Vanderbilt plays it cool, and Michigan is learning to do that, too

By Dan Hoppen
Special to The Detroit News

Omaha, Neb. — Michigan players want to make snow angels between innings.

They want to have rock-paper-scissors battles, impromptu yoga sessions, and headstand competitions.

That’s what winners do.

That’s what Vanderbilt does.

The College World Series final, which begins Monday at 7 p.m., pits two schools with vastly different pedigrees. Michigan is the fresh-eyed newbie, participating in the CWS for the first time since 1984. Vanderbilt is the established veteran, with four CWS appearances this decade and a 2014 national title in its trophy case.

The Commodores know how to win. They’ve developed ways, including their humorous between-innings antics, to keep themselves loose during the game’s tightest moments. They don’t get nervous because they’ve been there before.

And that’s where Michigan wants to be.

“That's one of the schools that when you grow up, you think about it, you watch their highlight videos on YouTube, you watch the stuff they do in the outfield, and obviously them coming to Omaha ... they've really built one of the gold-standard programs in the country,” Michigan catcher Joe Donovan said. “I know a lot of schools across the country look up to them as far as how you get to the point you want to reach, and they've definitely inspired a lot of young kids to want to go play college baseball instead of pro ball, just because it looks so much fun with everything they do.”

The Wolverines are getting there. Coach Erik Bakich frequently references the Wolverines’ “organic moment,” when Michigan, down to likely its final strike of the season, stayed alive on a walk-off double Jordan Nwogu to defeat Illinois 5-4 on May 23. Bakich often saw his squad “pucker up” in tight situations prior to that moment. But after staring its season’s finality in the eye, UM has played loose and free since, making a shocking run through the postseason to remain one of the final two teams standing.

Vanderbilt players salutes their fans after a victory over Louisville on Friday, sending the Commodores to the CWS championship series.

“If we don't have that (moment), then we don't understand what it's like to play on the other end of that spectrum,” Bakich said, “to be loose, to play with a belief system and a confidence like, you know, why can't we do this?”

But the Wolverines also know they can’t rely on a season-saving play as their calming influence each year. They want to develop a stable culture where that calm isn’t created — it just exists.

For an example of what that looks like, they just need to look across the field into the other dugout.

Vanderbilt infielder Ethan Paul remembers going to Commodore games as a high schooler and seeing the same things then that his teammates do now. The bench players would do flips and spin in circles between innings, creating a light atmosphere that kept them engaged and calmed the starters.

“That's something Vanderbilt has done ever since we've known the program,” Paul said. “That's college baseball to an extent. That's just how it is and that's something that's unique to this program and it's definitely fun for everyone.”

It would be wrong to attribute Vanderbilt’s success to the goofy charades performed by the bench players. That credit belongs to Tim Corbin, who arrived in 2003 and almost immediately transformed a losing program into a winner. It also goes to the star talent he’s attracted, standouts like David Price, Walker Buehler, and Dansby Swanson.

Ultimately, it’s not about yoga or flips or rock-paper-scissors. It’s about building a foundation where winning is an expectation, and the culture encourages players to do what they need to do to remain loose and grounded.

Vanderbilt has found that, and they can see Bakich building something similar in Ann Arbor.

“Something we try to do and something Michigan has been doing very well, they're playing together as a team,” Commodore infielder Julian Infante said. ‘I'm sure those relationships are built way, way far in the fall, way off the field. And it's not just on the field, and you could see that in the way they're playing. They're having fun with each other. They're trying to make their season last as long as possible, like ours, and that's just something as a player you see and you want to model.”

Michigan vs. Vanderbilt

What: Best-of-three College World Series championship

When: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (if necessary)

Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.

TV: All games on ESPN

Dan Hoppen is a freelance writer.