The hardest thing to do in sports is say goodbye. For media members, it’s hard enough. For players and coaches, parents and friends, it’s a million times harder.
Perhaps saying goodbye would be easier if it didn’t come about so suddenly. One minute, it’s a tooth-and-nail struggle for supremacy. The next minute, it’s all over. Life changes in a flash.
Andrew Cox realized this late Monday night. The experience he called his childhood dream had come to an end, much sooner and harsher than he intended. Vanderbilt was the best team in the regional, and it proved it on the field in a 8-0 victory in which it punched its ticket to a super regional in Corvallis, Oregon.
Much as the Tigers breathed life into their season on Sunday night, the Commodores ripped it right away from them in relatively short order. Four hits was all Clemson could muster as the memories of Sunday’s win in a do-or-die situation faded with every recorded out.
On Sunday, Tyler Jackson twirled a gem to give Clemson a chance to advance. The counterpunch from Vanderbilt’s Matt Ruppenthal in his fourth start of the season was even more devastating. His dynamic six-inning performance put Clemson on its back, much as Jackson’s complete game had done less than 24 hours prior.
A day after what Monte Lee described as the best game he’d ever seen a team of his play, the Tigers got off to a strong start in spite of a 2-0 lead that came courtesy of a Will Toffey home run. Clemson’s chance to strike back came in the third, when Logan Davidson ripped a double into the right field corner. Jordan Greene came around third base and would have been out had the throw come straight to the plate.
Instead, catcher Jason Delay had to flail up the third-base line to retrieve the ball, and Greene darted around him. He slid his right foot in the vicinity of home plate to score Clemson’s first run, only the home plate umpire made no signal. The Commodores noticed, Greene was tagged and called out, and the run vanished just as quickly as it scored.
Just like that, all the positive vibes the Tigers stored up on Sunday night—the mojo, the feel, the look, the confidence—were crushed. The hope the team carried into a regional championship Monday disintegrated into the moment. It was never seen again.
For many in attendance, the outcome was decided long before the final out. For the players and coaches involved, the sole focus was competing—until it wasn’t. Then the focus changed entirely.
Trying to pull yourself out of a fight to analyze what went wrong isn’t easy to do. The first thing you do is tend to your wounds. You see what’s hurting and fix it. The self-analysis comes later.
Because of the way the process is set up, coaches and players are in a tough spot in this regard. The reflection must come as the wounds heal, the two processes woven together simultaneously in an awkward marriage of competing ideas. Cox’s emotion and Monte Lee’s reflection were raw.
Cox spoke about oozing orange and purple if you cut his heart open. That heart pumped blood through his veins as he fought tooth-and-nail, then it bled out on the field when his career finally came to a close.
It’s easy to make athletics impersonal. Video games tell us players are machines capable of doing whatever we think they should and coaches should be able to make them do it at the drop of a hat. We are quick to dehumanize the game, but sometimes, the humanity of it smacks us squarely across the face.
It happened last night in Clemson, far sooner than anyone in orange and purple would have liked.