Saturday, June 28, 2014

Vandy Wins the College World Series

For the past 30 years, I have spent enormous amounts of time watching Vandy sports.  Rooting for your home state -- as I do when I pull for the UK Wildcats -- draws on some of the deepest sources of emotion you can have.  It goes back to the ancient ties of blood and soil -- the same factors that inspired heroes all the way back to the days of the Iliad and the Odyssey.  But rooting for a private school like Vanderbilt feels different -- most Vandy fans chose to associate themselves with the school.  For almost all of us, there came a time where we made a conscious decision to reject other opportunities, other loyalties, other potential homes, and to tie ourselves to this lovely institution in the West End of Nashville.

For that reason, I've never felt the same psychological pressure to win games where Vandy is involved.  After all, I didn't go there for the sports.  I got a great education, and I met some wonderful people, and I had an excellent time, and that's enough for me.  Vandy is still one of my favorite places in the world; when I wanted to take Smart Mom out for a fun night on our 20th wedding anniversary, we drove down to Nashville and visited the campus where we met.

And so I watch Vandy, and I root for Vandy, but I don't get my heart broken when they lose.  After all, I tied myself to this school voluntarily, and I should take the good with the bad.  Besides, I never really thought -- not for a single moment -- that I would live to see Vanderbilt win an NCAA title in a major sport.  Even after Vandy baseball got really good, and reached the College World Series a few years ago, I always assumed that something would go wrong to keep them from winning.  Last year, they were the top seed in the whole country -- only to be swept at home by Louisville in the Super Regionals.  This year, they were blown out very quickly in the SEC Tournament, and were somewhat lucky to host a Regional.  So my expectations were not very high.

And, at each step along the way, I kept thinking they would lose.  I figured that if they won the Region they would lose at Indiana in the Super Regional.  But Indiana got beat, and Vandy got to host Stanford.  When that series was 1-1, I figured Vandy would lose the last game.  But Vandy won, and went to the CWS.  Then I figured they would lose to Louisville -- and then to UC Irvine.  But they just kept winning.

Next up was a single elimination game with Texas -- a real powerhouse, a team with multiple baseball titles in its trophy case.  Surely the Dores had reached the end of the line now.  But no -- they won 4-3 in 10 innings.  I had never seen any Vandy team -- in any sport -- win a game like that.

So now the Dores were in the final against UVA, the number 3 overall seed.  UVA had whipped through their side of the bracket with ease, and surely now Vandy had reached the end of the line.  But UVA's ace pitcher melted down in Game One, Vandy got 9 runs on 3 hits in the third inning, and then hung on the rest of the way for a 9-8 victory.  I had never seen any Vandy team when a game like that, either.  But that seemed flukey, and it seemed even more flukey when UVA waxed them 7-2 in Game Two.

So now one game for all the marbles.  I wasn't nervous, because I never seriously considered the possibility that Vandy would win.  Vandy doesn't win national titles.

But here's the thing.  The kids on that baseball team are just that -- kids.  They aren't 48-year-old lawyers with a haunted sense of Vandy history.  They haven't lived through all that tragedy.  Their version of Vanderbilt has whipped Tennessee in football two years in a row.  Their version of Vanderbilt is a baseball powerhouse.  And their version of Vanderbilt had fought all this way, winning one big game after another.  So they didn't panic, and didn't despair -- even after they blew an early 2-0 lead.  Instead, with the score 2-2 in the top of the 8th, they sent up John Norwood -- and he crushed Vandy's only home run since the middle of May.  And then they got of a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the 8th.  And then, only a few minutes later, they were all jumping in a dog pile.

It's a huge bonus for all of us who care about Vanderbilt.  It's not something we ever expected, but it's a very nice thing to have.  I had a blast sitting up reading all the tweets in the middle of the night.  Several Vandy fans made the point that since Auburn had lost the football title, and UK had lost the basketball title, it was good that Vandy had come through for the SEC.  (And yes, the Vandy fans in Omaha celebrated with the S! E! C! chant.  Down through the years, Vandy fans have put up with a lot to stay in the SEC.  Georgia Tech gave up and left.  Tulane gave up and left.  But Vandy stayed, and as a result Vandy fans tend to have a unique perspective on, and love for, the conference.) 

Buster Olney of ESPN (Vandy Class of 88) described John Norwood's homer with a reference to Scott Norwood's missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV ("Norwood -- wide left") that confused his readership ("Wait.  That field goal went wide right")  So Buster got to explain what had happened in Omaha, along with his ties to Vandy.

The Tennessean (or UTennessean, as Vandy fans call it, because of its devotion to all things Orange and White) could only look on in bemusement as the little private school in the West End took home the big trophy.  Belmont University sent out a nice tweet in support of its fellow Nashville school.  Two thousand people had gathered on the Vandy football field to watch the game on the big screen, and they sent out a barrage of videos and pictures of the celebration.  And I read a very happy series of tweets from a girl from Virginia Beach who was thrilled that she had picked Vandy over UVA.

We spend a lot of time agonizing about sports, and worrying about what they mean, and complaining about them.  But I literally danced around my office the other night after Vandy took Game One of the NCAA Baseball Final, and to me that's why we keep watching.  There isn't enough to dance about in this world.

As usual, the College World Series is the last event of the 2013-14 college sports year.  Congratulations to Western Kentucky, who took a chance on Bobby Petrino, and used him to whip UK in football.  Congratulations to Murray State, which didn't allow disappointment in the OVC Tournament to prevent it from winning the Tournament.  Congratulations to Eastern Kentucky, which won the OVC and thrilled everyone on a Friday afternoon in March with their stirring effort against Kansas.

Congratulations to Louisville, which again had amazing amounts of success in all of the major sports.  Even more congratulations to UConn, which swept the men's and women's basketball titles.

Congratulations to Oklahoma, for winning the Unofficial College Football Championship and defending the title in the Sugar Bowl.  Congratulations to Auburn for its miraculous victory in football over Alabama and its dramatic run to the national championship game.  Congratulations to Florida State, for reasserting itself on the college football team and finally silencing the SEC fans who had mocked the rest of the country for so long.

Congratulations to the Harrison Twins, and Julius Randle, and James Young, and Alex Poythress, and Marcus Lee, and John Calipari, who put together one of the greatest runs through the NCAA Basketball Tournament I have ever seen.  Congratulations to the Kentucky fans, who again showed themselves to be the best and most dramatic fan base in America, if not the world.

And finally, congratulations to Tim Corbin and the folks at Vandy, who took one of the worst programs in college baseball and turned it into the best, and who won Vandy's first national championship in any men's sport.

On the whole, it was a fun year -- especially for me -- and one of the most dramatic I can remember.  I need two months off, but I'll be ready to go again in late August.

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