The "smart school" of the SEC has never captured a men's national championship—even though its baseball team just set a record
This should be the year that the Vanderbilt University baseball team finally breaks through and reaches its first College World Series. It just set an SEC record with 12 players drafted to the major leagues, and it is among the top six in the country in both team batting average and team ERA. But you'd still be hard-pressed to find a Vanderbilt fan who'd wager that this squad is going to succeed. This, after all, is Vanderbilt, the school known to outsiders as the smart school of the SEC, but known to anguished insiders as the school that has just one NCAA title to its credit—in women's bowling—to go along with a rich history of unfulfilled athletic hopes. And this legacy of disappointment is perhaps best embodied by the recent fortunes of the baseball team.
Yes, the team just sailed through the first round of the NCAA tournament, winning three games by a combined score of 26-3. And its dominance in these outings, buoyed by the pitching of first-round picks Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin, helped justify Vanderbilt's No. 6 overall seed in the tournament. But there's a history to speak of, one that makes the inclusion of the qualifier "Yes, but ..." necessary to any yarn about Vanderbilt success.
In 2007 the Commodores were led by current-Tampa Bay Rays star pitcher David Price, who would go on to win the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's best player and be selected first overall in the draft. Riding Price's left arm, Vanderbilt rose to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in the program's history and earned the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament. And then it became the first top seed to ever lose in the first round of the tournament when—and you Vandy fans get a bonus if you remember this guy's name—Michigan pinch-hitter Alan Oaks hit a game-winning home run in extra innings off Price, who had previously been undefeated (11-0). Oaks, for his part, had come into that situation hitting .188 for the season with eight strikeouts in his last eight at-bats.
Giving up the go-ahead run to Oaks was galling, but the Commodores weren't quite done toying with the hopes of their fans. In the bottom of the 10th inning, third baseman Pedro Alvarez cracked a fly ball to deep center field, and every Vanderbilt fan temporarily believed that Price had been avenged. Undone by Alan Oaks? Nonsense. Here was Vanderbilt's second best player Alvarez, who was drafted No. 2 overall in 2008 and plays for the Pirates, picking up his teammate. Alan Oaks would not be the hero!
Not in the bottom of the 10th inning, anyway; that mantle belonged to Michigan's Derek VanBuskirk, who leapt at the wall and gloved Alvarez's bid for a tying homerun. Alan Oaks and Derek VanBuskirk. They sound like made-up names, the kind you stammer out under the suspicious gaze of border patrol agents. But they were very real when it mattered most, quashing Vanderbilt's best hopes to date for a national title in a men's sport—the men's sport, it should be noted, where they've proven themselves the most capable of competing on a national level.