NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It sounds simple when Tim Corbin explains it, although building Vanderbilt into a national college baseball power was anything but.
“It got to this point because of persistence,” said Corbin, whose Commodores are ranked No. 2 nationally by Baseball America and boasting a roster that consists of a nation-high 18 players once selected in the Major League Baseball entry draft.
“It was just doing the same things over and over and staying consistent with it and not deviating from any type of approach no matter what would happen,” he added.
It’s a far cry from where Vanderbilt baseball stood when Corbin took over in 2002. It had been a decade since the Commodores had even made the Southeastern Conference tournament, much less the NCAA tourney. Long saddled by inadequate facilities and lack of emphasis from the school, Commodores baseball was about as good at it could get under former coach Roy Mewbourne, who led the program for 24 years before Corbin, a Clemson assistant, was hired.
But with Corbin able to show off a new baseball stadium called Hawkins Field and a renewed emphasis on the program by school leadership, the recruiting classes started to possess players who later developed into top talent. That includes American League Cy Young Award winner David Price, Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Minor and Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, to name a few among the 103 Commodores drafted during Corbin’s tenure.
Success soon begat success, culminating with the breakthrough season of 2011 when the Commodores made it all the way to the College World Series for the first time. They have made the NCAA Tournament seven straight years.
“We knew it was going to take a strong effort to try to recruit some kids in here that could help us win,” Corbin said. “Those days, the (recruit) and parents looked at us and were saying, ‘Vanderbilt is not even on the college baseball radar screen.’ Not backing down and still going after those kids was, in fact, a challenge.”
The Commodores are off to a 9-1 start heading into a three-game home series this weekend against Illinois-Chicago before traveling to 14th-ranked Oregon next weekend for three games. They open SEC play March 15-17 with a three-game series at Auburn.
And, yes, Vanderbilt is again loaded with talent, featuring strong leadership from upperclassmen and quality depth on a roster that has had the top recruiting classes the past two years, according to Baseball America. No less than four Commodores juniors – first baseman Conrad Gregor, catcher Spencer Navin, second baseman Tony Kemp and pitcher Kevin Ziomek – were named preseason All-American by at least one outlet.
Gregor led the team in hitting as a freshman and in doubles in 2012, Navin batted .298 and threw out 20 baserunners last season, Kemp settled in at second base after moving from the outfield and already owns the school record with 16 triples and is six shy of the SEC mark, and Ziomek is off to a 2-0 start after going 5-6 last season and 3-0 as a freshman.
“Kevin is one the premier left-handed pitchers in our conference and in the country,” said Corbin, whose record with the Commodores in 10-plus seasons is 420-218. “He has been a consistent mainstay on our staff since his freshman year. We will be very reliant upon him again this year.”
But there’s much more to the Commodores, who were picked to win the SEC East Division in a preseason coaches’ poll, than just that quartet. Like senior outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, the grandson of Boston Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski; and senior outfielder Connor Harrell, who Corbin calls, “the best overall athlete on our team.”
Yastrzemski has been drafted twice, turning down contract offers from the Red Sox out of high school and the Seattle Mariners last summer to stay for his senior season at Vanderbilt.
“It was just a great combination of athletics and academics,” Yastrzemski said of why he chose Vanderbilt in the first place and decided to stay another year to finish his college career. “There is just something different here. There’s a camaraderie.
“There is a culture here that is different than everywhere else. … Coach Corbin tries to get us to think in the most positive way and the most connected way we can with each other. That’s the strongest we will be, when we are together.”
“The balance between academics and athletics is the biggest thing,” he said of being a Commodore baseball player. “Vanderbilt baseball has a pretty good reputation. And coach Corbin’s expertise speaks for itself.”
Managing all the talent that had the chance to already be playing professional baseball has become the norm for Corbin.
“That’s the way it is here, but we don’t take it for granted,” he said of the wealth of pro prospects on his roster. “The players are pretty much used to that. We have players who have come in here who have turned down millions of dollars and showed up at school.
“Now, when a kid comes to Vanderbilt, they see there are a lot of players who, like them, have had that opportunity out of high school and who have chosen to go down the path of academics and athletics at the highest level.”
It isn’t only the players who are having success past their time with the Commodores. During the past off-season, pitching coach Derek Johnson was hired by the Chicago Cubs as minor league pitching coordinator; and hitting coach Josh Holliday, the brother of St. Louis Cardinals star Matt Holliday, was named head coach at Oklahoma State.
“As a program, you want to try to develop everyone inside of it,” said Corbin, who has turned down head coaching offers from LSU, Auburn and Oregon, among others, to remain at Vanderbilt. “It could be your backup catcher, your coaches, your video person, your stat person. When you create an environment for them of improvement and trying to attain their personal goals, that’s when you have a program that is a true developer.”
And that includes his former coaches, especially Johnson, who joined Corbin at Vanderbilt from day one.
“We gave them opportunity,” Corbin said of Johnson and Hamilton. “They gave us a lot in return. They gave the kids a lot in return. And because of that, they got rewarded themselves.”
Already having that breakthrough season of making the College World Series, the Commodores have a single-minded approach to their ultimate goal this season. And that is not only getting back to Omaha, Neb., for the CWS, but winning a national championship.
“I don’t know if it is the ultimate validation,” Corbin said of what it would mean to win the national title. “I have never been part of one, so I really can’t tell you how it feels. I think the ultimate validation is building a legacy team.
“And that is a team that incorporates the character traits that you try to teach throughout the year and has success based upon those and the values of your program. When you have one of those teams, it’s something that you remember forever.”