NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was the Monday after the Country Music Association Awards last fall, and it felt as if the after-party had extended into the Vanderbilt baseball weight room.
"It was like a block party," Chris Ham, the program's strength and conditioning coach, said. "There were way too many people in here."
"Probably my fault," Cincinnati Reds catcher Curt Casali said with a chuckle. "I brought a bunch of people myself."
Like swallows returning to Capistrano, each offseason the Vandy Boys scattered throughout professional baseball flock back to campus. They rent homes. They buy homes. They hunt Airbnbs. They reserve hotel rooms.
Across the game, there is nothing like it. An alumni card from Vanderbilt is like an open invitation to a never-ending family reunion. Not only do the veterans return, but they also often arrive with non-alumni in tow.
Casali brought Reds teammate Kyle Farmer in for the CMAs and workouts. Angels right-hander Jacob Barnes tagged along as well. Casali's teammate Trevor Bauer stopped by in November. A month later, St. Louis ace Jack Flaherty spent two days here working out. Last year, Marcus Stroman grunted through training here. Ben Zobrist too. New Dodger Mookie Betts lives in Nashville and, while he rarely works out at Vandy, he's been known to show up for the weekly Wednesday basketball games. Reliever Brad Brach, too.
"You never know who's going to come walking through that door," said Mike Baxter, the school's hitting coach and recruiting coordinator following six seasons in the majors with the Padres, Mets, Dodgers and Cubs.
"You don't see this anywhere else," said Flaherty, a Southern California native who was recruited by Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin but committed to North Carolina before signing out of high school with St. Louis after the Cardinals picked him in the first round (34th overall) in 2014.
"What was Flaherty doing there?" Dodgers budding ace Walker Buehler—who lives in Kentucky in the offseason and is one of the few Vandy alums who didn't return this winter—wondered appreciatively in January.
Be it Flaherty or other non-alums like Bauer or Stroman, it is a common question: What was HE doing here? The answers are many, but they center around one soulful, human reason.
"I try to get out here once a winter. Mostly it's my relationship with Coach Corbin," said Flaherty, who finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting last year. "You get somebody like that who invites you in—he doesn't have to do this or anything like it. The fact that he does—you try and hold on to those relationships."
So, too, do the hundreds of Vandy Boys who have played for Corbin since he took over a down-and-out program in 2003. Since then, he has built a national powerhouse that has played in four College World Series and won two national titles—including, most recently, a defeat of the University of Michigan in June.
But it is not just the wins and country music that bring the players back to Nashville winter after winter.
"The fact that we never closed their bedroom door even though they left the house, so to speak," Corbin says. "I like that it's there for them.
"It's not like I see them all the time. I know they're here, but it's like being their dad. Not that you have to interact with them—I just enjoy the fact that I hear them and see them. I don't have to be a part of it."
For six straight years, outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, who had a breakout summer with the San Francisco Giants last season, has based his winter workouts here. When he started, he was single and rented a place near downtown. Now, he's married and owns a home about an hour's drive from campus. No matter. He doesn't ever consider not making that commute.
"It's the most unique culture there is in all of sports, honestly," Yastrzemski said. "You have best friends here. You have brothers here. You have mentors here."
Sometimes, even potential combatants.
Music City could have been Chin Music City during the week after the CMAs when several Reds (Casali, Farmer, Sonny Gray and assorted minor leaguers) and Pittsburgh Pirates (outfielder Bryan Reynolds, infielder Adam Frazier, catcher Jacob Stallings, whose father, Kevin, is the former Vanderbilt men's basketball coach) were lifting weights together and telling stories of the teams' epic brawl last July.
"Hammer [Chris Ham] got in the middle of us and said, 'Are we gonna be OK?'" Casali said. "I told him, 'It's OK. We took care of our beef on the field. We let Yasiel Puig take care of most of it. Now, if Amir Garrett was here, it might be a different story.'"
"It's neutral ground here," Casali assures. "Like Switzerland."
Part of the charm at Vandy is the school has done more than simply leave the door open for those who have graduated from its dugouts. Across the hall from the weight room is a door with a sign reading, "Pro Locker Room."
