"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
-A. Bartlett Giamatti
I grew up in Alabama, where summer is hot and humid and glaring and you have a thunderstorm every afternoon at 2:30 whether you want it or not, and after the rain passes it gets even hotter and more humid, if such a thing is possible. Even through my Vanderbilt days, I was always home over the summer, and it was gruesome. When I finally moved on with my life, it was to Washington DC, where every surface is paved and the entire metropolitan area radiates heat back in waves. And then I came to the Silicon Valley. Don’t let the fog fool you; that’s a San Francisco thing. Here in the Google Sector, spring begins sometime between Valentine’s Day and ends on Halloween. There are two seasons in Santa Clara county: Birmingham in early April and Birmingham in late April.
I am not a huge fan of the sun. It actually makes a difference here: without the humidity, your temperature is entirely determined by whether you’re in the shade or not. Those nine months of spring are largely cloudless, and the bright face glares down on you as if you’re a toddler who got caught doing something he shouldn’t, and it’s always just a little warmer than it needs to be. Our brief winter respite means actual outerwear, it means actual overcast skies and changing leaves, it means enough rain that you won’t have to relieve yourself off the porch come August because of the drought (again, my sincere apologies to the Mountain View Police Department and the homeowner’s association, but it was two in the morning you busybodies, give it a rest).
There is one compensation and one only. And that is this: cool breeze and blue skies and (climate permitting) green grass means that you have that Spring Training feeling all year long. You can go to the ballpark - not the concrete mausoleum in Oakland or the gentrified-brick-iron palace in San Francisco, but to the sunken diamond at Crazy Uncle Leland’s Junior University, or the WPA-era Memorial Stadium of the San Jose Giants, or the little league parks that dot the Peninsula - and it’s a picture postcard of the Platonic ideal of the game. Little league or college or the bus minors, always the same: kids playing a game where a better future is still dangling out there with untapped promise, where there’s always that potential to move on to greater things.
Part of supporting Vanderbilt athletics is accepting the late Bart Giamatti’s wisdom: it is designed to break your heart. We have chosen to put our football team up against the Alabamas and Floridas of the world, and we know our realistic ceiling is probably eight or nine wins once or twice a century. We have chosen to throw our basketball teams against Kentucky (men) and Tennessee (women) and know that our best hope is to steal an SEC tournament and maybe make the Sweet Sixteen. Who we are and how we choose to compete means that there are lines we won’t cross, chances we can’t take, inherent boundaries to how far we can go.
And then there’s baseball.
I arrived on campus in the fall of 1994, when actual lights were being installed at then-McGugin Field. Our baseball facility was a dirt triangle scratched out between the football and baseball stadiums, named for our greatest football coach, and it didn’t even have lights. The Chicago Cubs of the SEC. I did make it to a couple of games, but aside from future New York Times writer Tyler Kepner, there weren’t a lot of other folks around. And he had to be there because he was sports editor of the Hustler. I don’t know what my excuse was. But it was pretty clear we weren’t that serious about baseball. In a world where Mississippi State was hosting crowds of 10,000 on campus and Auburn had Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas crushing pitches into orbit, we were just getting around to night baseball, the greatest innovation of the 1930s.
And then, Corbs.
I first noticed things had changed in 2007, when word reached me that Vanderbilt baseball was ranked #1 in the country. And stayed ranked number one. And David Price went first in the draft. And I realized something was going on. Then a couple of years later, Sonny Gray happened, and we were in the College World Series, and it became apparent that this was not going away. And…well, you all know how things have gone since then. A program that once didn’t have lights on its field has a College World Series championship, could easily have had a second, is tipped to have its third player in a decade go #1 overall in the draft. The toast of everyone from a Today Show host to the Oak Ridge Boys to my one-year-old goddaughter, who I learned this week has spoken her 24th word: “Vandy,” the name of her favorite stuffed bear.
And at the helm of the whole thing, Tim Corbin. A man whose name will be for Vanderbilt what Bryant is at Alabama, what Rupp is at Kentucky, what Summitt is at Tennessee: the undisputed greatest coach of their flagship sport, period. A coach and a person who seems too good to be true, whether it’s drilling the team in how to stand for the national anthem, or consoling the loved ones of a player tragically lost far too soon, or Tweeting out handwritten notes of thanks to the fans for their support in good times and bad. And coaching up an endless stream of players who come back in the off-season, who teach each other their out pitches even when they’re competing with each other for Cy Young awards, who loudly support their alma mater online and not just in baseball. Mark my words and put $50 on it for me: someday there’s going to be a namesake statue out front of Hawkins-Corbin Field.
Yes, we have other sports that do well. Hell, we have other sports that win championships. The thing that stands out about baseball is this: we have made that same choice, to compete against the best teams we can face in the toughest conference we could play in, in a sport that these other schools do take seriously and care about. It is, in theory and on paper, another insurmountable challenge. It is designed to break your heart.
And there stand the #VandyBoys, and Tim Corbin behind them, telling us “Not today.” Because spring has come back at long last.