From the January / February edition of Commodore Nation
BY ZAC ELLIS
David Price lounges on a black leather sofa in Vanderbilt’s baseball locker room, an expansive but private section of the team’s Hawkins Field clubhouse. On this November morning, the complex is otherwise unoccupied; used workout gear hangs in wooden lockers next to propped aluminum bats. The lights are off, so the famous Star V logo is barely visible at the center of the carpet.
But in a lit corner of the room, Price, sporting a forest green T-shirt and baseball cap, feels right at home. Never mind that the current Boston Red Sox ace just capped his ninth season as a one of the premier pitchers in major league baseball. Price defines himself by his career at Vanderbilt, and the former Commodore has yet to forget his roots on West End.
“I always miss college,” Price says. “I don’t need to come back to Vanderbilt to miss this place.”
Vanderbilt means so much to Price that the Murfreesboro, Tenn., native makes frequent trips back to his alma mater in the offseason. And last fall, Price decided to give back, as well. On Nov. 18, in a press conference on campus, the university announced a $2.5 million gift by Price toward the Commodores’ $12 million baseball facilities project. Price’s contribution served as the largest gift to the project as well as its capstone.
Price, the 2007 National Player of the Year at Vanderbilt and the eventual No. 1 overall pick in that year’s MLB Draft, said giving back to his alma mater “just feels right.” Now it’s further proof of the quality of program being built by longtime Commodore head coach Tim Corbin.
“This is a place I always think about,” Price says. “For me, this was the best three years, on and on the field, in my life. The time that I spent here was the most valuable. It transformed me into more of a man than when I came.”
Although Price’s gift was the headliner for the baseball project, several of Corbin’s former Vanderbilt players chose to make an impact, too. Sixty-percent of those who played under Corbin contributed to the project, and 250 total gifts – a Vanderbilt athletics record – made the facility upgrade possible.
Two dozen of those former Commodores attended the university’s announcement of Price’s gift, which took place inside the construction zone of the unfinished baseball facility. To Corbin, the father of two step-daughters, Price and his fellow Commodores are more than just student-athletes. Those who played at Vanderbilt – and make it a home in the offseason – personify the family atmosphere Corbin has worked to install on West End.
“These kids, these boys, are selfishly the only boys that Maggie and I will ever have in our life,” Corbin says. “That’s strong. It’s meaningful. It’s very powerful. We see this as an opportunity to continue family, continue the growth of a lot of people, not only the kids that are playing here but the kids to my right that have helped establish this particular situation, which is a legacy of love.”
Construction on Vanderbilt’s new 30,000 square-foot facility began in May 2016 and is scheduled to be almost fully completed by the end of the 2017 baseball season. The state-of-the-art wing of Memorial Gym will house new open-air batting cages, a weight room and cardio areas. New offices and operations spaces for Corbin and his coaching staff will look out over the left-field wall of Hawkins Field.
Moreover, the revamped facility will feature a brand new pro locker room, giving former players like Price a home away from home during the offseason. Renovations to the current locker room and team lounge in the Hawkins Field clubhouse are set to be completed by Spring 2018.
Price has played for four MLB franchises, and he said Vanderbilt’s facilities are the standard at the collegiate level – if not higher. “These facilities are second-to-none in college baseball,” Price said. “They have a lot of professional facilities beat.”
To Price, his stint on West End was a seminal moment in his development as a player and a person. He landed at Vanderbilt as a prep All-American out of Blackman High in nearby Murfreesboro, one of the first blue-chip recruits of Corbin’s tenure in Nashville. As a freshman in 2007, Price helped lead the Commodores to their first-ever No. 1 ranking, a spot they held for 16 weeks. Price and the ‘Dores won 54 games that year for what was then their best finish in program history.
In the ensuing seasons, Vanderbilt has evolved into the best baseball program in the country. But the ‘Dores’ immense success isn’t what resonates with Price as he recalls his college career. Instead, it’s the impact of his former head coach, who remains an irreplaceable mentor.
“We could have been absolutely terrible here for the three years I was here, and I still would have come out a lot better than I came in,” Price says. “That’s all Coach Corbin. I’m still in debt to him and this program. I don’t think there’s any amount of money or anything I can do to get to the positive, and I’m fine with that.”
Joe Barrett, a longtime Vanderbilt supporter and donor to the facilities project, has been a Commodore fan for more almost 50 years, and he attended Price’s press conference. That loyalty has provided a sense of perspective on Corbin’s success. To Barrett, the head coach’s leadership makes it easy to support Vanderbilt.
“When Coach Corbin and his wife Maggie talk about a family atmosphere, this is what it is,” Barrett says. “When you get to talk to these student-athletes while they’re here, and after they graduate, they’re so respectful of everything that’s happened to them. I think it comes down to the culture they’re talking about. It’s like a puzzle being put together, and when that puzzle is complete, it’s just astounding.”
These days Price is hardly subtle with his Vanderbilt fandom. In big league locker rooms, Price routinely sports Commodore hats and shirts, and he now expects his teammates to tune out his cheers. “They’re probably tired of hearing about it,” Price says. But Price, who signed a seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox in Dec. 2015, can’t hide his satisfaction when asked about alma mater. That’s why he chose to give back to Corbin’s program; Price hopes his gift paves the way for future Commodores to continue Vanderbilt’s standard of excellence. “When people ask me where I went to college, I get a big smile on my face,” Price says.
Vanderbilt sees Price’s support as a watershed moment in athletics history. David Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director, said most student-athletes don’t give back to their alma maters. Price, and former Commodores like him, has bucked that trend as alumni of Corbin’s program. That passion could be the start of something much bigger at Vanderbilt.
“That sends a signal to everybody else,” Williams says. “David and the other players who gave back have sent a message to the rest of college athletics: this is what happens at Vanderbilt.”