With apologies to all the women's bowling loyalists out there, Vanderbilt fans have never really been in this situation before. Tim Corbin's baseball team will enter the 2015 season with a huge target on their back. Not only are they the defending national champions and consensus preseason #1, but they also boast five All-Americans on a roster that's stacked with talent across the board.
This is awesome. But also, a little weird.
Vanderbilt athletics, whether it's been football, basketball, or even pre-2007 baseball, have always been about cheering for an underdog. The Commodores have constantly been the scrappy counterpuncher stepping in against an established Goliath. They've never been the odds-on favorite to win a national title at the start of a season - but in 2015, LSU, Florida, South Carolina, and the entire west coast will be looking up at Vanderbilt.
So what impact does a national title have in Nashville? And how will fans react after those NCAA Championship rings are passed out at Hawkins Field? What, exactly, do we do now that the nation is looking towards Vanderbilt for baseball leadership?
The way I see it, there are two paths we can go down:
- Pretend like nothing happened and continue to treat Vanderbilt Baseball's rise to glory as a game of blackjack funded with house money. Tim Corbin built this team up from nothing, and the fan base rose up with him. Most people in Nashville didn't even know the program existed before 2004. Now, success is the norm and hosting NCAA Tournament baseball at Hawkins Field is an semi-annual event. As long as Corbin can keep leading Vanderbilt to the Regionals, we have no problems.
- Ramp up expectations and increase scrutiny. Treat every loss like it's the end of the world. Walk away disappointed if the Commodores only take two of three from a top 10 team. Don't have Vanderbilt ranked #1, even after a home series loss to Florida? That's blatant haterism. The Commodores drop a weekday game to Lipscomb? Demand the ritual sacrifice of an assistant coach. Vandy gets ousted in the Super Regional? We raze Hawkins Field to its foundations and salt the earth so that nothing can ever grow back in its place.
The innately laid-back culture of college baseball will breed more fans in the first camp than the second. No major sport plays more regular season games than the #VandyBoys will see this spring. While that Gator/Commodore showdown in May will be an absolute delight to watch, it won't mean much more than a possible seeding adjustment in the SEC Tournament or a slightly longer debate on naming national seeds. The real insanity won't ramp up until the postseason starts and elimination games roll around at 16 select campuses across America's warmer regions.
But then, how much do these Commodores - I'm sorry, the Defending National Champion Vanderbilt Commodores - need to accomplish to keep fans happy? Do they have to win another College World Series to meet these expectations? Will a trip back to Omaha suffice? What if they suffer the same fate as the last power-armed Vandy team to rise to a #1 ranking before the postseason began and get shocked at home in the Regionals?
That last scenario would be a disappointment, but it wouldn't be a dealbreaker. The security blanket woven in to Tim Corbin's astronomical rise is that it happened so fast that Vandy fans can still remember those years when they couldn't raise the mental capital to even claim apathy towards Commodore baseball. Some fans may be calling for heads to roll, but they won't be the majority. Instead, Vanderbilt fans will be able to look at where they started, where they've been, and what the future holds (thanks to a constant stream of top 10 recruiting classes) to ease the pain of an early dismissal in a volatile game.
Baseball's weird like that - a lot of build up precedes rapid-fire moments of intense heartbreak or happiness - but Vanderbilt fans are the best-insulated group in the country when it comes to dealing with disappointment in 2015. Anything less than a national title is a letdown, but it's nothing compared to what we've dealt with on the gridiron and on the hardwood. Walker Buehler's only power move this season could be to walk a forfeit note to home plate every game and we'd still have this:
playing in our minds onto eternity. Sometimes it's very, very good to be a Vanderbilt Commodore.