Vanderbilt's rise to national elite
There's something stark and brutal about the line that keeps the peasants from the elites in college athletics. It's never unclear on which side of the barricade you stand.
Tim Corbin moved to Nashville in June 2002 to run the Vanderbilt baseball program, and there were no mixed messages for him, either. The Commodores had never been to the College World Series and hadn't seen the NCAA tournament since 1980. Corbin came from Clemson, where he was an assistant coach for nine seasons, four of which ended in Omaha. This wasn't that.
In his introductory press conference, Corbin said, "I like the idea of selling Ivy League education with Southeastern Conference baseball." He put on his selling shoes, but the challenge became clear immediately: In the SEC, winning sells.
"Right after I took the job I had a conversation with a recruit's dad," says Corbin, now in his 11th season at Vanderbilt. "He said, 'Vanderbilt isn't even a blip on the college baseball screen. You guys have a good school, but my kid isn't going there.' And I thought, 'Wow, we have a long way to go.'"
The Commodores open the 2013 season ranked No. 2 by Baseball America and are in the top five of all major national polls. They've been an elite team for a half-dozen seasons now. In 2007, Vandy spent 13 weeks ranked No. 1 in the country -- the first time in school history -- and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. They won regular-season SEC titles in '07 and '11, a season in which the program went to Omaha for the first time ever.
It's been a relatively quick climb with Corbin, who you could argue has built a new-era power program.
After the '02 season, Corbin replaced Roy Mewbourne, who'd been Vanderbilt's coach for 24 seasons. Corbin respected that, and he didn't want to come in torching the Tennessee earth. But he saw a current culture, and he saw his culture. He began by setting a standard of awareness.
They were little things. Know that a baseball is worth $5, a bat a couple hundred bucks. Understand all that can be accomplished in a 24-hour day. Recognize your teachers. Realize there are people around you. Be present. Be aware.
"They may have seemed unimportant, but 18-, 20-year-olds can be self-absorbed," Corbin said over the phone. "It's not their fault. They are very skilled, and that can bring a sense of self-importance. Being aware of the little things changes their focus."
The focus of the university was changing, too. In the fall of 2003, Vanderbilt fired athletic director Todd Turner -- who hired Corbin -- and expunged a traditional athletics model. David Williams, a faculty member of Vanderbilt's law school who served as the university's general counsel and vice chancellor of student affairs, was appointed to integrate athletics with academics into one streamlined hierarchy.
"There was a really big mismatch, with academics here and athletics somewhere over there," says Williams, who was officially named Vanderbilt's athletic director last summer. "It's important both provide value, and when the cost of attendance is so high, to function at an SEC level [in sports], that requires an investment from the university."
The move created a greater flow of resources to the baseball program. Facilities were upgraded. Assistants were given raises when other schools called to hire them away. On some occasions, "academic relief" was granted to get a kid into school. These were great days for Vanderbilt baseball.
Over time, the integration facilitated success. But, of course, none of it meant anything if Corbin couldn't get good players on campus. Things were changing in Nashville, but Corbin needed an impact recruit to solidify that change, to announce it to the rest of the country. He needed a player anybody would love to have. He needed David Price.
"People told us we would be wasting our time if we recruited him," Corbin says. "His potential was such that he may skip school altogether, but if he didn't, he wouldn't come to a school like Vanderbilt."
As Corbin courted Price, a left-handed pitcher who grew up in Tennessee, the coach found something different. He found a kid with an open mind, parents with academic values. He found an opportunity to change the future of his program.
"David's rise paralleled Vanderbilt's, for sure," Corbin says. "David wanted to be a builder, not a renter. He didn't want to share someone else's tradition, he wanted to create his own."
In many ways, Price was the sledgehammer that crushed the barricade between the elites and the peasants for Vanderbilt. The Commodores started raking in top recruiting classes. Price, winner of the 2012 AL Cy Young Award, became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft. Pedro Alvarez, a third baseman, went No. 2 overall in '08. Mike Minor, a left-handed pitcher, went No. 7 overall in '09. The faucet had been turned on.
"David's success made it easier for kids to come here. Our recruiting is very diverse," Corbin says regarding the impact of Price. "Now we have white kids, black kids, Latin kids, Jewish kids, Polish kids, all kinds. I'm very proud of that."
