Ready to roll…and a flashback to Music City
It’s here. In less than two hours, my dad and I will be on the road. Today’s destination: Texarkana. And no, we won’t have any beer, despite what Jerry Reed sang in “East Bound and Down”, the theme from Smokey and the Bandit.
I last went to Louisiana in 2010. Like that trip, I am not returning to New Orleans. Baton Rouge is the end of the line for us. There’s baseball and hopefully good food, but I have work to do during the down time. There is a lot of sitting and waiting during weekend baseball series, as I rediscovered last year in Lexington and two years ago in Columbia (Missouri, not South Carolina).
The trip actually got off to a bad start yesterday.
When my parents went to New Orleans last October, my mother’s Toyota was involved in an accident in the French Quarter. They had to drive back to Russell in a rental car while her car was being repaired. My mother offered us use of her Toyota for the trip, but my dad said no.
Instead, he decided to rent a car in Hays. I offered to drive to Wichita, leaving my car at the airport. But he declined. So we went to Hays yesterday to get the car.
If anything seems too good to be true, it is. And so it was with the car.
It was a 2018 Impala, a much more sophisticated version of my car.
Problem was, the air conditioner did not work. No refrigerant.
I was very angry. STEAMING. And for what? I made a fool of myself. Again. Another story for Crista and I to discuss in 16 days when I see her again.
My fear was there would not be a car for us in Hays, and we’d have to drive the sweatbox to Wichita to trade it out. Fortunately, another car, a Hyundai Sonata, arrived back in Hays at 5:15, so all is on track again.
The weather today will be just fine, albeit a bit hot for mid-April. Tomorrow is going to go downhill as the day goes on, but we should be able to drive from Texarkana to Baton Rouge without any problems.
Then comes Saturday. Rain chances 100 percent, as in it is going to rain; the only question is how much. Some models are predicting up to four inches. The good news is no severe weather is predicted in Oklahoma or Kansas on the trip, which is always a huge concern in spring.
Still nothing on a change to the weekend schedule. My thinking is they’ll try to wait out the rain Saturday and still attempt to play at the scheduled starting time of 6:30, rolling the dice and accepting the reality of two seven-inning games Sunday if the rain doesn’t abate. Tennessee should be in Baton Rouge by 5:00, so the wheels will start spinning then.
Tuesday and Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of one of my stranger experiences in college baseball.
LSU played Vanderbilt Easter weekend 1998 in Nashville. My dad and I drove up for the Friday and Saturday games, but missed the Sunday game to get back to Baton Rouge so I didn’t miss class Monday.
My dad and I left Thursday and stopped for the night in Tuscaloosa. Thank God we left Thursday, because the previous day, killer tornadoes struck Alabama, including an F5 which destroyed homes in suburbs of Birmingham. The motel where we stayed along Interstate 20/59 was destroyed by the April 2011 tornado which came perilously close to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Vanderbilt’s campus is not too far from downtown Nashville, in an area famously known as the West End. There are many upscale hotels, restaurants and shops along West End Boulevard, which runs from Interstate 440, the loop around Nashville, to downtown and the Cumberland River.
Vanderbilt’s campus is wedged in along the west end of West End, the quintessential urban university, which is totally opposite of the large state institutions which populate the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
Land at Vanderbilt is at a premium, and the athletic plant is no exception. The baseball field is wedged into a small space abutting the Commodores’ football stadium and Memorial Gymnasium, the basketball arena where the benches are along the end lines and the stands rise like balconies in a theater rather than encircle the court.
Vanderbilt has made it work despite the limitations. Hawkins Field is a wonderful facility, featuring a large press box and luxury boxes, chairback seats, and just about every amenity you would need for a school Vandy’s size.
The third base line at Hawkins Field shares a boundary with the east side of the football stadium. There is a 35-foot high “Black Monster” in left field to make sure most home run balls do not damage windows at Memorial Gymnasium.
