“He’s the reason they’re in the finals.”
ESPN baseball analyst Eduardo Perez is talking about Javier Vaz, the Vanderbilt utility player who isn’t necessarily the biggest name on a team in which the pitching staff takes up most of the headlines. When a guy who threw a no-hitter once in super regionals (Kumar Rocker) and the son of a former big league pitcher (Jack Leiter) are on your team — both of whom are likely to be picked early in July’s MLB draft — even people who consider themselves college baseball fans might overlook you.
“If it wasn’t for Javier Vaz’s walk the other day, if it wasn’t for him stealing bases the other day, that diving play, he covers a lot of ground,” said Perez, who played college baseball at Florida State and has known Vaz’s father since they played winter ball together in Puerto Rico years ago. “I always say you want pitching, defense and baserunning. Timely hitting will come. He’s created havoc when everybody’s paying attention to Enrique [Bradfield, SEC Freshman of the Year]. In the meantime, it’s been Javier who’s been doing the damage on the bases.”
Vaz scored the tying run in the bottom of the ninth in a thriller against Stanford that required incredible plate presence from him. Earlier in the game, he had a web gem that would have meant runs for Stanford early, insurance it ended up wishing it had. Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, who has won two baseball national championships, chose the right time to press his button.
Up until this postseason, Vaz had started exactly one game this season. Since the postseason began, he’s started eight, including every single one in Omaha, Nebraska. The skipper they call “Corbs” puts a premium on accountability, and this is no different.
“He’s earned the right to be out there. He’s stayed very focused and diligent towards what he’s doing,” Corbin, the two-time ABCA/Diamond National Coach of the Year, said. “I think the unique part about kids like that is, come at the end of the season, they never lose their spirit and personality during it. I think oftentimes when you’re a kid that doesn’t see his name on the lineup card for March and April, your spirit can dampen. That’s never been the case with this kid.
“He’s very well-respected. He’s very well-liked on our team. He’s got a very positive spirit around him. And he has fun when he plays.”
Baseball is what brought him to Vanderbilt, but it’s not the only reason he’s there.
Picture Day for school kids typically goes one of two ways. Prim and proper or wild and wacky. Some parents don’t care – “whatever, they’re kids” – and some want to ensure their kids look like they’re dressed for business meetings at 5 years old. But for the Puerto Rican from New York and the aesthetician from Alabama, their son was going to be fresh when his turn came. Roberto and Stephanie Vaz styled and taught a young Javier how to pose and the result was incredible.
Currently his Twitter avi, his little legs are crossed with his arms draped over the chair, oh-so delicately. Mans is fly. But to hear his parents describe that day gives you some insight into not just who they are, but how their family operates. Dad made sure his son’s chain was shining. And Mama made sure he looked good down to his perfectly done braids.
They know their strengths, and the story of how they met is a tale of baseball and the ’90s that just makes too much sense.
Roberto, the 1997 first-team All-American at Alabama, saw Stephanie in the club with her girls. When he asked her if she would like to join him outside on the deck, she declined, but said he could sit right there next to her. Eventually, he asked her to come see him play. She could bring her girls, he suggested, leaving three tickets — since obviously she wasn’t in the business of leaving their company. One problem, none of them wanted to go watch some dude they didn’t really know run around a field.
“I knew very little about baseball,” Stephanie said at lunch Sunday, while Roberto had a huge grin on his face. “I couldn’t get not one of my girlfriends to go with me. They were like, ‘Three hours? In the sun? No way.’ ”
She went anyway and walked into the stadium, hearing the tunes of Big Pun’s “Still Not A Player” blasting over the speakers. It was his walk-up song at the time (like the lyrics say, he’s not a player he just crushes a lot. Baseballs, see, get it?) because, yeah, if you’re a Nuyorican and hitting bombs in college baseball in 1998, that’s absolutely the best choice on earth.
“I’m on the third-base side, which is the home dugout, and I looked all the way to home plate. I said, ‘Oh, hell, that’s him,’ ” Stephanie said with the perfect inflection of someone who has told a great story many times before. “So, I just stand there, paralyzed, to see this at-bat. The second swing, he hits a … home … run. He still doesn’t know I’m there and I’ve not met any of his teammates. He comes around third base and the entire dugout is waiting to greet him, and they’re like, ‘Your girl, your chick, she’s here!’ They all came out and pointed at me. It was hilarious.”
Leaning forward to make sure I can see him, the grin is now a full-blown cheesy smile.
Roberto Vaz learned to play baseball from his mother, Sonia. She came to New York in the ’60s from Puerto Rico and was a great softball player in her day. She taught him how to hit the old-school way, with bottle caps, a tradition long celebrated by many as their introduction to batting. He eventually played in the same youth clubs as guys such as Manny Ramirez and Frankie Rodriguez.
The first time Roberto Vaz was in Omaha, he was playing for the Crimson Tide, but he never got a chance to see the field. It was back in 1997, in the regionals, when he stepped on a baseball while running to first base. The hairline fracture was enough to keep him from suiting up.
