Players report to Spring Training in Florida and Arizona starting Tuesday, but the baseball world can be rather spread out during the cold of the offseason. Some players go home to where they grew up, and some stick around in their Major League city -- more often if it has
Players report to Spring Training in Florida and Arizona starting Tuesday, but the baseball world can be rather spread out during the cold of the offseason. Some players go home to where they grew up, and some stick around in their Major League city -- more often if it has warmer weather.
But another group of players goes to a third home -- the one they forged for a handful years in college. One such place is in Nashville, Tenn., where a large group of former Vanderbilt players have congregated for the better part of the past decade.
From No. 1 Draft picks David Price (2007) and Dansby Swanson ('15) to players still looking for their first crack at the Majors like Orioles prospect Mike Yastrzemski, the group comes back every offseason. And even though they may be on rival teams -- such as Price's Red Sox and Sonny Gray's Yankees -- they still swap tips and advice under a shared roof.
"It gets packed in the weight room," Tigers right-hander Drew VerHagen said. "If you're there at 10:30 or so, you're waiting for a rack. It's good, because a lot of the workouts, you need someone to spot you, you need someone to help you with arm care exercises and stuff. It's good always having guys there. The music is loud, and we're just kind of messing around. It makes it more fun and breaks up the monotonous workouts of the offseason."
Vanderbilt is one of eight colleges with more than 10 former players to appear in the Majors last season, joining Long Beach State (14), Cal State Fullerton (13), Arizona State (13), Oregon State (11), Virginia (11), LSU (11) and Arkansas (11). Beyond the 11 Major Leaguers, there are more than two dozen Commodores active in the Minor Leaguers, including three first-rounders in the past two Drafts.
The program has taken off since head coach Tim Corbin was hired in 2003, as 21 of the 39 Major Leaguers to come through Vanderbilt have played under him. Having Nashville become a home for former Commodores quickly became a goal for Corbin.
After the 2004 season, Corbin convinced the university's then-chancellor Gordon Gee to create an extra locker room in the baseball facility, likening it to keeping a bedroom for a child after they leave for college. Shortly after, the school unveiled a space for the professional players to change and leave their equipment right next to the Commodores' locker room -- an open invitation for former players to return.
By now, Nashville is the easy choice for a lot of players. For recent draftees like Swanson, the school provides all the equipment and space he needs for his offseason regimen, and it's an easy way to stay close with all of his college teammates.
"We literally just hang out all the time," Swanson said. "We'll go to dinner every so often, but we see each other all the time just from being around each other, playing video games, golfing together, all those things. It's almost like we still go there from how much we hang out. It's what we enjoy."
And as much as it benefits the pro players to have access to the facilities, their presence is felt by the current student-athletes who may become the next Price, Gray or Swanson. Having access to Major Leaguers creates easy models on how to train, behave and play.
For Gray, he got to see Price and Pedro Alvarez -- who was playing for the Pirates two years after being drafted second overall in 2008 -- walk by his locker throughout the offseason. He didn't always get hands-on instructions, but feeling the presence of a Major Leaguer nearby helped push him towards his goals.
"We have [the locker room Vandy built for professional alums], and sometimes it'll overlap for five, 10 minutes here or there," Gray said. "That's what it was for me. When I was in school and David and Pedro and some of these guys were coming back, it wasn't more or less that you'd sit down and get lectured by these guys, like, 'This is how it is and this is what it is.' It's just kind of having them around and seeing them."
But when the players did work one-on-one, it left a noticeable impact on the field. Although Price and Gray never played together, Price was able to pass along a more simplified delivery he learned, that began with his feet closer together before he began his windup. And then in turn, Gray helped teach it to Carson Fulmer.
The new foot placement and simplified delivery helped Fulmer harness his electric stuff and turn in a great junior season in which he was named SEC Pitcher of the Year and was a Golden Spikes Award finalist. The season also helped him rise up Draft boards, where the White Sox selected eighth overall in 2015. Now he figures to be a part of their big league rotation in 2018.
"My locker was right around the corner there, right by the players' locker room," Fulmer said. "It was kind of surreal a little bit. You take a step back and realize that they went through the same thing you did. Luckily now, I'm in the same position they are in the big leagues. It was good for me to push myself towards what they were doing."
Returning to Nashville has become second nature for many Commodores. It's an easy call for Tennessee natives like Price, Gray and former SEC Player of the Year Tony Kemp -- now with the Astros -- but even New York native Alvarez lives down the street from his school.
The players have continued to make that community their own as they were significant donors in the funding of Vanderbilt's new $12.5 million baseball facility that includes an upgraded professional locker room. Price donated $2.5 million in 2016, and 60 percent of Corbin's former players chipped in as well.
What started with a few recent graduates coming back has transformed into an entire offseason operation that goes beyond the school. Players have brought in teammates and friends, with All-Stars such as Mookie Betts, Benjamin Zobrist and Brad Brach, plus other former SEC players like Adam Frazier and A.J. Reed, working out on campus as well.
"There's a ton of guys that didn't go to Vanderbilt that have made Nashville their home," Alvarez said. "We could get a pretty good softball team going in the offseason if we ever wanted to."
Ben Weinrib is a reporter for MLB.com based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter at @benweinrib.