As Vanderbilt players and coaches celebrated their College World Series championship on Wednesday night, it was impossible not to think back to the fall of 2008.
That’s when 23-year-old David Price, a former Vanderbilt standout, became an unlikely playoff hero and closed out Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
After the final out that landed the Tampa Bay Rays a spot in the World Series, the tall left-hander threw his arms into the air and let loose a cathartic roar that echoed all the way back to Middle Tennessee. In the days, weeks, months and years that followed Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin talked about that moment as Baseball’s payback for what it had taken from Price a year earlier.
There was no doubt that the 2007 Commodores were the best college baseball team in the country that year and that Price was the best player. A long run at the top of the rankings, a 54-13 record and Price’s bevy of All-America and Player of the Year honors were testament to each.
That team was not a national champion, though. It fell short because Price gave up a most unlikely home run against Michigan. It provided the difference in the decisive game of the NCAA regional at Hawkins Field and brought about a premature end to an unforgettable season.
Baseball can be a cruel game, Corbin has said often, but typically it also is a forgiving one. With that moment in Boston a little more than a year later Price and Baseball were even.
The 2014 Commodores probably are not as talented as that 2007 team. Or the one in 2011, Vanderbilt’s first to make the College World Series. Or last year’s, which not only won 54 games but set an SEC record with 26 wins in conference play.
Unlike those or any others, however, the 2014 Commodores are national champions. What they lacked in star power they more than made up for in pitching depth, patience at the plate — oh, and just a bit of karmic balance.
At a College World Series where home runs were a rarity, for a team that had not hit one over the fence since the last weekend of conference play center fielder John Norwood drove a fastball over the left field fence in the top of the eighth inning Wednesday night. It wasn’t just any fastball either. It was thrown by Virginia closer Nick Howard, who had not allowed a run in four previous NCAA Tournament appearances, including a four-inning stint in a 15-inning victory over TCU.
That was the difference as Vanderbilt won 3-2 in the decisive game of the best-of-three championship series over a team that was the preseason No. 1 that featured three of the top 38 picks in the 2014 MLB draft, including Howard (19th overall).
Years after it settled with Price, Baseball is now square with Corbin and everyone else associated with his program. Norwood’s home run not only settled the debt of seven years earlier, it did so — based on the fact it happened in a national championship game — with interest.
The game now owes someone else. On balance, most would have to say the wait was well worth it.