OMAHA, Neb. — They stood on the championship platform, the father in a white shirt and the mother in a black shirt, holding hands on this night that was so wonderful for them, and yet so heartbreaking. One by one, the new national champions from Vanderbilt came by to share hugs and a few words. Every player up there, in their new gray championship T-shirts.
Coach Tim Corbin had even led the father to the stage, hand in hand. “It was special,” Corbin would say later, “because it’s the only thing I could do for him.”
They are Teddy and Susan Everett, and they had a son named Donny. Three Junes ago, Donny was a pitcher and part of a promising Vanderbilt freshman class. He went fishing one day with teammates, got into trouble while swimming and drowned. Had he not been drafted by now, he, too, would have been out there dogpiling on the field at TD Ameritrade Park. Teddy and Susan would have been clapping in the stands, savoring one of the special evenings of their lives.
"To this day, every time I look at Teddy, I think of Donny. I can speak for the seniors, but really the whole team -- it was something we really wanted to do. They’re just as much a part of the team as we all are." - Ethan Paul#CWS | #VandyBoys pic.twitter.com/bn89kpIUkH— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) June 27, 2019
If you want to know what the glory of Wednesday night meant to these Commodores, after they had finished off Michigan 8-2, start with their feelings about Donny Everett, who wasn’t here. And the father and mother, who were.
Listen to JJ Bleday: “They deserve to be here more than anyone else.”
Or Ethan Paul: “To this day, every time I look at Teddy, I think of Donny, and just being able to share that moment with them was something that I think — I can speak for the seniors, but probably the whole team — is something that we’ve all really wanted to do.”
Which is why Teddy Everett and his wife had to be in Omaha. Had to be.
“It meant a lot. I just wish my son could have been up there, too,” said Teddy, and that’s when a couple of tears trickled down his cheeks, and what father could not possibly understand? “I’ve been around the boys all year, I love all the boys, they’ve been amazing. The Corbins have been wonderful to us.
“It was hard, too. Just wishing he could have been here for it.”
They had seen all the No. 41 jerseys in the Vanderbilt section. Donny’s number was in the ballpark Wednesday, by the dozens.
“It’s great to see,” Teddy said. “It’s also sad every time I see it.”
Three years. Time enough for the freshmen to grow into seniors, who would lead a particularly single-minded team. They won it for themselves Wednesday night. They won it for each other. They won it for a missing teammate no longer here. The Vanderbilt Commodores rejoiced for so many reasons, when they embraced one another as national champions, an elite program that now rates second to no one.
On the last night of the 2019 College World Series, this was the juggernaut everyone knew was potentially out there any night. This was the team everyone else should have feared. A relentless, veteran, dead-set collection of seven seniors or redshirt juniors and 13 draft choices. They had intended to be here — in Omaha, on this sunny summer evening, for this moment — from the very start, back in the gray of winter. They were a baseball locomotive at the end that no one could stop, winning 35 of their final 39 games.
“Teams like this don’t come by very often,” Bleday said. “When you’re able to have mature group and have good leadership like we did, it’s something special.”
Corbin kept coming back to his seniors, who had gone through so much, and put off the professional draft to take another whack at Omaha for Vandy. “I think at the end of the day, our No. 1 reason to come back to school wasn’t to have this outlandish season or anything like that,” Paul said. “I think that we all wanted to just be part of something special. It’s great to win a national championship, it’s great to do all those things, but the program means so much more to us than just winning.”
Corbin looked back at the long road they traveled, from losing a teammate to being handed the championship trophy.
“The fact it can come full circle for them, where devastation and celebration are really close partners of one other,” he said. “They’re just on the opposite end of the spectrum. And for them to see both sides of it and then enjoy tonight, staying with something and being persistent, there’s a large reward at the end. I’m glad they could see the other end of it. That was a tough time for us. It still is. We played with heavy hearts for a long time.”
Corbin can put this trophy next to the 2014 championship. He came to a Vanderbilt program renowned for little 16 years ago, and has turned it into a monster. One of the men who helped him build that machine was Erik Bakich, the Michigan coach he beat this week. “There’s a conflict of thoughts that way,” Corbin said.
There had been no raucous Vanderbilt dogpile in the regional, nor super regional. Those were merely stepping stones to where the Commodores sought to go. There would be no such ceremony of accomplishment until the deed was done, which is was Wednesday when they slashed away at Michigan’s vaunted pitching staff.
After Monday’s Game 1 win, the Wolverines seemed so close to their first championship in 57 years, and the Big Ten’s first since 1966. Close to reversing the June expectations of teams from places such as Ann Arbor, Mich. “The only way you can have an Omaha program is if you first have an Omaha team,” Bakich said. “This is very much a tipping point for us.”
But to finish the job, there were too many missed opportunities in the end — 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position the past two games. Too many strikeouts — 40 the past three nights against the Commodores’ electrified arms.
But most of all, there was too much Vanderbilt. Led by the dominance of the pitchers — especially the magical Kumar Rocker — the Commodores played like a team that had a sure and certain sense of the next step . . . .every step.
Rocker, with two wins, was named the Most Outstanding Player and has a blinding future. But he deferred to the Vanderbilt vets. “They took me along for the ride,” he said. “They did it. I just helped out a little bit.”
Wednesday night was the final testament to the Commodores’ purpose, that gave birth to a steady, inexorable march.
“Sometimes consistency is devalued because it’s so hard to come by, it’s so hard to do those consistent things all the time, and have a group of 50 people and have no drama whatsoever,” Corbin said. “They just had a unique chapter. They wrote their own chapter. It was theirs. They felt like they were capable of doing something special. We didn’t talk about outcomes during the year, we didn’t talk about winning the national championship, we didn’t talk about winning an SEC championship. But we talked about doing a lot of little things right.”
And Wednesday night, they talked about Teddy and Susan, and Donny.
“When you lose your own child, I don’t know how you go through that,” Corbin said. “Life’s never the same. It’s a deep scar. Years and years still can’t replace him. I’m just glad they could be a part of it. They’ve just been part of these kids for so long. If there is any positive from losing Donny is the fact that we’ve created such a close, close friendship with the Everetts. Teddy and Susan are special people. We look at them as staff members.”
When the trophy presentation concluded Wednesday night, the players posed for pictures. Teddy and Susan left the stage to watch the party from afar. So wonderful to share, and yet so painful to watch.