Love or hate them, Tennessee Vols are the Bad Boys of college baseball | Estes
KNOXVILLE – There's more to this than baseball.
That isn't widely understood about what’s taking place at the University of Tennessee, because unless you’re on campus and in Lindsey Nelson Stadium, you won’t detect it.
And these days, it isn’t easy to get into that stadium. Seats are mostly sold out. People are waiting in lines just for standing-room-only tickets, which sounds like torture to me. I mean, don’t they know how long a college baseball game can last?
Doesn’t matter here. The Vols’ baseball program under Tony Vitello is having a moment. A big one. Record-setting performances, rowdy overflow crowds, creative celebrations, a 33-3 record.
They are still ranked No. 1 after taking two of three this past weekend from Alabama in an emotional, intense, beautiful mess of a rivalry series that for three days felt like a runaway stallion, fast and free and headed wherever it was bound to go. Be that some meltdown or whatever else seemed about to spark any minute – in the stands, on the field, between players, coaches, umpires. You couldn’t take your eyes away.
VOLS BASEBALL:'We trust each other:' Tennessee baseball rolls past Alabama in back-to-back blowouts to win fifth SEC series
SUSPENSION:Tony Vitello receives four-game suspension after ejection in Tennessee baseball vs. Alabama
While terribly uncommon in baseball, that sort of interest has become common with these Vols. Their version of baseball is distinct from everyone else’s by miles.
That, however, carries a vibe a lot nastier than polite claps and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Hospitality isn't what's happening here. Tennessee fans cheered loudly Saturday when a Vols hitter lined a hot-shot foul ball into Alabama’s dugout. They chanted “M-V-P” at Alabama’s catcher after a few throwing errors – and some of them kept chanting it during a blowout win the next day.
“This is new territory for the entire program,” fifth-year senior catch Evan Russell said. “I’m not going to sit here and say that the fans are acting like they are used to it, because they have nothing to be used to. … We’ve been disrespected as an entire athletic program for so long that once we start winning and succeeding, we’ve still got that little mindset of underdogs. Now that we’ve got something to fight with, we’re going to bring a good fight. The atmosphere has been unbelievable.
“Hats off to Alabama for playing such a good weekend on some chaos, really.”
Indeed, it was a fun weekend. Waiting on a powder keg to see if match meets fuse can be exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting. By the end of the wild three-game series, it seems everyone was spent.
Such a fervent atmosphere reflected the pent-up frustration of a fanbase long starved for a big-time winner in a prominent sport. And how much that has fit the brazen mentality instilled by Vitello, who arrived in 2017 and has rapidly turned a middling program in a mediocre stadium into an elite one.
The Vols announced themselves as such last season by reaching the College World Series. They've validated their authenticity in 2022.
While seeming a loose cannon himself at times, Vitello is immensely popular among Tennessee fans, much the same way Bruce Pearl was once in basketball. Vitello is described as both a fiery workaholic and someone who acts more as a player than a coach. Indeed, he runs a program that “allows (players) to play with the freedom and play hard and be themselves,” said assistant coach Josh Elander.
“I think that’s been our magic recipe since we’ve been here,” Elander said.
They are in your face and unapologetically so. They’ll tell you how much they like being villains. How much they enjoy having a target on their backs, which is good because they've sure got one on there. They'll say they feed off it.
These Vols will tell you how they have better players and are “going to come out and punch them in the throat,” as freshman outfielder Jared Dickey of Mt. Juliet put it Friday night.
No, really. That’s how these guys talk.
It’s performance art. It’s entertainment. It’s one part baseball and another pro wrestling, and they are enjoying being the heels.
Love them or hate them: These Vols are by far the best show in college baseball right now.
He wasn't wrong, though
A strange thing happened to Tennessee’s team this past week.
Well, many odd things happened. But before its No. 2 starting pitcher was sidelined by a line drive to his throwing arm or Vitello was ejected and suspended four games for bumping an umpire, or even before the Vols smacked seven home runs in two days without their coach, something more unsettling transpired.
It started when the Vols actually lost a game. Then they lost another one.
The first was to Tennessee Tech in a midweek, wood-bat game, ending a 23-game win streak. The next loss – at home to Alabama – spoiled a historic 12-0 start to SEC play. After winning Friday night’s series opener 6-3, the Crimson Tide ran out of the dugout and celebrated enthusiastically, as you’d expect from a team that had just taken down No. 1 on the road.
Didn’t sit well with the Vols, though.
“We’re going to come out tomorrow hot, and they’re not going to have a chance, in my opinion,” said junior relief pitcher Will Mabrey, who is from Cookeville. “They were also partying like they thought they’d won the World Series. We’ll let know how it tastes tomorrow.”
Mabrey caught heat for those comments. Vitello didn’t like them, which is saying something considering the Vols’ typical tenor about throat-punching and the like.