Corbin is quick to mention that his program has not "arrived." And he's right. Vanderbilt doesn't have the history of LSU or the recent success of South Carolina. It doesn't have a case full of conference titles. It doesn't have a ring. The program is still teething.
But the tone, the expectations, the attitude toward Vanderbilt baseball in town -- those have all changed.
Williams attended a college football dinner recently with coach James Franklin, and alumni kept approaching the AD with questions. "Think we're going to get to Omaha this year? What's with that baseball recruit we just signed? How's Coach Corbin doing?"
It struck Williams that at a football dinner, for a rising football program in a football-centric conference, people wanted to talk about his baseball program.
Corbin sits somewhere in the middle between the sagging program he took over and the soaring one that has alumni galvanized now. The rankings and the polls, they all contribute to this deluge of hype and attention. He gets it, even if he stops at "moderate success" when discussing what his program has accomplished. Corbin wants to hang onto that feeling of not arriving. He wants to keep that edge.
But then he mentions change and missed opportunities. He brings up R.A. Dickey, the 2012 NL Cy Young winner who played at Tennessee, as an example, and you steal a peek into Corbin's optimism.
Dickey didn't come to Vanderbilt because he didn't have the opportunity to. He wasn't admissible under the old academic model. Gone is that old model, and gone is that old Vanderbilt.
"I dare say he's admissible today," Corbin says. "Times are different now."
UNC joins the preseason No. 1 debate
"Why are people ranking us No. 1? Do you know?"
That was Mike Fox's greeting when I called the North Carolina head coach the other day. Baseball America had just ranked the Tar Heels first in its preseason poll, and a few days earlier Perfect Game did the same. Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA have UNC No. 2 behind Arkansas.
"We lost one of the best catchers in the country [Jacob Stallings] and one of the best closers in the country [Michael Morin]," Fox said. "I know we have some pitching and a chance to be good, but are we that good?"
One longtime head coach told me recently that, over the years, he's found that the best teams in the country usually have juniors on their pitching staffs, because they are more developed and have more experience. That could be a good place to start when evaluating Fox's club, as he will have two juniors in his weekend rotation -- left-hander Kent Emanuel on Friday and lefty Hobbs Johnson on Sunday. Right-hander Benton Moss, a sophomore, will start on Saturday.
Trevor Kelley will get the first shot to replace Morin as UNC's closer. Kelley, a right-hander, lowered his arm slot at the end of last season and got comfortable with it over the summer. The result was a hard, running heater in the 88-91 mph range that hitters have a hard time squaring up. The low slot also helps him produce a firm, sweeping slider that's sharp enough to miss bats against both right- and left-handed hitters.
"He's nasty from [the low slot]," Fox says. "Whether he can go out in the late innings and handle it mentally, we'll see."
The Tar Heels will have Colin Moran and Cody Stubbs in the middle of the lineup, with speed built around the sluggers. Two freshmen hitters to watch: Landon Lassiter, who is getting a shot to win the starting shortstop job, and Skye Bolt, who has the same opportunity in center field.
Arizona puts its national title to sleep
An hour after the Arizona Wildcats had dogpiled in Omaha last season, beating South Carolina to win a national championship, head coach Andy Lopez was in the clubhouse talking to his players about memories and identity.
"This is a great moment in your lives; make sure you cherish it," Lopez said to his players. "But also know that this isn't who you are. This title is not our identity."
Lopez meant it in a life-lesson kind of way. Of course, as a baseball program, he wants to be identified with championships. But by keeping the championship in an appropriate perspective, it would also help his players return to campus rejuvenated and focused on another season.
"We still talk about Omaha, who doesn't?" Lopez said on the phone from Tucson. "But we don't say, 'Let's go win another championship.' It helps to just focus on improving from Monday to Saturday each week. You should see growth."
The Wildcats have been scattered anywhere from No. 10 to No. 24 in the preseason polls. They lost Rob Refsnyder, Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series, to the draft. But Arizona still returns some big pieces from its championship team, including three preseason All-Americans.
Sophomore catcher Riley Moore was a freshman All-American last season after hitting .301 and scoring 40 runs, and he'll be back behind the dish. Junior right-hander Konner Wade, who was named to the CWS all-tournament team along with Moore, will anchor the starting rotation. And outfielder Johnny Field brings his .370 batting average and 72 runs back to the desert for another spring.
