There is a special time at the end of each season as teams gear up for the stretch run that the inevitable arguments will begin as to whether the teams racing for championships are truly the greatest and if not, then who is. ESPN, Twitter and talk radio program directors delight in posting polls and loaded questions that boldly ask the question of whether `this team is the best of all-time.' But shouldn't the question actually be, "What makes a team truly great?"
"To me, it's the comraderie that takes place off the field that makes a team great," said 2011 SEC Pitcher of the Year Grayson Garvin. "It (comraderie) permeates everything that you do. It permeates the way that you play because you know that everyone has each other's back. It makes you play like a team. You can find talent out there, but playing as a team isn't that common."
The talent is unquestioned for the 2011 Commodores. The SEC recognized Grayson Garvin as Pitcher of the Year and sparkplug Tony Kemp as Freshman of the Year. Kemp, T.J. Pecoraro, Conrad Gregor and Kevin Ziomek were named Freshmen All-Americans and the Commodores as a whole set the SEC record by having 12 players drafted in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Sonny Gray (18th to the Athletics) and Grayson Garvin (59th to the Rays) joined Jeremy Sowers (2004), David Price (2007), Casey Weathers (2007), Pedro Alvarez (2008), Ryan Flaherty (2008) and Mike Minor (2009) as first round draft choices during the Corbin era. As a team they outscored opponents in the Nashville NCAA Regional and Super Regional 46-7 sweeping their way to the school's first ever NCAA College World Series appearance. To a man, merely reaching Omaha wouldn't be enough. Their sights were set on winning it all.
"This is the first time I have ever seen every member of a team buy into finishing what was started," remarked Josh Holliday who played in two CWS (1996, 1999) and coached in two others with Georgia Tech and Arizona State. "Every kid, every staff member, every person involved is emotionally invested and having that be real... that is special."
Many Commodore fans have compared this year's team to the 2007 squad that ran the table ranked as the #1 team for most of the season, only to be upset in the Nashville Regional to Michigan 4-3 in 10 innings. It was a bitter pill to swallow for a team that set the school record for wins (54) and was led by David Price as the first overall draft pick to Tampa with Casey Weathers going seven picks later to Colorado. The abrupt end to the season for a team many considered to be the best, left many fans to wonder that if the 2007 Dores couldn't get to Omaha, then could any Vanderbilt team?
"Looking at the component of a team, I personally don't look at the outcome or the final record. I just look at what it was like to be on that team," said Holliday. "Here you don't have to worry about whether kids are missing curfew or whether all the coaches are on the same page; you don't have to worry about whether everyone is doing their job. You know that everyone is as emotionally invested as you are. It is a unique, rare moment. So I don't look at it from the outcome, I look at it from what it is like to be a part of it. This is for me the most unified, enjoyable, consistent team that I have ever been a part of. I have been on some really good teams that have won a lot of games, but to achieve that team component is rare. I don't even know that it is fair to say that this is the best one for me personally, because every team is special. It's pretty meaningful. Every team writes its own book, but this team is pretty special."
It's not easy to pin down easily articulate what makes the 2011 Commodores special, but there is a uniqueness that seems to play an increasingly important part in their success. The roster is composed of players from 17 different states with a balance of 11 freshmen, 11 sophomores, nine juniors and four seniors. The winning attitude is omnipresent, but so is the knack for showing off their lighter side. The 2011 Dance Off video (a YouTube David Schnabel masterpiece) which debuted in February, featured Jack Armstrong, Navery Moore and Mark Lamm showing off some dance moves that are even now being mimicked somewhere in the world. Or the taped outline of Connor Harrell's prone form on the left-centerfield wall at Hawkins Field courtesy of teammates Corey Williams and Drew Fann as homage to Harrell's run into the wall during a game. There are still wanted posters floating around the clubhouse penned by an unknown hand proclaiming, `If anyone has seen or has any information on the wall that hit Connor Harrell, please call VUPD.'
"We have a lot of balance on this team, not only baseball-wise," remarked Bryan Johns who transferred to Vanderbilt after playing for Howard (TX) Junior College that went 63-1 and won the 2009 Junior College World Series Championship. "You won't find any cliques. One day you are hanging out with five guys, the next it might be five different guys. We just have a comfort level that makes it like a family."
The close-knit family feel is yet another characteristic of a great team and can only help when times get tough. The Commodores have been fortunate with only bumps and bruises through the regular season, but when T.J. Pecoraro went down with a torn ligament in his pitching elbow in the SEC Tournament and Johns was lost to a broken fingertip on his throwing hand, the depth and support of teammates made up for it.
"Every team faces adversity," reflected Johns who tested his broken fingertip in Omaha. "The key is to trust in your training and all the hard work. It's all going to pay off. Coach Holliday talks about being resilient all the time. Teams might try to knock us down, but they weren't going to stop our quest to go to Omaha and try to win a Championship. It's a process, you trust in it. We have guys that can come in and take over for injuries. We just stick together no matter what."
So whether it takes camaraderie, talent, leadership, hard work, mental toughness, selflessness, or integrity...or all of the above, the 2011 Vanderbilt Commodores have done what superfan Vandy Lance has proclaimed each game for years; it has officially made Vanderbilt a baseball school nationally. It will be up to baseball fans to decide now that the final out has been made at TD Ameritrade Park, but at least one fan is very impressed so far with what he has seen.
"I would have to say that when you talk about performance on the field, performance in the classroom, performance socially with their selflessness as a group of leaders, from freshmen to seniors, this group exemplifies a lot of the qualities of what a great team is and what possibly a legacy team could become." So says Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt head baseball coach.