But Mabrey’s words spread on social media because they carried a dish-it-out-but-can’t-take-it quality that was being enjoyed by fans around the SEC and college baseball.
Brash Tennessee was finally stumbling after weeks of fur-coat sharing after home runs, taunts and chest pounds on base paths and other sharable, celebratory indulgences – like Luc Lipcius touching home plate with one finger vs. Missouri – that were designed to make baseball’s purists cringe in disapproval.
“It’s fun to have a target on your back,” Lipcius told reporters after the Missouri game. “It’s either you’re with us or you’re against us. If you’re against us, then we couldn’t give one heck about you. If you’re with us, you’re riding or dying with us. People haven’t really liked us ever since we’ve been good. I think they’re used to us being just the people that lay down for you. But now that we’re here, it’s ruffling some feathers, and people really don’t like it.
“I think the style of ball we play, too – a lot of emotion – it gets under people’s skin. But let them do whatever they want. We’re going to keep winning.”
Mabrey, it turns out, wasn’t wrong about the Alabama series. Tennessee did exactly what he said. It routed the next two games by a combined score of 24-6.
“They are the No. 1 team in the country for a reason,” Crimson Tide coach Brad Bohannon said. “You don’t smoke-and-mirror or luck your way into 33-3 and 14-1 in league play. … One thing you say for Tennessee: Those kids have a lot of fun playing, and they play with a lot of energy and passion. And I respect that. On top of the physical talent, the way that they play is a competitive advantage for them.”
The Vols won the final two games of the series without Vitello, who was tossed in the first inning of Saturday’s Game 2. At that point, UT was in the midst of a two-game losing streak and had just lost their starting pitcher to injury after one inning.
Maybe Vitello didn't mean to incite his crowd and team in a timely fashion, but he did.
I’d have loved to get Vitello’s take, but he isn’t quoted in this column because a planned post-series interview didn’t happen because he was suspended.
Never a dull moment, you understand.
"I mean, that’s just the kind of guy he is," fifth-year senior relief pitcher Redmond Walsh said of Vitello. "He instills competitiveness. ... Vitello was what this program needed, maybe a little bit of youth, a little bit more charisma to him. He brought an energy that kind of just turned everything around.”
A team they love to hate
Other college football programs have more tradition and titles.
But they made a “30 for 30” documentary about the Miami Hurricanes.
They made two of them, actually, and it wasn’t because of their overwhelming success as much as their overwhelming swagger. People still love them for it. Or else they still love to hate them for it. Either way, they remember them.
Russell laughed at the suggestion that his baseball program could one day be viewed in a similar fashion as the polarizing Canes. “But,” he added, “I do enjoy the comparison.”
“If they’re not talking about us,” he said, “that probably means we’re not doing something right.”
Tennessee has fun to get itself going. But it also can take the other team off its game.
Russell offered insight into perhaps a method behind Tennessee's madness, saying that “opposing teams, if they are focused on what we’re doing and how we’re celebrating and all that, then that’s more of an advantage for us.”
True. One concern here – and it's legitimate – would be that it’s not far-fetched to envision that at some point an opposing pitcher will take exception to Tennessee's theatrics and send a fastball into an orange batting helmet, clearing benches.
That, too, is baseball. The unwritten rules of petty slights and perceived disrespect and easily wounded pride have governed it since before all of us were born.
And still ...
As a team, Tennessee figured out a long time ago, I believe, that offering up bulletin-board material isn’t as grievous a sin as it might be in football or other, brawnier sports. Being locked in to play your best baseball is not usually tied to being angry.
Even if it was, opponents don’t need additional motivation against these Vols anyway.
“If the success starts getting to people’s heads,” Russell said, “then that would be a time for us to kind of tone back and make adjustments. I think it’s more playing with passion and really having a desire to find a way to win. I don’t think there’s a single person in the locker room that is making it about themselves, even if it appears that celebrating and stuff is kind of disrespecting the game.
“But if you watch the game, we play hard, we throw strikes, we run the bases hard and we take really good at-bats. You can say what you want about our celebrations, but at the end of the day it’s hard to find a problem with really how we play the game.”
For nearly two months, they’d made the extremely difficult look ridiculously easy.
Too easy? Perhaps.
The Vols' invincibility couldn’t last. Of the best teams in college baseball’s history, most logged at least 10-15 losses in a season.
In the grand scheme of a long season, this week’s turn of fortune for the Vols was inevitable and not that big a deal. Not yet at least.
There will surely be more defeats for Tennessee. More reasons to feel slighted by celebrations on the other side, and more delight when it happens, and the Big Orange target on their backs will only grow larger as the postseason draws closer with the clear goal of winning it all in Omaha, not just getting back there for the second straight year.
Meantime, this ride will continue to be a lot of things.
But it won’t be boring.
Baseball might have that problem. Tennessee baseball does not.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.