Dec. 5, 2012
by Chris Weinman
Hawkins Field can be a magical place; ask anyone who has been on hand to witness the Vanderbilt baseball team's success over the last decade. And if you go by "the Hawk" in the fall, when Head Coach Tim Corbin's current Commodore squad is busy preparing for the upcoming spring season, chances are you can hear about that magic directly from one of the many former student-athletes that has been a part of the team's resurgence.
Corbin estimates that as many as 25 former Commodores will be back in Nashville to work out this off-season.
"There is no greater compliment to a coach and his staff than to have former players return to campus during the off-season to continue their development," Corbin said. "I have always felt that these boys were like our own children. Once they completed their time on campus, we weren't going to stop providing for them. It has always been my personal mission to provide a continual `home' of development so they can re-create their memories with one another while building their future."
While some of Corbin's proteges come back strictly to work out in the fall, Hawkins Field is not the only place on campus where current professional baseball players can be found. This semester, eight former Commodores are back in Vanderbilt classrooms working toward their college degrees.
Jack Armstrong was the fourth Commodore chosen in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft, the year Vanderbilt broke a Southeastern Conference record by having 12 student-athletes selected in one draft. The 6'7" right-hander did not pitch this season after having Tommy John surgery in the spring. Armstrong is currently enrolled in 21 hours of classes in order to finish his business management and finance degree next month.
A heavy course load is nothing new for the Jupiter, Fla., native, who worked beyond the normal 15-hour semester three times during his Vanderbilt playing days.
"I learned from Coach Corbin here at Vanderbilt a lot about how to time manage," Armstrong said. "Whenever I get done with my homework or just need a break I come down to the field and workout or rehab with [athletic trainer] Chris Ham. And Corbin setting us up with the pro locker room is pretty special."
Jason Esposito (right) was a second-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2011. He played 123 games for Single-A Delmarva this summer, finishing up his season as the Shorebirds' starting third baseman on September 3. Vanderbilt's fall semester began on August 22, meaning that the Bethany, Conn., native's coursework began while he was still on the diamond.
Credit university administration and faculty for working with the likes of Esposito, whose job required him to start this semester's schoolwork before he could be on campus. And credit Corbin, who from the time he begins recruiting student-athletes engrains in them the importance of finishing their college degrees. Corbin's recruiting presentation on the value of a Vanderbilt education is well documented.
"It's not so much a pitch, it's just the truth," Esposito said. "It's a captivating feeling, knowing that you can come to play baseball at such a great school and earn a great degree. It's truly a no-brainer. I always knew coming here that my ultimate goal was to finish a degree from Vanderbilt. Before I ever came to campus, that was the goal first and foremost."
Nashville native Mark Lamm already holds an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt and currently is working on a graduate degree in organizational leadership at Peabody. The right-hander, who made 50 appearances for the Double-A Mississippi Braves this summer, recognizes the impact that returning professional players can make on current members of the baseball team.
"I want to be someone that guys on the team can look up to," Lamm said. "They can come to us and talk about things they could potentially be doing in the coming years."
That interaction has created a bond between the past and present of the Vanderbilt baseball program, and the Commodore skipper beams when discussing the tradition of excellence that is as evident off the field as it is on it.
"Vanderbilt became a lifetime decision for these kids when they chose to attend here," Corbin said. "My responsibility is to maintain that for them. It is one thing to build a team, it's another thing to establish a culture. We have done that. I can't begin to put into words what it means for these boys to call this place home. And there is no greater source of pride than to see the return of your children. It gives me chills."