Inside, there are 20 wood-paneled lockers with nameplates affixed to each: David Price. Yastrzemski. Reynolds. Dansby Swanson. Gray. Kyle Wright. Casali. If you're a professional who played here—and Vanderbilt led the nation with 15 alums in the majors last summer, plus a couple of dozen more in the minors—a locker awaits in your own space. It is totally separate from the Vanderbilt players' locker room.
"It's awesome," said Wright, a right-hander who was Atlanta's first-round pick in 2017 and will battle for a spot in the Braves rotation this spring. "Some schools have [pro locker rooms] now, but I'm not sure they're this big and this nice."
The original pro locker room in the old facility was dedicated shortly after Corbin's arrival. There wasn't much room then, but the team found a small space and outfitted it with five lockers. In overhauling the program, Corbin thought it was important.
Then, when planning a $13 million improvement and expansion of the baseball facilities that would open in October 2017—funded in large part by Price's capstone gift of $2.5 million, along with contributions from dozens who have played for Corbin over the past 17 years—it came up again. The baseball stadium badly needed renovating. Beyond that, Corbin told then-chancellor E. Gordon Gee his first priority was to improve the team's locker room. Second, the coach wanted a large classroom where the team could meet for instruction, discussion, study, everything. (Corbin still starts each day's baseball activities inside of this classroom). Third, he wanted an alumni locker room.
"I understand one and two," Gee told him. "I don't understand three."
"You have an older daughter, right?" Corbin asked.
"She moved out of the house?"
"You never closed down her bedroom, did you?"
In short, Corbin wanted a space alumni could call their own, something separate where they could be with one another.
Giving past players a place of their own, Corbin figures, also encourages those who left school early for baseball to return to finish their degrees. And when the alums return with their professional colleagues in tow, it both boosts the school's baseball prestige and benefits the current players, who in turn have even deeper resources at their disposal as they work out during the winter.
Plus, as Corbin said, "This game has a way of creating relationships throughout."
It's why even players who competed against Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference are welcomed. When Reynolds brings his Pittsburgh teammate Frazier (Mississippi State), it's all good. San Diego reliever Trey Wingenter (Auburn) was here this winter. So was Detroit outfielder Christin Stewart (Tennessee) and Chicago White Sox first base prospect AJ Reed (Kentucky).
"If it encourages relationships, I'm all for it," Corbin said. "Like that person in the neighborhood who opens his home to all of the kids in the neighborhood.
"We're certainly nonjudgmental, that's for sure."
Some of the home-field advantage is location: Nashville is a navigable, vibrant city with temperate winter weather and a booming music scene. Plus, Tennessee has no state income tax.
"To put it lightly: You're 21, 23, 24 and living in one of the most growing cities in the country," said Chandler Day, a 22-year-old right-hander in the Washington Nationals organization. Plus, as Day notes, everything at the school is state-of-the-art, including major league-quality training equipment.
"Why wouldn't you come back?" said alum Will Toffey, a third baseman in the New York Mets system.
This is the third winter that Wright, Toffey and Jason Delay (a catcher in Pittsburgh's system) have lived together. Alum Ethan Paul (a shortstop in the Pirates system) moved here permanently from his native Seattle. Drew VerHagen, the former Detroit Tigers right-hander who signed this winter with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, spent the winter here finishing his degree and preparing for a new chapter in his baseball life in Japan.
"The L.A. guys come in and say how unbelievable it is, wishing they had facilities around like this for them," Yastrzemski says.
And when the day's workouts are finished, Kevin Collins, Vanderbilt's baseball equipment manager, tosses the pros' laundry in with that of the varsity, and everything is Bounty-fresh the next day.
"For him to go to that extent—we take care of him [with tips] too," Wright said. "But he doesn't have to do that."
They take care of both Collins and the facility because every day they spent here, it's what they were taught.
"That's something I try to carry with me to this day," Wright said. "All of the equipment I get—take care of it. And if I'm not using it, pass it on to my brother or to someone else."
At dusk on the first Tuesday of December, leaf blowers and youthful chatter replaced the thwack of the bat and the thud of baseballs smacking into gloves at Hawkins Field. The autumn leaves had mostly fallen and the Vandy players were giving their stadium a thorough once-over, buttoning it up for the winter: wiping down bat racks, cleaning bathrooms, blowing away the leaves and grime.
Inside, as the sign on Corbin's desk read, "If you do the little things well, you'll do the big ones better."
