Boys of Summer find winter home

Feb. 9, 2009

Ryan Rote

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Pitchers and catchers don't report to spring training until the end of February, but you wouldn't know it if you were to visit Vanderbilt's weight room during the winter months, when every day seems like the start of spring training.

Instead of working out at their respective team's spring training facilities or at another warm-weather destination during the offseason, the boys of summer have found a winter home at Vanderbilt.

During each of the past few years, the total number of former Vanderbilt baseball players who are calling Vanderbilt their home during the offseason has increased exponentially. This year alone, there are enough former Commodores who have returned during the offseason to form a team. The number of players reaches double digits and ranges in age from Ryan Klosterman, who last played at Vanderbilt in 2004, to players such as Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty and Brett Jacobson, who were drafted after the 2008 season.

Each winter the players return to Vanderbilt to work out together and train for the upcoming season. However, with so many places across the country that seem more like offseason training destinations than Nashville, it begs the question: Why here?

"I come back because a lot of guys that played at Vanderbilt that are now in pro ball come back, and Vanderbilt has the facilities I need," said Matt Buschmann, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2006 and now is a pitcher in Double A with the San Diego Padres organization. "All of us enjoyed our time at Vanderbilt, and a lot of us give credit to the coaching staff and especially the strength coaches. They are always here as a reference for us to use and try to get better. We want to come back, and they want us to come back, so it makes it easier."

One way Vanderbilt is able to keep players coming back each year is by providing them with state-of-the-art baseball training facilities and resources that are as good, if not better, than any other place in the country.

"Personally, I think I am able to do more at Vanderbilt (than anywhere else)," Buschmann said. "Vanderbilt's baseball facilities are some of the nicest in the country. The pitching lab we have downstairs for all the pitchers is one of the most high-tech places you can pitch anywhere. (Vanderbilt pitching coach) Derek Johnson is also one of the best pitching coaches in the country, so I get to pick his brain. Overall, I think we have a better chance of doing a lot more here then anywhere else."

Ryan Rote, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2005 and now is a pitcher in the Chicago White Sox organization, agrees with Buschmann that the facilities at Vanderbilt make it hard not to come back.

"The facilities at Vanderbilt are better then we have in the minor leagues," Rote said. "I couldn't say that about the big-league side because I haven't been there yet, but there is no comparison to the minor leagues."

Returning to Vanderbilt also allows the players an opportunity to work out with other professional players. On the flip side, if the players were to train at a local gym, they would be missing the motivation that comes from working out in a group setting.

"It is a good time for us to catch up with everybody, and it is easier to work out when you are with a group then by yourself," said former Vanderbilt pitcher David Price, who just completed his first season with the Tampa Rays.

Having the facilities and providing a group setting is one aspect, but an even larger reason the players continue to return to Vanderbilt is the way they are welcomed with open arms by the coaching staff. A driving force behind the way players are welcomed back is the alumni program that Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin established.

"I keep coming back because of the alumni program here," Rote said. "It is a great environment to be around guys who are in the same shoes that you are, and you kind of feed off each other."

Like Rote, Price also believes that the way the team openly welcomes players back is a big draw.

"They welcome us when we come in," Price said. "They want us to come back, and we all enjoy being around here, so that is why we do it."

Part of what makes the team's alumni program so strong are the little things such as having an alumni locker room, which was completed in 2006.

"Just to have an alumni locker room alone is enough to want to make you come back," Rote said. "Coach Corbin has really opened his arms for the alumni."

Of the players who return to Vanderbilt each offseason, few make as large a commitment as Rote does. During the offseason, Rote has to fit his workouts around the jobs he holds. On top of his one-hour round-trip commute to work out at Vanderbilt, Rote teaches pitching lessons, teaches strength and speed lessons, sells appliances at Sears and sells campers and ATVs for his father-in-law.

"I have to pay the bills, so a lot times our workouts are based on when I can fit it in between my other jobs," Rote said.

As busy as his schedule gets between jobs, returning to Vanderbilt has become a tradition for Rote as it has for the others who return each year. It is a tradition that the players believe will expand for years to come.

"We've got a great group of guys already, and I think it will just keep expanding," Rote said. "Coach Corbin even mentioned that he'd have to build another alumni locker room because there are not enough spaces. There are five lockers total and there are three guys sharing one locker right now. It is great to have that, and I think it will just keep growing."

Buschmann also agrees that returning to Vanderbilt is turning into a tradition for former players because they realize that it not only reconnects them with the program, but it also benefits them as players.

"We all look forward to it," Buschmann said. "It is similar to when we were in college and we'd all come back from summer ball and seeing everybody. Everyone looks forward to coming back here. We all had a great time, and we are all really close friends. I think the big thing is that we all have the same mindset that we all want to get better. There is a large amount of talent that comes out of here, and to be around that, we are all going to get better because of it."

Having professional players return each offseason not only benefits the players, it also benefits the program as a whole. One of the benefits it provides is fostering relationships between former players and current players.

"That is one of the biggest things," Buschmann said. "One of the reasons we come back is because we want to be a part of the new team that is here now. We invested our time in it, and we want to keep investing our time in it.

"I think Coach Corbin loves us coming back and mixing in with the players. We don't want to go in and tell (the players) what to do, but if they want to pick our brain, we definitely would listen and answer any questions they might have. I just think it helps us pass down that winning tradition that we are trying to build with Vanderbilt baseball."

As one of the youngest members of the alumni group that has returned to Vanderbilt this offseason, Price is still connected with players on the team that he played with while in school, but by returning to Vanderbilt he has been able to connect with the younger players on the team that he didn't play with.

"We are in the locker room with them," Price said. "We see them at basketball games and talk to them, so we do build relationships with them. I played with some of the guys on the team, but some of the guys, I'm just meeting for the first time and that is fun."

Another benefit of having former players around the program is in recruiting.

"I think it is a huge advantage (in recruiting)," Rote said. "The coaches are able to bring recruits in and just see us standing around in the locker room and see all the professional logos. It is a huge recruiting tool."

Other programs certainly have professional players who return to their colleges in the offseason, but you'd be hard pressed to find a program that has as many players return as Vanderbilt does. It is just another part of what makes Vanderbilt's baseball program unique.

"For as many as we have that come back, I think it is a rarity," Buschmann said. "There are some programs that have guys go back, but not as far as how close we are to the team that is here now and just the amount of guys that are here now, I think it is just a credit to Vanderbilt."



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