The intellectual side of Carlos Rodon
Every movement Carlos Rodon makes on a baseball field seems to have first been marinated in rage. He has a presence, and he can be intimidating.
Rodon is a big, thick southpaw -- listed at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds -- and the ace of NC State's staff. His fastball reaches the mid-90s, off of which he throws a slider, curveball and change.
Last season, Rodon became the first freshman in ACC history to be named the conference's player of the year. He had a 1.57 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings. He's already one of the best pitchers in the country and still has at least two seasons of college ball left. He'll be in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft.
But for all of his physical tools, what makes Rodon unique is his advanced understanding of pitching at a young age. "He understands concepts," NC State pitching coach Tom Holliday says. "Hitters like to get in a rhythm and sit on fastballs. So we spend a lot of time talking about how to turn that around. How do you get a hitter to look for a ball away and then pound him in? He gets that."
It's Rodon's nature to be hyperaggressive on the mound, a trait that is admirable but that must be monitored for a starting pitcher. Holliday watches major league games every day of the season -- his son Matt plays left field for the St. Louis Cardinals -- and says Rodon could pitch in a big league bullpen right now. And if Rodon wasn't so good as a starter, he'd likely be closing for the Wolfpack, because that seems to fit his personality.
But Rodon throws strikes, commands his fastball, and carries his velocity into the eighth and ninth innings. Barring health issues, he'll never see the bullpen in his collegiate or pro career, so Holliday is trying to add polish to an already big-time prospect. Getting outs earlier in counts -- by using his two-seam fastball to get weak contact, by using his slider to get an eager hitter to roll over -- will be the next step in Rodon's development.
Happy Holidays, Stanford
When the Pittsburgh Pirates used the No. 8 overall pick last year to pop Stanford right-hander Mark Appel, they believed they were adding another frontline pitching prospect to their system.
They loved the size -- 6-5, 215 pounds. They loved the stuff -- mid-to-upper 90s fastball, sharp breaking ball, feel for a change. They were ready to cut a check for $3.8 million and sign their guy.
And then Appel went back to Palo Alto, Calif., for his senior season. Appel, whose advisor is power agent Scott Boras, is placing a big bet on his talent, but it's a calculated bet. He's still the top pitching prospect in this year's draft class and an early favorite to go No. 1 overall in June.
So you can understand why Stanford coach Mark Marquess was practically beaming through the phone the other day. "We are very, very lucky to have him back," Marquess said.
Appel didn't pitch last summer, and Marquess wanted to take it easy on him in the fall, too. He threw bullpen sessions, but in fall scrimmages he threw only six innings total -- three two-inning outings. His fastball popped at 95-97, and instead of throwing sliders, he spent time developing his changeup.
Appel will finish up his degree in management science and engineering this quarter, and then spend the springtime owning Friday nights for the Cardinal.
New Mexico's sign of the times
There's this sign. It's red and white and says "Lobos" on it. Ray Birmingham has been thinking about it since he took over the New Mexico program in 2008. In August, he finally made it come to life. A copy hangs above his office door. Another hangs on the wall right inside the Lobos' clubhouse.
And another is connected to a wooden stake and stuck in the ground -- off the right-field line in foul territory -- every day before practice. It's situated so an arrow points northeast, and it reads: Omaha, 869 miles.
"I believe in motivation and the power of suggestion," Birmingham says. "You have to put a target up. I really believe that."
Birmingham has been hesitant to pull out the sign in his first five seasons at New Mexico. He's a dreamer, a big-goal setter, but he also believes in being realistic. Until this season, he never thought his club was ready for it. I asked Birmingham if the sign is more for him or for his players.
"It's for everybody -- coaches, players, boosters, trainers," Birmingham says. "I told the players the possibilities of Omaha are stronger than ever."
Playing in New Mexico, the Lobos have always been able to put up runs -- the ball tends to jump in that climate. Their lineup is built around third baseman DJ Peterson and catcher Mitchell Garver, both preseason All-Americans, and Birmingham is excited about that. But more importantly, he believes he finally has a pitching staff -- led by ace Sam Wolff -- that is Omaha-worthy.
"Will it be easy?" Birmingham says. "Heck no. But for the first time since I've been here, Omaha feels real."
Today in Omaha: High of 11 degrees, wind chill below zero, 135 days until Game 1 (as of Jan. 31)
Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN.com. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) City College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.