With swagger, guts, and fun-loving bravado to spare, the UT baseball team brings home an SEC Championship
Tennessee Volunteers pitcher Chase Burns faced a tough situation in the third inning against Auburn on April 29. Bases loaded. None out. Up by two runs. Coming up, several of the most feared hitters in college baseball, including .448-hitting Sonny DiChiara. Digging deep into the toughness tank, Burns, a 6’4” freshman from Gallatin, struck them out in order.
“That was insane,” said coach Tony Vitello afterward. “That was the ballgame. To do it against those hitters, that was guts. It was a moment of growing up.” There was much more to come.
Something Happening Here
An hour before the 7 p.m. game time on a perfect spring evening, a carnival atmosphere had surrounded Lindsey Nelson Stadium. The Friday Block Party was in full swing on Pat Head Summitt Street, with Drink Smooth, Kona Ice, and Checkerboard Cheese food trucks, Dick’s House of Sport Speed Pitch, face painting, a VolShop tent, and music from DJ (and football VFL) Sterling “Sterl the Pearl” Henton. The lines at the box office were long, and tickets were hard to come by. The Vols had averaged 4,085 for 18 home games, shattering a record of 2,137 from 1997. Tonight’s crowd would total up to 4,584. That’s what happens when a team is the No. 1 team in the nation, 43-6 overall, 20-4 in the SEC, and always fun to watch.
Behind the stadium the SAE’s and Phi Kappa Psi’s were partying hard on their patios. Beer sales were swift as fans gathered in the bleachers to watch the teams warm up and take BP. Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn there with his wife, Melissa. He said he didn’t have season tickets, but he knew someone who did, grinning at his good fortune. “I do like getting to games early if I can, to see the guys warm up.” Knoxville lawyer Bill Coley, there with fellow attorney Reggie Keaton, said his wife Betty had gone online and gotten tickets before she headed off to the beach. “Our daughter and son-in-law work for Auburn,” said Coley, “so this is a tough night for us.” At 6:30 p.m., Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet sang It’s Five O’clock Somewhere over the loudspeakers.
The Ballad of Mike Honcho
Many fans wore T-shirts with the name Honcho and either 35 or 27 on the back, the result of a Vitello sarcastic ad lib that went viral and became a Knoxville craze. It all started in the first inning against Vanderbilt on April 1. Jordan Beck—a junior right fielder from Hazel Green, Alabama, and probable first-round pick in the upcoming MLB draft—hit a homer, or so everyone thought. The tater was de-tatered after the umps deemed Beck’s bat ineligible for play. It turned out Beck’s bat was checked prior to the game and marked with a sticker to rule it eligible. But the sticker fell off during batting practice, so, when the umps inspected his bat after the homer, they said it was illegal.
Joking about the ridiculous idea that Beck was up to no good, Vitello—who spins memorable phrases in the tradition of loquacious managers like Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra—joked, “I don’t even know that Jordan Beck should be at the University of Tennessee. He forged his transcript and is actually a 35-year-old man named Mike Honcho. He just shows up to practice every day and he is a good kid so we put him in the lineup.” The reference, of course, was to Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and a bedside confession by Ricky’s best friend, Cal Naughton Jr., that he had once done a spread “and I mean spread” in Playgirl magazine under the name Mike Honcho. The sign on Toddy’s Backdoor Tavern read, “Mike Honcho drinks 4 free!”
James Allen of Bacon & Company quickly designed T-shirts with the name Honcho across the back shoulder, some with the number 35, reflecting the fictional age, and some with 27, Beck’s actual number. The VolShop and Alumni Hall started taking preorders. “As soon as that quote came out, I ordered t-shirts for Alissa and me,” says John Jenkins, an electrical engineer with Mesa Associates. They got the ones with the number 27. “I wish it had been the 35,” says Jenkins.
“A Great Vibe, