Former Vanderbilt infielder Hunter Bledsoe (1997, 1999) had a very interesting college baseball career. It all began in 1995 at Duke University.
“I’m from East Tennessee [Kingsport] and I wasn’t overly recruited,” Bledsoe said recently. “I had a good career in high school where I was an all-state shortstop. Back then it wasn’t like today where you could go to a million showcases and somebody is going to find you. Your high school program had to know people and you had to go to camps. I never did that because I played three sports.”
“Duke was the largest school that was going to give me a shot to come in and play early. A Walters State Junior College coach who was a friend of my dad’s connected me to them. I was valedictorian of my high school class and my mom was an educator. So it was important for me to go to a high academic school.”
At Duke, Bledsoe made 29 starts in 43 games batting .267 with five doubles, a triple and two home runs. He wanted to finish his baseball career in Durham, N.C., but the situation at the time made that impossible.
“I got cut from the team as a sophomore,” said Bledsoe “I still wanted to play, but they had made roster cuts. I don’t know if it was a personality thing with the head coach or it was the assistant coach who recruited me left halfway through my freshman year. I don’t know if there was a disagreement between him and the head coach, but it turned out that most of his guys moved on or didn’t play much. I needed to find a different path in my career.”
Bledsoe decided to transfer to Walters State JC and continue his college baseball career. At Walters State, Bledsoe batted .410 with five home runs and was named second team All-District. He played for Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley League during the summer. After that year in junior college, Bledsoe’s future was still uncertain.
“I didn’t get recruited after junior college and had gone home,” Bledsoe said. “I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. Whether I was going on to school or keep playing. I had made up my mind that I was going to the University of Tennessee. My dad played football there. I always had the belief that things are meant to be, and with a purpose for everything. I hadn’t decided whether I was going to walk-on and play baseball at Tennessee."
“Then out of the blue I got a call from my junior college coach who knew John Barlowe [Vanderbilt assistant coach]. John said that I was highly recommended to him. He told me that their third baseman, Josh Paul, was going to sign with the White Sox and they needed someone to play third base. I had never played third base. I played right field in junior college and the infield at Duke, but I hadn’t taken ground balls for a while. Walters State was having a practice and so I worked out with them."
“John came down to watch the other kids and saw me. He cancelled a trip to Georgia where he was going to scout another player. He talked to the staff at Vanderbilt and they wanted me to come in on a visit. They said they didn’t have any money since it was that time of the year where the money had been used. I told them if they didn’t have any money I couldn’t go to school there. They figured out a way to come up with some scholarship and I signed. I knew I could play and always competed at whatever level I was placed. I knew if I had the opportunity that I was going to be able to get it done.”
In Bledsoe’s first season at Vanderbilt, the Commodores were 31-24 (SEC, 14-16). Bledsoe batted a team-leading .389 and hit safely in 45 of 52 games while finishing the season with a 17-game hit streak.
“I had to earn my way onto the field,” said Bledsoe. “I was the newcomer. I think first and foremost the highlight was earning a start. I always had to earn my way. I wasn’t given anything -- ever. I earned a starting spot and had an 11-game hitting streak to start the year. I’d gone 0-for-4 in a game and lined out twice. I had hit the ball hard a couple of times. I will never forget this conversation.”
“This is kind of my career in a nutshell. John [Barlowe] came up to me the next day and said ‘hey, Roy is thinking about changing the line-up since you didn’t get a hit.’ I was leading the team in hitting. ‘Just so you know you need to keep your foot on the pedal, like you’ve got to keep earning it.’ I spent one-fourth of the year as the three-hole hitter in and had a successful year.”
An optimistic season suddenly came to a halt for Bledsoe and the Commodores.
“We were going to Georgia during our last SEC series,” said Bledsoe. “We were qualifying for the SEC Tournament and likely to qualify for an NCAA Regional. We were turning in all of our paperwork to the NCAA. I got called into the coaches’ room on that trip. I remember telling my roommate, Josh Adeeb that I was having a good year and not on a good scholarship.”
“I thought they were going to reward me and increase my scholarship for the future. I went down to their room and obviously that wasn’t the conversation. There was a discrepancy in my transcript. Some things had come up when they were looking at my transcript. I was told that I was ineligible to play. I was like ‘wow.’ It just hit me. Then it became documented that we could not go to the SEC Tournament or a regional.”
Vanderbilt had to forfeit 30 games from that season. Bledsoe explained the circumstances that led to his ineligibility.
“At the time the rule was 4-2-4 and it still exists,” said Bledsoe. “I went to a four-year school then to a two-year school, and back to a four-year school after graduating from a junior college. I took 20 hours in one semester (JC) and had a 4.0 while playing baseball that spring in order to get qualified. But I needed four more hours. That rule was implemented because of the Arkansas’ and UNLV’s basketball programs.”
“They didn’t want an athlete to go to a JC for the fall semester, and return for the spring. I was told all I had to do was graduate, which I did. Then when I signed with Vanderbilt, the compliance officer at the time just overlooked it. It was a mistake. I was four hours short. And I could have taken those four hours in the summer before I showed up on campus.”
“The following the year I was declared ineligible to play. I actually took the NCAA to court to get that ratified. The judge actually left the courtroom crying after she read the read the decision and knew that it was unjust, but there was nothing from a legal prospective that she could do.”
During the year (1998) that Bledsoe sat out due to being ineligible, the Commodores were 25-28 (SEC, 6-24). Bledsoe could only support his teammates that season.
“I was like a tiger in a cage,” said Bledsoe. “I watched my teammates and friends playing. I knew we had a quality team and I couldn’t be a part of it. I just had to sit back and watch. But it was a blessing for me because I was energized. It gave me a year to decide what I wanted and to attack it.”
“It’s not like today where kids start training when they are 12. I had never lifted a weight until I got to college. I took that year to get bigger, stronger and faster. I think it is what propelled me to come back the following year to become a first team All-American and the SEC Player of the Year.”
In his senior year, Bledsoe led the Commodores in batting .459, which was a school record, home runs (10), hits (95) and RBI’s (51). Vanderbilt was 22-33 (SEC, 8-22) that year.
“That team was young,” Bledsoe said. “The highlight for me that season was trying to shape and mentor some of those players as both an individual and the professional level. It wasn’t a team highlight as far as outcome from the field, but there were some very talented kids on that team. We had a lot of conversations about toughness and competitiveness.”
“One of my best friends still who is a coach at Old Dominion, Karl Nonemaker (1999-2002) hit .400 that year as a freshman and was the all-time hits leader at Vanderbilt for a time. He and I spent everyday in the cages talking and working on hitting. That is what I remember most about that season with the relationships and watching some of the young talented players improve.”
Bledsoe was named first team All-SEC, first team All-American, SEC Player-of-the-Year, and Academic All-American and was second in the country in batting average.
In his two-year at Vanderbilt playing third and first base, Bledsoe batted .425 (170-for-400), collected 16 home runs, secured 100 RBI’s, stole 41-of-46 bases while playing in 106 games (all starts). Bledsoe’s single-season .459 batting average and his .425 career batting average ranks first all-time in Vanderbilt baseball history.
Bledsoe signed a free agent contract with the Dodgers before the MLB draft since he sat out a year to return for a fifth season. Bledsoe said he was projected to be selected in the eighth to 10th rounds.
“The Reds and the Diamondbacks were the other two teams interested in me,” said Bledsoe. “I signed with the Dodgers because Carl Lowenstein had been a scout for a long time with the Dodgers. He and I had become friends when he signed one of my best friends out of my high school. I almost signed with Arizona which might have been a better fit for me, but I had always loved Carl and in my heart it led me to sign with the Dodgers.”
Bledsoe began his professional career with San Bernardino (Single-A+) where he batted .265 with two home runs and 13 RBI’s in 45 games. He would play with Vero Beach, Fla. (2000-01) and Jacksonville (2002). Bledsoe split time in 2003 between the Yankees’ Tampa club (Florida State League) and Coastal Bend (Independent).
His best season was in 2000 where he played in 116 games, batted .320 (143-for-447) with seven home runs, 17 stolen bases and 75 RBI’s. Bledsoe mostly played first base in the minor leagues.
“For my professional career I hit .300 and walked more than I struck out,” Bledsoe said. “That was my thing. I had good bat-to-ball skills. I loved to compete. I never gave in. Probably if you look at the game today with all the technology and saber metrics, my game would have been better.
“I would have been valued more today with certain organizations that really looked at tools more than production. At some point everybody had to produce. I was with an organization where it was about how fast you run, how far you hit the ball, the standard grading of tools. My game was more suited to being a winning baseball player. I could always run. I led the SEC in stolen bases even though I was 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. I stole 20 bags when I was in professional baseball.
“I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have guidance or a team surrounding me, or a manager that could really talk the game with me. Everybody said I had to hit home runs to play when that just wasn’t my game. I hit a bunch of doubles. I drew a lot of walks and stole bases. If I look back at it, I was best suited to play one of the corner outfield positions.”
Bledsoe played five seasons in the minor leagues. His body told him when it was time to retire from baseball as a player.
“I was in pain,” said Bledsoe. “It would take me 30 minutes to get out of bed everyday. My back was so messed up. And I really wasn’t the same player as a professional as my last year in college. I had torn my hamstring two weeks before the season started at Vanderbilt. I was very thankful to the Vanderbilt training staff. I was playing basically at 80 percent and it never got right. That led to back problems. It became the price I had to pay everyday in order to just get ready. I was mentally worn out.”
Bledsoe has remained in professional baseball as an agent. In 2004, Bledsoe and his brother began the Bledsoe Agency in Nashville.
“One of my niches is development,” said Bledsoe. “I’ve worked and help the guys with their game in general. It became a passion of mine. One of our first clients was Matt Kata (1997-99), one of my teammates at Vanderbilt. He and I talked to Paul Nyman who was an engineer that became a bio mechanic and then an expert in baseball.
“We just started to talk to him and work on some things. I started exploring different training facilities around the country. I wanted to help players that had the same desire and work ethic as me, but didn’t have the resources or knowledge in an earlier part of my life. I just started to help shape the path and mentor players about different things related to the game.”
What does Bledsoe think about the baseball program Tim Corbin has built at his alma mater?
“It’s been fun to witness,” said Bledsoe. “Coach Corbin has done a tremendous job of creating a culture that wins at that university. He gets the right type of kid and player that thrives in the overall experience at Vanderbilt. Having spent time with him is real gift seeing his organization and his people skills. He’s extremely efficient with his time and he has a great Rolodex in remembering people and the little things about those people and being able to connect with them.”
Bledsoe was asked about being a former Vanderbilt baseball player and graduate.
“I don’t think I would be where I am today without that experience,” said Bledsoe. “I’m very blessed to have had the teammates that shaped my desires and growth. It gave me the ability to wake up everyday and try to do my best and grow everyday. While I had a double major in engineering and economics and don’t use all the facets of that degree but Vanderbilt was a place that taught me how to think and how to learn. The culture and feel of the school is so unique that I am thankful I was a part of it.”
Traughber’s Tidbit: Please be on the lookout for a new baseball book by Bill Traughber that should be ready for purchase near June 1st with the title “Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds.” The book covers the earliest documentation in the city (1857) with stories on 19th century teams, the Southern Association Nashville Vols (1901-1962, 1963) and the Nashville Sounds (1978-present) through First Tennessee Park. There are many vintage unpublished photographs 224 pages, 33 chapters with 86 illustrations.
This will be the last Commodore History Corner story for this school year.
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.