May 23, 2014
By Josh Kipnis | Subscribe to Commodore Nation
As Vince Conde takes the field on an unpredictably chilly March evening, he jogs out to his position between second and third base and immediately buries his right hand into the depths of his hind-side pocket.
On a day when Nashville residents begrudgingly substitute sunshine for snowflakes, Hawkins Field hardly resembles the sweet, southern, Tennessee hospitality it is known for on an early spring day. For Conde, the Vanderbilt Commodores’ starting shortstop this season, aside from a long-sleeved, black shirt tightly hugging his forearms, there’s no escaping the uncomfortable conditions.
Standing on the edge of the infield artificial turf, Conde quickly begins swinging his legs like giant pendulums, raising his feet up toward his waist, then back down towards the ground in hopes of igniting a spark in his thighs and calves. After fielding a ground ball, just before the game gets underway, he begins tapping the ends of his toes against the thin, brown plastic of the infield “dirt.”
To an ordinary spectator, he may appear jittery — almost nervous. But Conde’s teammates know that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Baseball’s one of those things he’s done his whole life,” fellow middle-infielder and starting second baseman Dansby Swanson said. “Everything comes naturally to him. He knows he can do pretty much anything out there.”
As he grew up in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico—10 minutes outside the capital city of San Juan—there isn’t a better word than “natural” to describe Vince Conde’s baseball past. In an area of the world where young boys practically grip their forks and knives like two-seam fastballs, baseball has long defined the way Conde lives his life. Staring into the concrete floor of the Vanderbilt dugout one afternoon, Conde can’t seem to place his finger on that one baseball memory that seems to stand out among the rest.
“I just remember the field where I used to play,” Conde said, a week prior to being named the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Week. “I don’t remember exactly what I did, or how I played, but just the first field I think I played on. Just playing games.”
But, before the next question could even be asked, Conde excitedly launched into the story behind the blue Omaha TPX bat he used to love. One of the biggest and best players in his league would always use it, Conde said. But when an adolescent Vince pleaded with his father to buy one, he was told that the bat was too heavy.
“Dad! I want it!” Conde said, raising the pitch of his voice, and laughing, as he reenacted his younger self.
Conde’s father understood it wasn’t the bat that his son used that mattered—it was who would see his son swing it that determined the teenage prospect’s future.
“In Florida, the exposure for baseball is better than Puerto Rico, especially for people who want to go to college,” Conde said.
And so, in the eighth grade, having received a scholarship to Orangewood Christian High School in Oviedo, Fla., the Condes—along with several other Puerto Rican families in the area—moved to the United States in hopes of brightening their son’s career. Conde was 12 years old at the time. He said he hardly struggled with the transition.
“You know, I actually didn’t go through that many challenges, especially when I first moved,” Conde said. “A lot of my teammates from Puerto Rico—not a lot, but some—came with me, too. It was kind of normal.”
For what few challenges Conde did face, however, baseball served as an important measure in overcoming that sense of adversity.
“Athletes (who) aren’t Puerto Rican, you speak to them and get more comfortable around them,” he said. “And as you start getting more comfortable, you see them in school, you talk to their friends. What I remember is, kind of like college, you get into the team aspect of (baseball). I’ve always had that, ever since growing up. It’s just fun being with everyone. We were always really close.”
To this day, Conde takes tremendous pride in his role as a “supporter of the team.” He doesn’t see himself so much as the starting shortstop of a perennial power in the SEC, but instead as a guy who is simply trying to be as consistent a player as possible.
“I’m all for the team,” Conde said, tucking his hands into the front opening of his gray sweatshirt. “And I don’t want to sound cliché or anything, but it’s just, you know, we all want to win. We all have the same goal as a team, and we just want to come together, be close with each other, have a good time, stay loose—even in tough situations. Even when we lose, I just try to be that normal guy who has fun with everyone else.”
For Swanson, having a teammate like Conde is what helps him stay calm in the raucous environments of Mississippi State, or the pressures of a home series against LSU.
“He’s not the most vocal (leader),” Swanson said, “but he knows when to say things. Like, when he sees the team struggling, or everyone’s kind of playing too fast, he’s able to kind of calm everyone down, slow everyone down and get them all on the same page. It’s like a selective leadership thing with him.”
But, much more than any words of wisdom Conde may relay to his troops, above all else, the image of Conde that strikes his teammates most is the permanent smile across his cheeks and the laugh that never seems to stop.
“He’s always been a happy-go-lucky, kind of goofball-type guy that you always love to have around,” Swanson said. “He always seems to be laughing, smiling or doing something that brightens everyone’s day. That’s his main goal—he just wants to have fun.”
Like a fifth-grader anxiously awaiting the final bell before summer, Conde’s constant movements on a baseball diamond resemble a nervous tic. But they serve as a mental mechanism, helping contain the child-like excitement that grows inside him with every new game.
“When we first take the field, I just try and focus and visualize what I want to do,” he said. “And also, just kind of take the chance and inhale everything that is happening right now, just try not to take it for granted, because it’s special to play for Vanderbilt and have that (starting shortstop) position that I have right now. I just try and breathe it in, and like I said, not take it for granted, because not everyone has this. It’s a special thing.”
In the bottom of the eighth of a 1-1 tie against Belmont, with one out and two runners in scoring position, the Commodores face their two most important at-bats of the night.
Awaiting his third and likely final plate appearance of the game, Conde takes a few cuts in the on-deck circle as he watches his teammate Zander Wiel try to knock in the go-ahead run. After timing the pitcher and swinging at a few imaginary strikes, all of a sudden Conde begins to abandon his natural swing. As he continues to wait on his at-bat—the pressure of the moment piling on heavier and heavier—Conde lifts his front leg high into the air and swings like Manny Ramirez with an exaggerated front step.
Then, before the next pitch to Wiel, Conde flips his bat over to his right shoulder, switching his hands as he turns in the opposite direction. Is he swinging lefty now? At a time like this?
“Just do whatever comes naturally to you,” Conde said.
Calm and collected — that’s just the way he plays.