Baseball Greats Back in School

by Chad Bishop

Former Commodore standouts working toward finishing their degrees

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The strength of the Vanderbilt baseball program lies in its exceptionally talented student-athletes and their on-field prowess. And most – if not all – of those student-athletes chose to attend Vanderbilt because of their equally competitive nature in the field of academia.

So it should be no surprise that many of the Commodores who have gone on to play in Major League Baseball and in the minor leagues have decided in recent months to resume efforts toward completing an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University.

“It was always in the back of my mind,” Connor Kaiser said. “You go to a place like Vanderbilt to get your degree. There was no other thought process for me – it was always whenever I get the opportunity I’m going to go back and finish.”

Kaiser, who left West End in 2018 after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (third round, 86th overall), is one of a handful of former Vandy baseball standouts who have decided to renew their studies. Dansby Swanson, Philip Clarke, Chandler Day, Matt Ruppenthal, Pat DeMarco, Will Toffey and JJ Bleday are all also using the summer months to try to finish what they started.

And because the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has suspended virtually all American baseball team activities, there’s no time like the present to pick up the books again.

“I’ve always been a routine-oriented person,” said Toffey, picked in the fourth round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics (111th overall). “When coronavirus struck I didn’t have anything I was working toward and I was just kind of staying ready for baseball. I had a lot of down time and I found out about online classes at Vanderbilt and I thought that would be a perfect thing to do during this time.

“I knew I was going to have multiple months off playing baseball. It was the right time and right opportunity to get back and knock some hours out.”

Sixteen hours short of graduation, Toffey – along with Ruppenthal – was in class from 9 a.m. until noon every day during the month of May. He said he and Ruppenthal would then go to Rose Park in Nashville to work out, return home to study some more, have some dinner then wind down the day before doing it over again the next morning.

Toffey is working toward a degree in Human and Organizational Development and has considered working in baseball or a career in business once his playing days are over. Before the possible start of the 2020 season the Massachusetts native has risen to Class AA Binghamton where he played in 91 games in 2019.

“Everybody is kind of a routine-oriented person – that is something that was pressed upon us there at Vanderbilt and to always be working toward something and to not let time get wasted,” he said. “That was always a pretty vital thing when we were in college so I think that flowed over to guys who are playing professional baseball.”

Kaiser, from Kansas, was with Class A Greensboro in 2019 where he appeared in 79 games. He’s also working toward a degree in Human and Organizational Development and echoed Toffey’s sentiments on routine.

Class from 9-11 a.m. daily followed by lunch, workouts and studying are helping Kaiser cut in to the 31 hours he has left toward graduation.

“I’ve always wanted to finish my degree if I got the opportunity to get drafted after my junior year. That was a no-brainer for me,” Kaiser said. “The timing was obviously unexpected with the pandemic, but I wasn’t doing much since we weren’t playing baseball. It was an easy decision to jump back into taking classes since Vanderbilt allowed students to do online classes.”

 

 

For any former Vandy baseball student-athlete that left before obtaining their respective degrees, many turn to Assistant Director of Academic Support and Senior Academic Counselor Sara Sanders. Sanders assists the Commodores in getting back in the flow of their necessary coursework and how to go through the proper channels of registering for classes.

She takes great pride in the successes of the Vanderbilt baseball program on the diamond, but even more so when its players decide to finish what they start – like all those that are doing so in 2020.

“Just knowing them all personally I get so excited whenever they have opportunities, like they do, to get drafted and go play this thing that they’ve been doing their whole life and they get this amazing opportunity,” Sanders said. “So just as a fan of them as people, it’s so great.

“Whenever they have the interest and drive to come back and want to finish – even though they have this amazing other opportunity – it really is cool to kind of step back into their world and walk alongside them and try to get that done with them.”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.

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