Outfielder JJ Bleday is one of a parade of Commodores who lives this. The fourth pick in last June's draft, Bleday isn't allowing the $6.7 million deal he signed with Miami to reshape his priorities.
"Winning teams pay attention to detail," Bleday said. "We don't need to pay someone to take care of our field."
Though his home is in Panama City Beach, Florida, Bleday spent the winter living in East Nashville, where a 12-minute drive allowed him to work out on campus with all of his buddies. He also brought his older brother, Adam, pitching coach for the Gulf Coast League Orioles, simply so he, too, could experience this atmosphere.
"I couldn't get away from these guys just yet," said Bleday, the SEC Player of the Year who led Vanderbilt to the national title last spring.
This doesn't happen by accident. Since '03, the stitch tying all of these disparate horsehide pieces together has been Corbin, 58, whose approach filters through to his players long after they leave the program.
When Corbin was growing up, his father forced him and his brother to work in the family restaurant beginning after the sixth grade because he wanted them to earn their own money while they developed social skills. The broad lessons soaked through to his core, which is where the teacher in him goes to work each fall as another new team comes together: Pick up after yourself. Respect yourself, your teammates and your equipment. A ball left sitting on the field? That's $5. Take care of your cleats. That's $300 per pair, and they don't magically appear because of the school's Nike contract. Those shoes and that contract were earned by those who came before you.
Each fall, the team begins practice in generic white-and-black shorts and T-shirts. Corbin doesn't issue Vanderbilt-logoed gear until he sees signs of individuals coalescing into a team. It's why the squad each year must "earn" its locker room too: Sometimes the players dress in the dugout for as many as two months in the fall, and shower at home, until that privilege is earned.
"I think it's refreshing," Corbin said. "To get everything you want [immediately]—that's not how life works.
"We rent everything before we buy it. It's understanding that everything has value. Getting something before there's emotion involved, that doesn't make sense to me."
The classroom is where Corbin wants his voice to be heard. It centers the group and settles the players. Lessons—baseball and life—are taught there so that when the players take the field, as Corbin says, his voice can recede and the diamond becomes their playground. Recess from the teacher, in a way.
And when they leave the classroom, the chairs are tucked in under the tables, the tables are properly aligned under the ceiling tiles and the binders are placed on the edges of the tables.
Same as when the players leave the locker room for the day: The cleats are placed neatly in the lockers, not left on the floor.
"Just because people are hired to clean doesn't mean they have to pick up after us," Corbin said. "We do the heavy lifting. We want to make sure nobody has to do the lifting for us."
Not only has that approach built a baseball program that is the envy of Division I, it also produces a structure players use after they've left.
"It's how I live my life now," Casali says. "I'm still trying to be as neat and tidy and live life the best I can, and appreciate all I have."
Corbin routinely keeps in touch with his ex-players, attending their weddings with his wife, Maggie, and asking them to text videos of their children when they have a sec.
This winter, Corbin enjoyed a clip of Gray teaching his three-year-old son a lesson while fishing so much he shared it with his team: There was Gray showing his son how to put a worm on a hook...how to throw the lure into the water...and when he got a bite, how to pull the fish in and then not kill but release it.
"It was such a healthy moment," Corbin said. "It's exactly how I'd want [current players] to handle their kid. It was a small thing but something I hope sticks with our kids throughout their life. And the other point I made was: Sonny didn't do it for his son. He was teaching him."
Fusillades of fart-sound fanfares fire from Logan Forsythe toward Casali frequently when the ex-Tampa Bay teammates visit. Because invariably, as has been their thing for years, Casali will greet Forsythe with the rousing battle cry of the Vandy baseball team: "Anchor Down!"
So Forsythe, the veteran infielder who attended SEC rival Arkansas, does his best to drown out his buddy.
You knew through all of this, there had to be a Vanderbilt backlash. Right?
But usually, the shade fades.
In minor league clubhouses, teammates often demand the Vandy Boys "close the yearbook" shortly after their entry into pro ball. Fond retellings of the annual "Omaha challenge"—a brutal preseason conditioning drill—or the old "holiday run" training session, Christmas parties at Corbin's home and other rah-rah college stories only fuel the razzing.
Center fielder Jeren Kendall was the Dodgers' first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2017 and says that, yes, sometimes the reputation preceded him in the organization.
