously served at Texas Woman’s University from 2009 to 2013. He has extensive other sports experience, including working as a consultant and correspondent with the National Football Foundation since Aug. 2006. He was with the Big 12 Conference for 10 years and the Texas Collegiate League in 2006. Earlier he was sports information director at Mississippi State. A native of Sheffield, Ala., Carter was a 1974 cum laude graduate in classics at Vanderbilt. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment by using the handy form below here.