Vanderbilt outfielder Kyle Smith had one of the best seats in the house Wednesday night, and he wasn’t even using most of it.
The sophomore from Mt. Juliet watched from the dugout at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. as John Norwood hit a tie-breaking homer in the top of the eighth and Adam Ravenelle struck out Virginia’s Daniel Pinero to secure Vanderbilt’s first national championship in a men’s sport. The school’s only other title came in women’s bowling in 2007.
“It’s definitely the experience of a lifetime,” Smith said. “It’s what all we dream of – to play in a regional, superregional and World Series. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a dream come true for a lot of these guys.”
Smith’s season with the Commodores was much like a roller coaster ride. He hit the ball well, going 3-for-3 and scoring a career-high four runs in a late-February matchup with University of Illinois at Chicago. But a concussion he suffered when he hit the wall fielding a fly ball left him with some “recurring concussion-related injuries.” He was 0-for-32 at the plate when Vanderbilt faced Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Since then, Smith said he’s worked to overcome those injuries and served as an encourager on the team.
“Whether you’re in the lineup or not, it’s really a group effort,” Smith said. “We all put in the same amount of time and effort.”
He said he likes to take the younger guys “under my wing and show them the ropes.”
“That’s what I like doing,” Smith said.
And it’s noticeable, according to Vanderbilt manager Tim Corbin.
“Kyle is a very good combination of size, strength and usable speed,” Corbin said. “He showed great promise last year when he was inserted into the lineup. Because of his athleticism, he gives us the option of using him in the outfield or infield. He has a very even disposition that lends itself to being successful athletically and academically. He is a team-oriented kid in every way.”
So when it came time for Vanderbilt to face Virginia in the final game of the College World Series on Wednesday night, Smith was right there doing everything he could to encourage his team. That’s not to mention he had a front-row seat for all of the action.
“The huge storybook moment for all of us, Rav getting that emotional win,” Smith said. “Everyone piled out of the dugout and was piling on one another. It was truly special.
“It was the prettiest pitch I’ve seen to this date. Everybody rushed in from the field, the dugout and did the historic dog pile. Knowing we were a part of the last ballgame of the college baseball season, and knowing we came away with a win, there’s only one team that can say that and that’s us.”
Smith said the championship series was surreal with all the excitement surrounding it. He said his team took a business-as-usual approach.
“We tried to treat it as a normal series as much as we could,” he said. “It’s kind of a different atmosphere with 30,000 fans, but we like that kind of excitement.
“There’s no program in college baseball that has as much fun as we do on the field.”
And Smith said the team never stopped short of its goal.
“We packed to stay the whole time,” he said. “We had our eyes set on winning a national championship. We did what we wanted to do and that was bring a trophy back to Nashville and back to these fans.”
Smith said his parents were in Omaha for all of the World Series games. His brother, Daniel, flew in from North Carolina to see the championship series.
“Being able to share that with my dad, my coach and my childhood hero is definitely a moment I will never forget,” Smith said.
“It makes it very special. That’s what we want to do as a baseball team part of the university, part of Nashville, part of Middle Tennessee.”
On the same day Smith and the Commodores won a national championship, another Mt. Juliet native earned his spot in the Show. Former Vanderbilt pitcher Taylor Hill was called up from Triple-A Syracuse and pitched 3 1/3 innings in relief for the Washington Nationals in his first appearance in the major leagues.
“I grew up with the Hills,” Smith said. “I grew up idolizing Taylor when I came through Mt. Juliet. I’ve very proud of him. He’s getting to live his dream, and on the same day I get to live my dream at Vanderbilt. To see him compete at Vanderbilt and succeed, it gives us all hope we can do it and do it well.”
And as for a repeat, Smith said Vanderbilt is already working on it.
“That’s our goal every year,” he said. “After winning it this year, that goal becomes more real. We are going to work hard and try and do it again.”