The summer after my freshman year, I made the 10-hour road trip from Ann Arbor to Nashville to watch the Michigan baseball team play then-No. 1 Vanderbilt in the NCAA Tournament.
Not exactly how most Michigan fans spent their summer vacation, but it was worth it.
For those of you who don’t remember the Wolverines’ improbable win over the Commodores, a freshman benchwarmer named Alan Oaks cranked one of the greatest homers in Michigan baseball history off the best pitcher in the nation, David Price. The run helped the Wolverines upset Vanderbilt to win their first regional title in more than 20 years.
The next day, The Tampa Bay Rays took Price with the first pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. Now, with Oaks still in college, Price is one of the fastest-rising rookies in the game, delivering two clutch performances against Boston in the American League Championship Series. But I’m sure you’ve heard of Price by now — his ice-through-the-veins playoff saves have been the talk of ESPN lately.
I still get chills when I think about Oaks’s homer. I’d be willing to bet Price does, too.
To most people, college baseball is an afterthought — especially here in the North where it’s about as popular as professional rock, paper, scissors. It’s what players do when they can’t enter the farm system right after high school.
But the college level can be the most important in the development of a future star, as it was for David Price.
Maybe an NCAA regional championship doesn’t sound as exciting as a World Series ring to you, but ask someone playing in it. The Wolverines rushed the mound after they toppled the top-ranked team in the country with as much intensity as any other championship team. That game meant everything.
To both teams.
Honestly, what better way to prepare for the majors than by staring down a batter in the bottom of the ninth of a win-or-go-home championship game? The experience Price gained in the final inning against Michigan was invaluable, especially considering the circumstances surrounding his first two career MLB clutch performances: recording the final four outs in game seven of the ALCS and pitching 2.1 innings in game two of the World Series.
While Price faltered against the Wolverines, he excelled on an even higher stage. He has his time at Vanderbilt to thank for that, not his stint in the minors.
College baseball provides a unique opportunity for MLB prospects. Players get the chance to play at a high level of competition (the Wolverines tied the New York Mets, 4-4, in an exhibition game last year), and they do so without a paycheck. Whereas minor leaguers play for money and the chance to move up to the majors, college players are in it for the love of the game — they play not for themselves but as part of a team. You saw that team mentality from Price in his heroics of the ALCS.
That kind of passion can’t be learned in the minors. But for a rookie pitcher coming out of the bullpen in the ACLS, it’s essential.
So the next time you hear an ESPN report say that Price’s clutch pitching is unbelievable and inexplicable, you’ll know better. College baseball is responsible for making him the player he is today.
—Reid can be reached at email@example.com