From the First Day to the Last

by Graham Hays

For VandyBoys senior Alan Espinal, the start of his final postseason is one more opportunity for growth

You memorize lots of things during college: names and dates, scouting reports and the bunt sign, and what to order at Pancake Pantry. On his next-to-last day as undergraduate, Alan Espinal and his parents visited the Hillsboro Village breakfast institution. He didn’t need a menu. The order is always the same: medley omelet, buttermilk pancakes and hash browns.

And a large orange juice.

“Best orange juice I’ve ever had, Pancake Pantry,” Espinal mused.

He’s been ordering the same thing for four years, since another breakfast with his parents after they drove from Florida ahead of his first year at Vanderbilt. There have been a lot of omelets since that first breakfast—and a lot of firsts. The first class. The first baseball workout, so intense he worried he was in over his head. The first season and an unforgettable run to the College World Series. This spring brought his first season with the responsibilities of a full-time starting catcher and his first SEC Player of the Week award.

After graduating last week with a degree in medicine, health and society, he’s running out of firsts at Vanderbilt. At some point, there will be only a last. But as baseball’s postseason begins in the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, no one better embodies the spirit of the second season. The postseason is a chance to start anew and use the wisdom gained to get to where you want to go. It’s a chance to grow, if you take it. That’s all Espinal has ever done, from his first day at Vanderbilt to his last. Whenever and wherever that may come.

“I admire everything about Alan Espinal,” head coach Tim Corbin said. “His gratitude for life and what he has is reflected by his actions on a daily basis. He is a great example of parenting done very well. His parents purposely split apart after the hurricane in Puerto Rico, so that he and his brothers could move to the United States for greater opportunity.

“Alan repays his parents continually with his work habits and investment in the people around him. His growth mentally and physically has been extraordinary. He is such a unique young man with such special human fibers.”

Espinal, far right, with his father, Raphael Espinal, and mother, Sanya Colon, on Senior Day.

A First Time for Everything

If Espinal was reluctant to grow, he never would have put on catching gear in the first place. As a boy in Puerto Rico, it wasn’t his first position. He played shortstop, like his older brother. He loved the outfield too. He only put on catching gear for the first time when he was about 12 because his coach announced one day at practice that the regular catcher had moved to Texas. Espinal volunteered to fill in, and he hasn’t taken off the mask since.

“I think my personality was made for catching,” Espinal said. “I’m very loud, I’m very vocal, I want everybody to feel comfortable. I’ve never been shy or scared of talking to the people, making new friends. So, being in that position has also helped me a lot in my people skills.”

New Home, New Plans

His older brother, Dilan, trained at the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy in Puerto Rico before enrolling at Eastern Florida State College in 2017–18 and eventually transferring to NCAA Division I Alabama State. But soon after Hurricane Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico in September 2017, Espinal and his mother and younger brother moved to Viera, Florida. He was in the middle of his sophomore year of high school. Everything was an adjustment, down to ending up in the wrong classroom on his first day at a new school because he assumed he just went everywhere the kids in his homeroom went, as he always had back home.

His plan had always been to play baseball, to finish high school and take his chances in pro ball. College hardly entered the equation. But the more time he spent in Florida, the more he looked around and saw peers who were bigger, stronger, more athletically mature. He heard more and more stories about how unforgiving pro baseball can be for those at the lowest levels. Playing on a travel team with top recruits and future Vanderbilt teammates Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Devin Futrell, among others, people told him Vanderbilt coaches were in attendance and taking notice. It failed to elicit the expected response.

“That’s cool, I guess?” Espinal recalled of his reaction. “I don’t know what that means.”

When he returned home, he asked coaches if Vanderbilt was a good school. Yes, they assured him, the recent national champions from one of the highest-ranked academic institutions in the country had a pretty good program going in Nashville.

The more he learned, the more Vanderbilt became the goal that guided everything he did.