It has certainly helped the Commodores go from SEC doormat to an established college baseball superpower, one which won the 2014 national championship. Of course, Tim Corbin, who has coached there since 2003, has been another big reason for Vandy’s success.
Prior to the construction of Hawkins Field, the Commodores’ diamond was, well, let’s just say, lacking.
What was known as McGugin Field, named because it was across the street from Vanderbilt’s McGugin Athletic Complex, was WAY below sub-standard for an SEC program. That’s being kind.
The listed capacity was 1,000. The Commodores hardly ever needed that many seats, save for SEC weekends which drew large crowds. Of course, LSU draws the largest crowds to SEC games, and as expected, purple and gold was all over the stands in Nashville that weekend.
Those stands were worse than what I have encountered in some high school football stadiums in rural Kansas. Think the visiting side of Russell High’s stadium. I can think of a few stadiums around here–Hill City, Norton, Phillipsburg–where the visiting stands are better than what Vandy had in those days. And there was no shade, which, sadly, is too common in the SEC.
(One place without a roof over its grandstand is Florida, which is ridiculous. The good news is the Gators will be moving into a new facility by 2021, one with a roof over the main seating area, which will mean the end of McKethan Stadium. I’m not shedding tears.)
There was no press box atop the “grandstand” at McGugin Field. Instead, the press sat in a trailer-like structure on top of the third base dugout. That actually was a step up from the past; Bill told me he and Jim Hawthorne broadcast from outdoors in both 1995 and ’96 and froze their butts off both times.
The problem was with the press “box” was there was no way to see down the third base line, since the trailer was very narrow and no way to see out the side towards the outfield. As bad as the open-air press box at the old Alex Box Stadium was, at least you could see the whole field.
Honestly, the SEC should have told Vandy it had to play conference games at Hesrchel Greer Stadium, which was then the home of the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. The Big 12 forced West Virginia to play its conference games elsewhere prior to 2015 since the Mountaineers’ stadium in Morgantown was horrible. That forced West Virginia to play games in other locales in the state, mostly in Huntington or Charleston, but sometimes in Beckley or Wheeling.
If Vandy had trouble finding dates at Greer, it should have been forced to another suitable facility, even if it were in Memphis or Chattanooga, or (God forbid) Knoxville and the Volunteers’ Lindsey Nelson Stadium. But college baseball in the late ’90s only mattered in Baton Rouge and Starkville. Other places can say they cared, but the reality was LSU and Mississippi State truly cared, and the others were going through the motions.
However, the SEC commissioner in those days, Roy Kramer, had been athletic director at Vandy for 12 years prior to making the move to Birmingham. No way he was going to rule against his former employer in that one.
LSU won the two games my dad and I attended, and Vandy won the Easter game. I returned to Nashville five years later, and of course, we were very happy to see Hawkins Field.
Those who play for Corbin today, or visit Vandy in the SEC, should be thankful for Hawkins Field. Their forefathers had it much worse.
Okay less than an hour to departure. Need to get in the shower. Signing off for now.
Thoughts from a barstool
Back at Buffalo Wild Wings this afternoon. Been here since 12:35. I saw my buddy Larry for the first time in a long time. Trey, whom I’ve seen here since I first came here in May 2013, is bartending. I’m sure I’ll see a few more people I know before I leave.
I had to get work done on my car this morning in Overland Park. Didn’t have to wait at Morse-McCarthy Chevrolet this time nearly as long as I did the last two times, when I had new tires put on. Stopped at Staples and Bed, Bath & Beyond before heading north.
I was thinking about coming back tomorrow and leaving Sunday morning, but there is an 80 percent chance of rain for tomorrow night and Sunday, so I’m going to get out of here tomorrow. The cold front will pass through Russell tomrorow night, and hopefully, that will be it for temperatures above 80 Fahrenheit, or 27 Celsius, until at least April. I do not like hot weather.
