Born to Coach Baseball…

Corbin Leads Commodores' Youth Movement

By Tony Lane

If you were a no-hit, good-field 10-year-old in a certain neighborhood of Wolfeboro, N.H. in the early '70s, you already know about Tim Corbin's managerial skills.

Because if you showed up on time at the sandlot, glove dangling from the handlebars of your bike, you'd be positioned exactly where you'd be most beneficial to Corbin's pick-up team. Never mind the fact he was just as old as you were; there are some truths you just didn't fight, and Corbin's preternatural baseball acumen was one of them.

This is why he simply refused to remove the uniform after his last collegiate game at Ohio Wesleyan, sliding into a graduate assistant post at Ohio State. This is why he was head coach at age 27 at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, where his players groused about being led by Opie after their first rah-rah team meeting. This is why he knows the angle of the sun over Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., the site of the College World Series, at all hours of the afternoon. Baseball grabbed Tim Corbin, and it never let him go.

Last June, Vanderbilt grabbed Tim Corbin to head up its baseball program. Scant days remain before the Commodores' season opener against Old Dominion, and a lineup laced with players not far removed from their own sandlot days promises to test every one of Corbin's coaching tenets.

Of the 26 names on Corbin's roster, 19 are underclassmen - freshmen or sophomores. Outfielder John Kaye is the lone senior. Two of the six juniors - outfielder Ryan Godfrey and catcher/third baseman Mickey Kropf - are fresh transfers into the program. If Corbin, who bears a distant-cousin resemblance to one of the Kennedys, was seeking a New Frontier for his first Division I head coaching job, Vanderbilt fits the bill.

"I don't mind that at all," said Corbin from his office one blustery Monday morning. "In college baseball, it probably takes a year to get comfortable, maybe a half a year. I see it as a positive. I'd rather have it that way than 19 seniors and the rest being young kids. It's tough to change old habits and old ways, whether they're good or bad."

That shouldn't be too difficult with the pitching staff. Beyond sophomore Jeremy Sowers, the unquestioned ace of the staff, and junior Robert Ransom, who was beset by injuries in his first two seasons, Vanderbilt's hurlers haven't had enough mound time to form any bad habits.

Sophomore righty Jeff Sues, a bullpen guy last year, will be battling freshmen Jensen Lewis and Ryan Mullins, a local product, for a starting bid behind Sowers and Ransom. Everyone's going to throw a lot regardless of experience, which should defuse some of the newbie jitters.

"I don't think that matters, because the group of guys we have out here right now, they don't accept losing," said junior catcher Jonathan Douillard. "I don't think they're really gonna feel much of the pressure from the other SEC schools. Some of them are pretty cocky, and that's what you've gotta have."

"They're going to get their feet wet quick, and that may be the toughest transition of it all," said Corbin. "It's just gonna be a battle when we get out there. How quickly we survive is gonna depend on how much confidence we have going into the season."

The top four batters by average have also departed, including first baseman Sean Luellwitz, VU's best long-ball threat (12 home runs in 2002). Junior Cesar Nicolas is penciled in to replace Luellwitz, but he suffered a concussion after a batting-cage accident and may not be ready for another month or so.

Even when Nicolas returns, Vandy's offense will be environmentally green as well as youthful green - every ounce of value must be squeezed out of every plate appearance.

"Every at-bat has to be quality," said Corbin. "You can't allow strikeouts, because there's ways to put pressure on teams. You have to put the ball in play and get people on base, then you have to improvise a little bit. The hit-and-run has to be something you do. You have to bunt, you have to move runners along."

Kaye, whose nine home runs from last year represent the top returning power figure, concurs, saying, "We're gonna hit-and-run, steal, like small ball. It's more contact-oriented, not real long-ball oriented. It's more like National League style."

Defensively, the 'Dores will look vastly different, with soph Tony Mansolino moving to third and Ryan Klosterman installed at shortstop. Klosterman followed Corbin over from Clemson and has impressed the coach more than any other new Commodore.

"In my mind, he's solidified himself as a shortstop," said Corbin. "He's reliable; he understands what I'm trying to do as a coach. He came in here with no expectations. He came in just like a regular person and knew he had to work to play."

Second base is up in the air, and the outfield can be manned by any combination of Kaye, Godfrey, Hendersonville native Worth Scott, freshman Warner Jones (an MBA grad) and sophomore Matt Zeller. In Corbin's eyes, the last might be first on that list.

"Matt Zeller is the most improved hitter on the team. He's a hard worker and improved defensively," said Corbin. "When I first saw him, I didn't even think he'd probably have a chance to help us. Now I'm leaning the other way, where he's gonna have to help us."

Douillard often had to fly solo behind the plate last season, and when he was injured, Vandy's defense suffered. This year, he'll have plenty of help - freshmen Will Becker and Matt McGraner are being groomed for backup at backstop.

"At the catcher's position, you need to have a couple of guys that can go out there," said Douillard. "A lot of crazy things happen behind the dish."

Ironically, Corbin caught during his last year at Ohio Wesleyan, and at age 41 he is a perpetual threat to snatch a glove or bat and insinuate his way into practice. When baseball grabs you, it doesn't let go.

Asked to gauge his coach's age, Kaye said, "Physically, I'd say late 20s, early 30s. Mentally, he's about 16. He's a fireball, man. He loves being out here. It's his life, basically, and we feed off that."

"You'll see him, when things start to slow down toward the end of the practice, he'll have a bat in his hands and he'll take a couple of rips off the tee," chimed in Douillard. "We kid him about it, being old. He's got the energy of a 16-year-old. He's got the knowledge of an 80-year-old."

Another Corbin corollary - never take yourself too seriously. At a recent practice, Gil Kim, a sophomore transfer from Middlebury College in Vermont, called out, "Ball, ball, ball!" on a short fly headed his direction. Corbin, stationed in short center, promptly corrected, "No! It's 'I got it, I got it!' 'Ball, ball, ball' is Middlebury."

"He picks his spots well," said hurler Lewis. "He makes us laugh and it makes it fun to be around. It's not ever picking on everybody. He'll call you out one time just to get on you a little bit, but never in a demeaning way. That's so different from a lot of coaches. He'll tell you what's wrong, and he'll tell you how to fix it."

"I told those guys, I love practice," admitted Corbin. "I'm gonna get inside their heads once in a while; I'm gonna chew 'em up a little bit, but at the same time, I'm gonna say things that'll make them laugh."

Corbin calls the SEC "the neighborhood," and it will be Crips-and-Bloods brutal again this season. The regular heavies like Mississippi State, South Carolina and LSU will all be trying to push Corbin's kids out of the sandlot. Sometimes they will succeed, but, given time, they'll be wishing they picked their fights elsewhere.

The man with the Dictaphone in his back pocket will note, transcribe and learn.
"I can't say I'm a well-balanced person," said Corbin. "Baseball is just about all I think about."



Vanderbilt Athletic Department
2601 Jess Neely Drive
Nashville, TN 37212
615-322-GOLD (4653)