June 2, 2013
When it comes to catching the public's attention, college baseball is an interesting case study.
As the sport's 56-game season begins, basketball is beginning its stretch run. Baseball's non-conference games are often played in cool, breezy weather before diehard fans; the fair-weather folks take a bye. The media is consumed with dunk shots, buzzer beaters and March Madness. Beating Long Beach State or Oregon gets modest news coverage.
But the wonderful and unique thing college baseball has going for it is that by tournament time it has the stage nearly to itself. There is very little else for the sports fan to cheer this time of year and so for purists, this is the holy season. What other sports wouldn't give for the calendar's advantage! Baseball rules.
Hawkins Field, a.k.a. The Hawk, is sold out. Jess Neely Drive is shut down and barbecue grills occupy the street across from the main gate. Huge trucks supplying additional lighting for national television coverage dominate McGugin Center's parking lot. The local paper's coverage includes an action photo on top of its front page that alone is multiple times larger than those early season recaps. It's Corbin Time.
Vanderbilt's fan base has become savvy after a decade of watching premium ball - conference champions and All-America players with the triple steals, dazzling pitching and tape measure homers they produce.
Dore fans now execute the two-strike clap cadence without a prompt, watch sold out games from atop the nearby parking garage, applaud the ground out that advances the runner and have got the complicated "Black-Gold" cheer down pat.
It's an unpredictable game. A vicious line drive is an easy out if directed at a fielder while a Texas Leaguer blooper can appear to be a titanic blast in the box score. The best team often wins but not always, which is why the favorites seldom relax, the underdogs always have hope and a lot of Vandy fans chewed their nails Saturday evening.
Best of all, it's a game that bonds the generations. Grandpas come with their granddaughters, grammies with their grandsons. Football analyst Kirk Herbstreit was spotted with his kids in the left field stands Friday night. The elders buy popcorn and pass along their ball diamond wisdom to another generation, confident the circle will be unbroken. What other sports wouldn't give for baseball's tradition!
Saturday night's play occasionally wasn't up to the consistent, high bar that the Commodores have set for themselves during this memorable year. Illinois played hard, inspired ball, no doubt wanting to prove itself against the Southeastern Conference champions.
But a mix of veterans and rookies eventually wore down the Illini. Tony Kemp ran wild, showing why he is one of the game's most exciting players. Mike Yastrzemski supplied early offense with a pair of doubles and a triple and freshman Zander Wiel laced three hard singles to demonstrate why he was the designated hitter. Reliever Carson Fulmer mixed 95 mile per hour fastballs with some nasty curves to toss five shutout innings.
The Commodores will now await the winner of tomorrow afternoon's Georgia Tech-Illinois rematch and the fans will tell their buddies that they had another great time creating memories at the ole ballpark.