I’m probably going to be back to Kansas City sooner rather than later. Maybe I come back next weekend to watch the Missouri-LSU football game. Or maybe I come back for my birthday in less than three weeks. I can’t stay away. Too many people I want to see.
LSU plays Auburn tomorrow night on the road. The Bayou Bengals have traditionally struggled at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but if they lose tomorrow, LSU may be in the market for a new coach after the season. I could see the season unraveling if Auburn wins tomororw. WIth road games against Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M, plus home dates with Ole Miss and Alabama, it could get ugly fast in Baton Rouge.
Kansas does not play tomorrow. Kansas State might as well not play. Another cupcake, Missouri State, visits Manhattan. Bill Snyder can’t get enough cupcakes. Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines could make a killing sponsoring Kansas State football.
How much does Snyder fear playing strong teams? When he was hired at K-State in 1989, he canceled the second game of a home-and-home series with Tulane.
Not making it up. I said TULANE.
K-State played in 1980 at LSU. However, that was a one-time deal so the Wildcats could infuse their coffers with much-needed cash. No way LSU was going to play a game in a stadium which seated 42,000, unless it was an SEC game. Certainly not vs. the worst team in the Big Eight. Certainly not when LSU had four games vs. Florida State lined up from 1980-83, four with Notre Dame (1981, 1984-86), contests with Washington, Arizona and USC, and a home-and-home with Ohio State later in the decade, not to mention the annual game vs. Tulane.
The Green Wave defeated the Wildcats 20-16 in New Orleans in 1988. Coach Stan Parrish was fired following an 0-11 season, part of a 30-game winless streak. Tulane, which was an independent at the time, was scheduled to make a return visit to Manhattan, but Snyder canceled the game and picked up some team which was weaker than the Greenies, which took a lot of searching. Tulane won all of 23 games between 1988 and 1995.
I can’t believe MIssissippi State and Oklahoma have agreed to play Tulane in the New Orleans in coming years. I can’t imagine the Bulldogs or Sooners playing at Tulane’s on-campus stadium, which seats only 30,000. I believe the visitors, not to mention television, will insist the games be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Wave played from 1975 through 2013, save for 2005, when the Dome was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Tulane cut its own throat when it foolishly voted to leave the SEC in 1966. The Green Wave might have been at or near the bottom of the conference in football every single year, but it would have made money hand over fist.
Vanderbilt, a private school in a large city like Tulane, chose to stay and take their punishment from Tennessee, Alabama and others. But the money the Commodores have raked in from the SEC have made sure the school’s academic mission continues to be funded at the highest possible level, while athletes get to compete against elite institutions.
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.
Sports mania Monday
I have not left my house today. However, that’s not to say it has been boring.
Far from it.
There has been so much going on in the world of sports, more than usually happens on a Monday, especially during the summer. It’s expected in the fall, since there’s a Monday Night Football game, the highlights of Sunday’s NFL games run non-stop on ESPN and NFL Network, and many college coaches hold their weekly press conferences on Monday, including LSU’s Les Miles.
Bud Black became the third National League manager to lose his jpob when he was axed by the San Diego Padres at 2 p.m. (noon in San Diego). The Padres were expected to contend in the NL West despite the presence of the World Series champion Giants and the Dodgers having the game’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, plus a star-studded lineup, but the Swinging Friars are one game below .500, and the only reason they’re in third place is because the Diamondbacks and Rockies are pathetic, although not as poor as the Phillies and Brewers.
Milwaukee was the first team to fire its manager this season when it sacked Ron Roenicke May 3. The Brewers were 7-25 at the time, and they are still struggling at 24-41 following tonight’s loss to the Royals.
Two weeks following Roenicke’s dismissal, the Marlins canned Mike Redmond only minutes after Miami came within one out of being no-hit by Atlanta’s Shelby Miller at Marlins Park. The Marlins were expected to give the Nationals a run for their money in the NL East this year, but right now, the only thing keeping the fish out of the cellar are the woeful Phillies.
