March 11, 2014
By Jerome Boettcher | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
Zander Wiel might not have followed in his father’s footsteps, but he never stopped looking up to him.
Zander was only 3 years old when his dad, Randy, became the men’s basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University. Randy held that position for the next six years until 2002.
Zander naturally gravitated to basketball, which was his favorite sport. He beamed with pride that his dad was the head coach of the Blue Raiders. And Randy loved showing off his son, often holding him on his lap during postgame news conferences.
“Him being a college coach has helped me a lot as far as being a player,” Zander, now 21 and Vanderbilt's starting first baseman, says. “I know how players should treat coaches, and I know how coaches should treat players. He has shown me that respect is something that should be mutual. I think those lessons have been very, very beneficial to me.”
In any sport.
When he got to Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Zander began to find a new love—the diamond. He had always played baseball, too, and realized he was better as a 6-foot-3 first baseman than a 6-3 small forward.
He decided his ticket to college athletics was a bat and glove.
“I miss basketball a lot to this day…but I realized in high school baseball was more my avenue,” he said. “My dad was encouraging of whatever I did.”
Randy made sure Zander knew he wanted him to be happy, regardless of which sport he played.
After a summer basketball camp at MTSU early in Zander’s high school career, Randy remembers a conversation on the drive home. Zander was thinking about quitting basketball to focus more on baseball, and he was worried his father would be disappointed.
Quite the contrary.
“I told him then, you should play what you want to play,” said Randy, who played and coached at North Carolina before head coaching jobs at UNC-Asheville and MTSU. “To me it doesn’t matter. Of course, I would have loved for him to play basketball because he was good at it. But I never wanted him to play because I wanted him to play. Obviously, he was pretty decent at (baseball).”
Better than decent, in fact.
Zander is off to a torrid start in 2014 after enjoying a stellar 2013 in which he was named an All-SEC Freshman. The redshirt sophomore is batting .316 with 10 RBIs and seven doubles in 17 starts for the Commodores, who are 15-2 and ranked as high as third in the national polls.
In 2013, the right-handed first baseman belted five home runs, drove in 27 runs and batted .305 in just 82 at bats and 15 starts.
Zander and his teammates won’t forget his first career start, either.
Coach Tim Corbin called his number for the second game of a doubleheader against Georgia on the road, and Wiel delivered mightily. He went 3-for-3, hit his first two collegiate home runs and drove in five runs.
In his first at-bat of the game, he recalls just trying to get the “barrel on the ball” on a 3-2 pitch.
“I was able to get the barrel to the ball in a big way,” he said with a smile. “It was cool to hit a home run, hit my first-ever collegiate home run. But it was even better when I went back into the dugout and all the guys were going crazy for me.”
Two weeks later, it was Zander who had a special guest in the crowd.
After his coaching career at MTSU ended, Randy headed overseas. Randy, who is from the Dutch colony of Curacao, an island in the Caribbean Sea, coached nine years in the Netherlands and won four championships. He spent last season coaching a basketball academy in China.
He lived overseas during the season, and his offseason often failed to coincide with baseball season. He had never seen Zander play in high school. So it was a special treat to have Randy in the stands during the South Carolina series last May. Zander singled three times and drove in two runs to help the Commodores clinch the SEC East title.
“It was pretty cool to have him there,” Zander said. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons from him. He wasn’t (home in Murfreesboro) so much when he was coaching overseas, but we still kept in contact a lot. He has still been a very strong influence. Whenever he was back home, it is just like he never left.”