"I'll talk to a guy, and he'll say, 'Dude, I thought you were going to be an asshole,'" Kendall said before pausing and, with a comedian's timing, deadpans, "Of course, having Buehler come up the organization before me, that was a little tough."
Ah, Buehler. An acquired taste to some, a revelation to others. Few possess his swag, confidence and brazen penchant for saying just about anything to anyone. Few are as authentic, either.
"I think in a lot of ways there's college baseball, and there's college baseball with culture," Buehler said. "Vanderbilt is one of the places where culture is really, really important. Vanderbilt isn't the only program in the country where pro players work out, but it does seem to have this special niche environment that more and more guys show up. It speaks to who Corbs is and what he's done, and to the respect in the majors and the minors for the guys who went to Vandy and the way they've been taught and ingrained and work. It's a reflection of the program."
Usually, Pittsburgh's Reynolds answers his "close the yearbook" challengers by quipping, "I can't, because I've got a [championship] ring keeping it open."
Few major league destinations have as strong a Vandy presence as Cincinnati. Besides Casali and Gray, Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson held that position at Vanderbilt from 2002 to 2012 and was Corbin's associate head coach from '10 to '12. Reds assistant pitching coach Caleb Cotham also played at Vanderbilt. Following the 2019 College World Series, Brooks Webb, Vandy's director of baseball operations, shipped Casali and Gray a box of championships caps and T-shirts, which they wore almost daily in the Reds clubhouse last summer.
"We're referring to ourselves as the Cincinnati Commodores right now," Casali said. "Some of our Reds teammates are getting sick of it."
Or so they say during the season.
"Everyone messes around like they're sick of it," Yastrzemski said. "But then you get a call in the winter: 'Hey, I'm in Nashville. Can I come work out at the facility?'"
Baltimore slugger Trey Mancini is one of Yastrzemski's best friends and, a few years ago, spent the winter living in Nashville with Yastrzemski and this then-girlfriend (and now wife), Paige.
Mancini's career lifted off in Baltimore the next summer. He spent the next winter in D.C. and followed that with a clunker of a 2018 season.
"Oh yeah, you quit working out here," Yastrzemski told him. "You don't spend time in Nashville, this is what happens. It's karma."
Now, Mancini—a Florida native who played collegiately at Notre Dame—is buying a house in Nashville.
"Corbs is very smart to get as many big league guys, or minor league guys who are trying to be big leaguers, in here," Price said. "It gives the current players a chance to see these guys in action. I'm sure young pitchers at Vanderbilt, if they see Flaherty working out or even talk with him, it gives them something to learn or emulate."
Indeed, during Flaherty's visit in December, freshman right-hander Sam Hliboki—like Flaherty, an alum of L.A.'s Harvard-Westlake High—had a chance to chat him up. Bleday talked hitting with Yastrzemski. Delay, whose Pirates weren't deep enough into the analytics of catching for his liking when they drafted him in 2017 (he says that's changing), compared notes with Casali regarding techniques to receive breaking balls to the glove side. Day spent time watching Gray work on pounding his slider down-and-in to left-handed batters, bringing it back over the plate, soaking it all in.
"I'm sure you can get that other places from time to time," Day says. "But here, it's every day."
In this laboratory-like setting, Price is the wizened old grandfather of the program. At 34, he's older than most of the alumni-and-friends group that works out here and has more invested—both literally and figuratively. Three different cameras provided 24/7 live feeds of the new baseball facility's construction around 2015 and 2016, and Price would check in every three or four days to view it.
Price was in on the ground floor of Corbin's rebuild and became the coach's first No. 1 overall draft pick, in 2007 (Swanson, in 2015, is the second). More than a decade later, his spirit permeates the program.
"Like I told Corbs when I did it," Price says, "there's no amount of money I can give to the university to repay what he's done for me."
So on one of those chilly December afternoons, Casali gathered a group in the alumni locker room following a workout to FaceTime Price and ask where the heck he was.
"They showed me my empty locker, and the guys were ragging me about coming back," Price says, laughing. "It's a brotherhood. You have relationships for life."
Price took the call in Naples, Florida, where he and his family spent the winter while waiting for the new home he's building to be finished in, yes, Nashville.
"Just to be around the kids and Coach Corbin," Price says. "It's definitely something I'm looking forward to."
Like so many of the other Vandy Boys and their friends, no matter where life takes him, the pull always brings him back.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.