“If I really wanted to do this, there were certain things I had to change, whether it was school, the field, back home with studying,” Espinal said. “It was just putting myself in a little cave and putting my head down and working. At the end of the day, I knew that would be more beneficial than hanging out and going to the beach with friends. Even though that’s part of being a kid and I loved it, I put my head down and said even though I’d love to do that, I know this opportunity will be greater at the end of the day.”

Growth Through Adversity

By the time he made it to Nashville for the start of his freshman year, he only needed to look at his parents—at the emotions they couldn’t hide when they moved him in—to understand the significance of achieving that goal. Still, they reminded him that this was only a step in his journey, not the end of it. By the time he completed his first workouts, he didn’t need any reminders. He recalls going to his room, exhausted after sharing the field with disciplined, competitive “men,” as he put it of teammates three and four years older. Sitting there with Bradfield Jr., the same thought kept running through his mind.

“There’s no way we’re going to thrive here.”

They would. They did. But it wasn’t easy. The same veteran teammates who made the training environment so relentlessly competitive were his mentors. They helped him understand what was expected and how to get there. Then he went to work.

Once his baseball journey is complete, hopefully some years down the road, Espinal would like to put his degree to use studying to be a chiropractor. His interest in the human body and recovery predates his time at Vanderbilt, but his studies supercharged it. He learned that, as invincible as we all feel as teenagers, he couldn’t eat whatever he wanted at all hours of the day. He needed to pay attention to sleep patterns. Always among the smaller players on his teams, he needed to take weight training seriously—he came back from a summer in the famed Cape Cod League before his junior year far stronger.

As he began to see more and more time behind the plate, making more than 20 starts there in 2023 and 42 of his 50 starts this season, he understood the importance of building trust with his pitchers. He needed to think about them more than he thought about himself to make sure they could be their best. That’s the only way a catcher can be at his best.

Like a lot of people, Espinal wasn’t sure he was ready when confronted with something new and challenging in those first days in Nashville. Over time, using the same approach that made Vanderbilt a reality in the first place, he learned it was the best place to thrive.

“A lot of immature players, like myself in the past, you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over and over again,” Espinal said. “You don’t know how to get out of it. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath and say, ‘OK, this is where I’m at right now. What am I going to do about it? Crumble? Or work and get better?’

“That’s what it is. Maturity was a big thing because it just propelled me in everything.”

Don’t Let the Past Drag You Down

In his next-to-last regular season home game at Hawkins Field against No. 1 Tennessee, Espinal came to the plate with tying run on base in the bottom of the ninth inning. He smashed a ball. Crushed it. In a day and age when everything that happens on the field is tracked and measured, the ball had one of the season’s highest exit velocities off the bat. Unfortunately, he also hit it directly to where Tennessee’s second baseman was positioned.

A day later, in his next at-bat, he hit a two-run home run in the first inning to propel the Commodores to a 3-0 victory over the nation’s top-ranked team and an archrival.

“It’s just trying to do my job, just trying to keep the heart beating,” Espinal said of the home run. “It’s tough when you’re right there and things don’t go your way. And it seems at times like all the luck is going the other way. But at the end of the day, it’s not about that. It’s about how you get in the box and command yourself. It’s all about confidence, just you and the other guy throwing the ball. It’s about being committed to what you want to do.”

It’s important to remember the past, Espinal says, the wins and losses, good and bad days. You learn from both. But you can’t let the past be a drag, as he puts it. What came before can’t slow you down. It’s the same message he shares with those around him as the Commodores head to the SEC Tournament after a regular season with its share of good and bad days—of big home runs and balls that seemed to go out of their way to find gloves.

The first time he sat down in Pancake Pantry, he was on the cusp of a new challenge and opportunity. Four years later, his order, like his work ethic and determination to meet the moment, is unchanged. Even with degree in hand, he hasn’t run out of beginnings. There is one more postseason. And there is always time to grow.

“When I do what I want to do with my body and my mind, it’s smooth sailing and just full throttle moving forward,” Espinal said. “That’s the mentality I’ve had my entire life, and I think it’s a healthy one, at least for me, because it just keeps you going day in and day out.”

From the first day to the last.



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