Donny Everett’s last pitch was 101 miles an hour.
A few days after he threw that pitch, he was gone – drowned in a pond in a swimming accident between the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. His teammates, grief-stricken, went out of the regional with as much fight as you could hope for from a bunch of teens going through the unimaginable. And Tim Corbin, the iconic coach of Vanderbilt baseball, wondered if that class, that team, this program could ever recover from a blow like that.
Donny would have been a senior this year. All of his teammates came back for one more bite at the apple. His heirs were the top rated freshman class in the country, lead by a fireballing pitcher from Georgia who might himself touch 101 before it’s all over and done with in Nashville. And they played like brothers on a mission. Wednesday night, in Omaha, the circle was finally closed, and Donny’s parents were on stage with the players and coaches of the 2019 College World Series national champion Vanderbilt Commodores.
The numbers alone are staggering: most strikeouts thrown in a season, breaking a record set in 1972. 59 wins, most in a season for a champion since 1989. First SEC team to ever defeat all 13 other SEC teams at least once in a season. First SEC team since 2009 to win the conference AND the conference tournament AND a national championship. Lost one game in regionals and super-regionals combined. Lost one game total in the College World Series. Went 3-0 on the year against the #3 team in the country. Won 35 games against the top quartile of college baseball teams. Thirteen players taken in the MLB draft. And Kumar Rocker, the freshman with the exploding slider who threw a complete game no-hitter with 19 strikeouts in the Duke super-regional, threw another gem with 12 more K’s facing elimination in game 2 of the championship and wound up only the sixth freshman in history to be named Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series.
59-12. Triple champions. The most dominant Vanderbilt baseball team of all time going back to 1886, barring neither the 2014 champions or the 2013 team that won 25 games in the SEC or the 2007 team that went wire-to-wire as regular season #1 in the polls. This instance of the VandyBoys was ranked the consensus preseason #1, and finished as national champions.
More than ever, this year felt like what it must feel to be a decades-long Warriors fan in the Kerr era, or a Bama fan under Saban, or a Bulls fan in the 90s. It’s a juggernaut. It’s the Death Star. The only drama is the form of the domination, or the comeback, or who the night’s designated hero will be. This team felt inexorable, inevitable, unstoppable. If Thanos had tried to snap his fingers he would have been frozen looking at a fiery strike 3 from Tyler Brown, assuming that JJ Bleday’s bat didn’t decapitate him and send his domepiece 440 feet into the stands.
You have to deal with a lot to support the black and gold. The difficulty of finding players who can win games and make the grades and stay out of court. The challenge of a conference with thirteen other “schools” [sic] who aren’t worried at all about the diploma or police blotter. The drumbeat of a media, local and national, in thrall to the Narrative. The weight of history and the expectation of disaster. And then, after years of falling through what feels like hundreds of miles of horse shit, one night out of nowhere you ride out on a stallion. And ride like the wind, way past the border of Mexico.
After all, if there’s any program that combines smooth with money like a yacht rock concert, it’s the Commodores, right?
I didn’t see a single postseason game.
Five years ago, I worked from home on the day of Game 3. I walked out on the porch about an hour before first pitch and let the door hang open behind me. No humidity, cool summer breeze, golden sunlight through green leaves. And I told myself that it’s a good life, down deep where it counts, and win or lose I needed to remember that. And then I listened to Joe Fisher – I tried to sync the audio and the TV, but the two digital delays were impossible to reconcile so I wound up with the audio about an out ahead of the screen. And when the final out was recorded, I shouted out, overjoyed, and then we headed to the pub to celebrate with our weeknight trivia group – and won. There’s a picture of me with the trivia belt thrown over my seersucker blazer, Vandy hat on over the shades, throwing up that VU.
This year, I literally didn’t watch or listen to a single second of postseason ball before there were two outs in the ninth of the final game. I followed the games through Twitter, piping the Vandy baseball account through a little-used Twitter timeline separate from the one most Vandy fans know me by. And as the tournament went deeper and deeper, I stopped even that, preferring to look in only after a couple of hours had gone by. I didn’t see a single pitch of Kumar Rocker’s epic no-hitter, or his clutch performance in Game 2 of the CWS. I haven’t seen a single homer from Bleday or Scott or Clark or Infante. No epic Brown multi-inning saves, no Harry Ray web gems, no Austin Martin running like the wind and hitting .400.
Fear? Anxiety? Maybe? To be blunt, 2019 isn’t 2014. Deep down where it counts, it’s not that good a life right now. Every condition that pertained five years ago in my life is arguably either just as bad or worse, whether it’s an utterly unstable situation at work or a troubled and traumatic relationship with Alabama people or a world on fire with little hope of pulling back from the abyss. Next to that, you need escape, and escape through sports means the Giants – San Jose or San Francisco alike – or the A’s, or maybe some sort of soccer. Something without an emotional investment attached. Because right now, my emotional investments need to be the equivalent of a Treasury bond – safe, solid, and backed by the full faith and credit of something that isn’t ever going anywhere. And if there’s one thing an emotional investment in Vanderbilt athletics isn’t, ever, it’s safe.
I dug Vanderbilt out of the hole in 2006, at a time when I was finally and fully alienated from my undergraduate school, when Alabama football was at its lowest ebb in my lifetime, when I was having that dull-moment year and casting about trying to decide “who am I now” at a fairly liminal point in my life. And honestly, Vanderbilt felt as strange and exotic as if I had decided to support Aston Villa or Newcastle United, despite the fact that I was actually an alumnus with a degree and a ring and plenty of ticket stubs from football and basketball alike. Probably because the person who actually went there for three years is a different person than the one who went into the dark in 1998 and was rebuilt in DC.
