Vanderbilt to last: Dodgers' Walker Buehler, Red Sox's David Price share college bond with former coach

BySteve Wulf ESPN logo
Friday, October 26, 2018

The man watching Game 2 of the World Series at Sam's Sports Grill in the Belle Meade area of Nashville had a deeper interest in the game than most.

For one thing, he grew up in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, as a Boston Red Sox fan and devotee of Yaz, Rico and Tony C. For another, he was helping his wife, Maggie, keep proper score of the game.

"She gets confused by the shifts," he says. "She hasn't yet figured out that even if Justin Turner is positioned on the right side of the infield and throws out a runner on a ground ball, it's still a 5-3."

But the main reason Tim Corbin, 57, was so focused on the game was that Boston's starting pitcher, David Price, played for him at Vanderbilt.

"He did great, didn't he?" Corbin says the morning after. "I saw he had great stuff from the beginning. And when he got into trouble in the top of the fourth, he didn't let the game spin out of control. He didn't let himself spin out of control. I've always been proud of David, but especially so last night."

Price pitched six innings, giving up just three hits and getting the win in the Red Sox's 4-2 victory that gave them a 2-0 edge in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers before heading out to L.A. Now comes the hard part, not just for Sox, but for Corbin, as well.

You see, another one of his Vanderbilt pitchers, Walker Buehler, is going for the Dodgers on Friday night. Corbin is not sure yet where he'll watch Game 3, but his heart will be in the right place. "I always root for my guys," he says. "I really want to see Walker do well, even if it means the Red Sox lose."

This postseason has been both nerve-wracking and gratifying for Corbin because there were Commodores all over: Dansby Swanson and Ryan Flaherty with the Atlanta Braves;Tony Kemp with the Houston Astros;Milwaukee Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson; Price and Buehler. That happens when you've been coaching a team for 16 years and, in the process, turning a one-time laughingstock into the winner of the College World Series in 2014 (Vanderbilt's first champion in a men's sport) while turning out 14 different No. 1 draft picks: Price was taken by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007 and Buehler by the Dodgers in 2015.

It's a long way from Wolfeboro to Nashville, and no GPS will give you the same route Corbin took: via Ohio Wesleyan as a player, Presbyterian College in South Carolina as the coach of the Blue Hose for six years, and as assistant at Clemson for nine years. Vanderbilt was coming off a 24-27 season in 2002 when Corbin agreed to take the job. "The fact that Hawkins Field had a giant green wall in left field had something to do with it," he says.

You can take the boy out of Wolfeboro, but you can't take Wolfeboro out of the boy. Corbin's office is in the fieldhouse just beyond Vandy's version of the Green Monster, and it's chock-a-block with memorabilia, much of it Red Sox-themed. He has balls signed by Carl Yastrzemski and Ted Williams; a Yaz rookie card from 1960 that was given to him by Mike Yastrzemski, one of his former players and Carl's grandson; ticket stubs from a Red Sox AL Championship Series game in 2007 and from a July 24, 2013, game between the Rays and Red Sox at Fenway.

"That one has a special meaning because David was pitching for Tampa, and he got us seats behind home plate," Corbin says. "He won 5-1 with a complete game."

Price has also donated $2.5 million to the renovation of Hawkins Field. The bond between Corbin and Price is especially close, and when Price signed with the Red Sox as a free agent after the 2015 season, Corbin saw a chance for his favorite team to help assuage his guilt.

"I've always felt bad because I couldn't get him to the College World Series," he says of Price, "so I wanted him to get to the real World Series."

It was Price's masterpiece in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Astros that got the Red Sox there -- and himself off the hook after 11 postseason starts in which he failed to get the victory. Then, in Game 2 of the World Series, just when it looked like he might go down to defeat, the Red Sox rallied and Price righted himself. Afterward, he told Ken Rosenthal of Fox, "It feels good, it definitely feels good. But like I said before the playoffs happened, I'd rather go winless and we win the World Series than me go 4- or 5-and-0 and we lose."

"That's David," says Corbin, who texted with Price after the game. "It's never been about himself. It's always been about team."

That team might have been the Dodgers -- they drafted Price out of Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in the 19th round in 2004. But he did not sign and instead elected to go to Vanderbilt, only 35 miles away.

"I wish I could tell you I saw his greatness right away," Corbin says, "but you're never quite sure about a recruit. The first time he impressed me was the fall of his freshman year, and it wasn't on the baseball field. We have this training game, Power Ball, that's a combination of basketball and football, where you have to put the ball in a trash can. Well, David really got after it, very competitive, and it was at that point that I knew he might be something special.

"The other thing I noticed was that he would never leave the clubhouse -- I had to push him out sometimes to get him to go to class. That told me something else, that he wanted to be part of something bigger. And that's a powerful combination, a player who will give his all for a larger purpose."

Buehler came along eight years later, recruited out of Henry Clay High in Lexington, Kentucky. He too could have played pro ball right away -- the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the 14th round. But he chose to go to Vandy and helped the Commodores win the College World Series. Shortly after the Dodgers made him the 24th pick of the 2015 draft, they found out Buehler needed Tommy John surgery, so he had to be carefully nurtured until he blossomed this year into a comp for 1988 Series hero Orel Hershiser. Now Buehler gets to start Game 3, with his club down 2-0.

Buehler is right-handed and clean-shaven, Price is left-handed and bearded, but Corbin sees much the same pitcher in each.

"Both are really competitive, both have great hearts and souls, both have their compasses pointing toward team," he says. "Walker's going to pitch great."

Both of them, though, can't win the World Series. So who's Corbin rooting for?

"It has to be David. The window on his winning the World Series isn't as open as Walker's is," he says. "He doesn't have as many years left, as many opportunities to win a ring.

"Plus, he does pitch for the Red Sox."