“I came, I just didn’t play. I had a boot on,” the elder Vaz explained while sitting in Smoking Jay’s BBQ with a picture of Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium on the wall behind him with a catcher’s mask hanging off the frame. “During that year, four SEC West teams went to Omaha. Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State. They didn’t even have the new press box built yet. Right. You know, so you could see everything.
“So I know as a sidebar, what my son is going through in left field,” continued Roberto, who returned to Omaha in 2001, playing in Triple-A. “The sun here is big, it has a lot of glare and it goes straight through the glass.”
After college, he was drafted by the Oakland Athletics before injuries derailed his career in Triple-A. He ended up starting his own academy, and now he’s the assistant coach at LSU Eunice, the junior college that feeds to the legendary Tigers program, where his son eventually played for him.
Now, with two SEC teams facing off for the national championship, the two parents who met through baseball still support each other and their son in the same way. Stephanie studied biology and chemistry at Alabama A&M University and will absolutely tell you that she is a proud historically Black college alum. She owns a day spa and knows how important it is for them all to still be themselves.
That baby picture? Javier’s lil’ braids are still the style he wears, and after his team barely escaped elimination, she was reminded of her little boy.
“Since I’ve been here at the College World Series, I’ve had a few pinch-myself moments. One was the other day, and I just recognized that he’s the same person,” she recalled fondly. “He was done with all his things, he came back to their hotel, and he said, ‘Mom, do you have time to retwist my hair for the next game?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ ”
According to Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School, the master of management in health care degree is a program “designed specifically to help rising managers in health care organizations gain fundamental business skills and apply them immediately on the job.” Courses offered include: managerial economics, financial management of health care institutions and strategies for high-performance health care organizations. It sounds hard. But that’s why it’s one of the most well-known programs in the country.
Vanderbilt, the lone private school in the SEC, is said to be a nerd school, only there to up the collective GPA of the conference. The joke going around the press box during the game against Stanford was that if it went to extra innings, they’d have to do math to decide the winner. Short version: Most people can’t get into Vandy, so they make fun of it. Javier Vaz, like most of us, was one of those students, but he had a vision.
“I’ve always wanted to come here since I was 14 years old, it just had been my dream school,” Vaz said last week, sporting a fresh Nike jacket that he had just gotten team-issued. “I just want to help people. Like, I want to serve people. I want to be the best service man I can be. That’s all that matters. It’s not about you. It’s about others and impacting the most people I possibly can. That will make me happy.”
One might wonder how a kid so young has such a determined view of how he wants to move. Well, his dad didn’t just show him opportunities as his baseball coach.
“Javier has always had lofty goals for himself. Like at first he wanted to be an architect, but he was really, really nice with Legos, went from Legos to robotics. So I knew he had the idea in his mind that he could do some things,” Roberto points out.
But still, for a young person to think, “OK, I want to run a hospital one day, so let me see if I can make their baseball team so I can do both,” is next-level determination. But he’s smart — he goes to Vandy — and there’s an obvious reason. It’s what he’s seen most of his life.
“The interest in becoming a CEO was the business part of it first. That’s what interested him first. Creating the relationships, being able to try to generate funds to help people,” Roberto Vaz said. “Then I was like, ‘What would you want to be CEO of? Which kind of company?’ Well, the biggest employer in Huntsville, Alabama, is Huntsville Hospital, besides the military. He knows that. We are fortunate enough to know some people who are really high up at the hospital. So he’s been able to shadow it.
“I think one of the jobs of a parent is to foster your children’s strengths. You know? So Stephanie and myself have connections that are able to foster some things and have that happen.”
The one problem was that in order to qualify academically, he was going to have to go to junior college first. He was on Coach Corbin’s radar when he played in a travel ball tournament at Hawkins Field on Vanderbilt’s campus and hit a couple of triples that wowed him. Again, though, matriculating there is not easy. Once again, he kept his head down, played for his father at LSU Eunice and got it together in the classroom. Because of the COVID-19 eligibility year, he’s a sophomore eligibilitywise now, but an academic junior.
Now, that determination that he brings to life to eventually help people he doesn’t know, he brings to help his teammates. And his laser focus is still there, all the way down to his plate approach, which isn’t about being a big bopper, but getting on and making things happen.
“My plate approach is just to hit the ball hard. Try to hit the ball off the pitcher’s face every time. That’s my plan. I could put in a good at-bat, I put my team in the best position to win if I could just do my part,” Vaz said. “I’ve always thought like I was going to be here one day. So when it comes to nerves and stuff, like, I never really had them. It was a feeling of like, ‘I’m here. Like you told yourself, you’re going to be here.’ And I just play.”
While the town of Omaha might have embraced its last opponent who had to exit the tournament due to an inability to field a healthy team, and their current opponent has what appeared to be several small villages of fans in the crowd, Corbin knows that what No. 2 brings to the lineup and the sport overall is invaluable.
“There’s a Tony Kemp element to him,” Corbin said, referring to one-time SEC Freshman of the Year and the current big leaguer. “They are very positive people and they play with a lot of bounce and enjoy the game. And any time you get kids that love to play the game, they model those behaviors to 8-, 9-,10-year-olds — which there’s a pile of those kids here right now that get to see [my] kids play. And that’s really how you should play the game of baseball, with that sense of love.”