And then, a handful of years later, Vanderbilt became my shield and sigil at a time when my entire world seemed to be defined by the University of California on one side and Stanford University on the other. Vanderbilt was mine, however tenuously, and it was something I could hold up and call my own and then punch at roughly equal weight with the forces around me. And then, of course, Stanford became China’s Oxford, the Hellmouth first of the tech sector and then of the Wall Streeting of Silly Con Valley. And as much as I despised Stanford – as much as I despise Stanford – the unpleasant thought began to dig at me that if I were in Nashville, and not an alum, I would probably have similar feelings about Vanderbilt. I don’t think we are as transparently the baddies as the Beast of Palo Alto, but it would be the height of folly to think we’re the good guys.
And my relationship with Vanderbilt is much closer to a sidewalk alum than someone who actually went there. I’ve done alumni events, they’re fine, everyone is very pleasant, but I am so not the correct demographic for the sort of people who turn up to the San Francisco Vanderbilt Club meetings. I’m as old as the new arrivals’ parents, I don’t live in the city, they don’t live down the South Bay, and my Vanderbilt experience is patently not their Vanderbilt experience and vice versa. And proper sidewalk alum-ness kind of requires you to be on the sidewalk. I’ve been to two football games in Nashville since 1996, and the last one was in 2013 (plus extra credit for the bowl game in Birmingham the same season).
I’ve had some good times. People have been very nice to me. Vanderbilt as a whole has probably treated me better since 1994 than I earned from it in my three years there. But to be perfectly honest, I would gladly accept the wave of a magic wand tomorrow that replaced the entire seven years after graduating high school with some other higher-ed experience. As long as I had the kind of undergrad career I wanted and the fates deposited me at National Geographic at the end of the summer of 1997, you could take Vanderbilt from me and I would be all right.
So now what?
It’s entirely possible that thirty years on from only applying to three schools, I may have put the college thing to rest. Not because I’m all right with it or found some way to make it all worthwhile in the end, but because I accept that what happened, happened. There’s no do-over, there’s no making it right, there’s no way I will ever have not attended that stupid undergrad school. I don’t need Vanderbilt to be a stand-in any longer, my first job out of college dressed up in a varsity sweater and raccoon coat masquerading as my alma mater. I suspect that if I were to change my current employment, I’d feel the need even less than I do now, and the college thing wouldn’t even be a thing.
That Vanderbilt-related Twitter account I mentioned? Has over 1400 followers. My congratulatory tweet after the game got over 400 likes. I know real live people because of Vanderbilt sports, and have introduced them to other real live people that have knit them into a greater whole. Hell, I’m the person who named David Williams “the Goldfather” in an Insta post from Rogue Tavern the night before the bowl game. Irrespective of how I got to this point, Vanderbilt sports have allowed me to build a persona, a small following, and a simulacrum of an actual affinity group.
Those are thin on the ground. I don’t think it’s a secret that I have struggled to build any kind of personal connections since leaving Apple. I haven’t done it through work, at first deliberately and then because even if I’d wanted to, the sort of people I vibe with are thin on the ground at the office. I tried things like RCIA or a cappella chorus singing or even looking at churches (of which more later), but nothing really offered me a hook. I don’t have the kind of local “where everybody knows your name,” and even if I did, I don’t frequent the pubs enough to make myself a regular anywhere anymore. Most of the trivia competitors from five years ago have moved away, or aren’t around routinely anymore, and that pub doesn’t even do trivia now as far as I know. My celebration of a national title, in 2019, was to pull a pint of Phish Food out of the freezer an hour and a half later and eat maybe half a dozen spoonfuls before putting it back.
I did it through social media for a while. But it was obvious by 2011 that Facebook was a cesspool of scum and villainy and not worthy of trust, so I blew that up with a quickness. I was relying heavily on Twitter for a while, which sort of worked, until the election – and then I blew up my personal account and then went through a series of reductions and mutings and reconfigurations to try to keep out the noise, and then as it turns out so did most everyone else I know. I have Instagram, but the day is coming when Facebook will turn that into a shit fountain too. There’s Slack, with the same Internet friends I’ve known for close to a quarter-century, but not all the ones I wish would be on there. As really close friends go, there’s one up the Peninsula a ways, and then there are people on the other side of the country or the other side of the world. And then there’s my wife, who as a result has to shoulder a disproportionate load – one I’ve been on the other side of in a past life and one I’m consequently uncomfortable dumping on any individual person.
So…now what happens? The 2019 College World Series was a triumph for the ages, the final blast of a dreadnaught the likes of which college baseball – hell, college sports – has rarely seen, and never from Vanderbilt. But in three months, Vanderbilt sports means football, and a team that has played since 1890 without ever once winning ten games in a season, with the biggest delta in America versus its archival institution and permanently handicapped by membership of its conference. And then, even assuming an unimaginable fourth straight win over UT in football, comes basketball, with a new coach taking over a team that has so far lost 20 consecutive games in 2019, which went completely winless in conference play for the first time in history and which finished with single-digit total wins for the first time since they first hired a full time basketball coach. And maybe women’s tennis or women’s bowling will shoot for the stars successfully again, or maybe another little-followed sport will suddenly ascend to prominence, or maybe miracles will happen.
But maybe not. More likely that after Labor Day, Vanderbilt sports will be back to “why do you do this to yourself?” and I will be forced to contemplate again whether what it brings to the table for me emotionally is worth what it takes off the table emotionally. If there’s one thing in my life that I don’t need in 2019, it’s elective sources of anxiety or misery. The world is enough for that right now without me throwing gas on the fire.
Apprehend the moment. Consider it. Appreciate it. Then release it. Time to move along. Better to seek out something that sparks joy instead of trying to force something that doesn’t.