Not long after Black lost his job, Vanderbilt completed a stunning comeback in the College World Series, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth to down Cal State Fullerton 4-3.
The game game began last night, and the Comoodores had no answer whatsoever for Titan ace pitcher Thomas Eshelman. Fullerton went ahead 3-0 in the fifth, but in the bottom of the sixth, the heavens over Omaha opened up and rained down hard enough that Noah would have needed his ark. The NCAA declared the field unplayable and ordered the game suspended until 11 a.m. today.
Only the game didn’t start at 11 a.m. The NCAA was forced to backtrack when the rain kept coming, and the start time was pushed back three hours.
Reigning national champion Vanderbilt scored in the bottom of the sixth when the game resumed, but the Titan bullpen shut down the Commodores in the seventh and eighth.
Zander Wiel, who doubled home Vandy’s run in the sixth, started the ninth with a double. Two batters later, Bryan Reynolds singled him home and the ‘Dores were within one.
Vandy’s next batter was freshman Jeren Kendall, a left-handed hitter.. Fullerton had left-handed relief ace Tyler Peitzmeier on the mound. Peitzmeier came into the CWS having limited left-handed batters to a .208 batting average this season.
So what does Kendall do? He jerks a full-count fastball into the Titan bullpen in right field. Game over. Vandy into the winner’s bracket to face TCU, Fullerton to play LSU in the second loser-leaves-town matchup.
If the Bayou Bengals fail tomorrow, the SEC will be down to two, both from the East, Florida and Vandy. Arkansas lost 4-3 to Miami to bow out 0-2. Right now, Virginia and Florida are locked in a 0-0 battle in the bottom of the sixth. It’s after midnight in Charlottesville and Gainesville, so I wonder how many people are still watching.
The Stanley Cup will not be returning to Florida. PRAISE JESUS.
The Blackhawks wrapped it up tonight in Chicago, blanking the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0. It’s Chicago’s third Cup in six years after not winning it for 47 consecutive seasons from 1961-62 through 2008-09. The Blackhawks also clinched the Cup at home for the first time since 1938. They won it on the road in 1961, 2010 and 2013.
I’m still seething over 2004, when the Calgary Flames gagged away a 3-2 lead and lost in seven to the Lightning. Calgary lost game six at home when Martin St. Louis scored for Tampa 33 seconds into overtime, and of course, the Flames’ goose was cooked back in Florida two nights later.
Even worse than the Lightning winning it, they got to keep the Cup an extra year, thanks to the lockout which wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. And then it got stupid when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006 over the Edmonton Oilers. I still wonder how many people in Raleigh-Durham can name all 30 NHL teams. Probably not many.
The Women’s World Cup featured four matches from Canada today. The host nation choked away what looked like a sure victory vs. the Netherlands when the Dutch scored in the 87th minute to forge a 1-1 draw. The Netherlands are a superpower in men’s association football, but the women’s program lacks far, far behind.
That’s not uncommon for one gender to have a strong association football team and for the other to be lagging. The men are far ahead of the women in England, Italy and Spain in addition to the Netherlands, while the United States, Canada, China and Japan are the opposite.
The are only two countries where the men and women are on equally strong footing.
The most obvious is Germany. Deutschland won the Women’s World Cup in 2007, it has won the men’s Cup four times (including 2014), and I would bet my bottom dollar it will beat the United States if and when the countries meet.
The other country with futbol equality is Brazil. It lost the 2007 women’s final to Germany, and it still has one fo the strongest men’s squads, the implosion at the end of the 2014 World Cup notwithstanding.
Virginia has broken the scoreless tie with Florida in the bottom of the sixth. The Gators have not been behind very much during the NCAA tournament, but the way they’ve swung the bats, it’s next to nothing.
Have a good night and pleasant tomorrow.