Two unlikely finalists, take two
I wrapped up my pages for this week’s Russell County News a little after 1 a.m. I slept in fits and starts and didn’t get really good sleep until late this morning. By time I woke up, it was 12:10. I watched some more of season 1 of The O.C. and am now watching Shark Tank on CNBC.
Six years ago tonight, LSU won its sixth and most recent College World Series championship, defeating Texas 9-4 in the third and deciding game of the finals at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, home to the CWS from 1950 through 2010. Most of Rosenblatt was demolished in 2011 and 2012, but many seats, home plate and the foul poles still stand at the corner of 13th Street and Bert Murphy Drive, only a few blocks south of Interstate 80 and next to the Henry Doorly Zoo, one of the world’s elite zoological gardens.
Tonight, Vanderbilt and Virginia are playing a winner-take-all game for the national championship for the second consecutive year. If you would have told me in 2000 that the Commodores and Cavaliers would be playing in back-to-back years for all the marbles in Omaha, I would have laughed so hard I might have died. So would have thousands of college baseball experts and fans alike.
In 2000, Vanderbilt was the doormat of the SEC, much the way it was in football. The Commodores’ field was not a joke. It was not a dump. It was inhumane.
To say it was not suitable for college baseball would have been a gross understatement. It was not suitable for high school junior varsity, much less a Southeastern Conference school.
There were three sets of portable bleachers. The dugouts were nothing more than covered benches. The “press box” was a modified trailer (not a double-wide) on top of the third base bench. The fence was chain-link. The scoreboard was something you would expect to find at a high school facility.
In short, beyond awful.
Today, Vanderbilt plays on the same field, but the rest of the structure barely resembles the old one. There is brick and iron to be found everywhere. The press box is modern and roomy. There are chairback seats all throughout the grandstands. There are real dugouts and a real fence. The scoreboard has been modernized.
Nobody could have dreamed it would happen at Vanderbilt. But the Commodores have proven if you build it, they will come.
Since Tim Corbin arrived in 2003 to replace the kindly Roy Mewbourne, the Commodores have taken off. Vandy has won and won big year in and year out in the nation’s best baseball conference, capped off by the 2014 national championship and possibly another in a couple of hours.
At least Vanderbilt never considered cutting scholarships or treating baseball as the equivalent of an intramural sport.
In 2000, the Cavaliers came to Baton Rouge to open the season and were demolished in three games over two days by LSU. Bayou Bengals left-hander Brian Tallet, who would go on to earn All-America honors that season and pitch in the Major Leagues, twirled a three-hit shutout in the opener.
The next April, as LSU coach Skip Bertman piloted his final Bayou Bengals outfit, it looked like baseball in Charlottesville would soon be relegated to second-class status.
Actually, make that fourth-class status.
A UVa advisory board suggested the Cavaliers’ intercollegaite athletic program be divided into four tiers.
The first tier–football, men’s and women’s basketball–would be fully funded, with a full allotment of scholarships, a full allotment of coaches, first-class travel, first-class schedules, and all the comforts an Atlantic Coast Conference program was accustomed to.
Baseball was relegated to the fourth tier, which would mean no scholarships based upon athletic ability and no travel outside the ACC’s footprint and most non-conference games within the Commonwealth of Virginia, which would have meant a heavy dose of VCU, Richmond, James Madison, Old Dominion, George Mason and Virginia Tech, which was still three years away from full ACC membership.
No women’s sports were projected to fall into Tier Four. All were men’s sports, including golf, tennis, wrestling, cross country and track and field. Had UVa threatened to place an y women’s sports in Tier Four, it would have opened the school to a flood of Title IX lawsuits.
Nobody could have dreamed what was about to happen.
The UVa baseball team received “anonymous” donations of over $2 million to build a state-of-the-art baseball stadium on the site of its dilapidated grounds. By the beginning of the 2002 campaign, Davenport Field, named in memory of former UVa coach and executive director of the Virginia Student Aid Foundation, Ted Davenport, who was a close friend of longtime Cavalier coach Dennis Womack.
While the average fan did not know the person behind the anonymous donation, the insiders in Charlottesville knew where they came from.
John Grisham, internationally acclaimed author, graduate of Mississippi State and Ole Miss Law School, had donated the funds to keep the baseball program at UVa alive and well.
In 2004, the Cavaliers tapped Notre Dame assistant Brian O’Connor to succeed the retired Womack, and it wasn’t long before baseball far eclipsed football and men’s basketball as the best UVa program.
The Cavaliers have been to the CWS five times under O’Connor. Tonight, they are aiming to become the first ACC team to win the title since Wake Forest in 1955 (Miami’s four championships all came while the Hurricanes were an independent).
Vanderbilt and Virginia have certainly produced their fair share of Major Leaguers under Corbin and O’Connor, but both programs have also been wildly successful at attracting the academically gifted player who may not be a perfect fit for LSU, Florida State or another national power and groomed them to fit into perfect puzzles in Nashville and Charlottesville. These programs are no flashes in the pan. They have staying power, and both should be in Omaha time and again as long as Corbin and O’Connor are calling the shots.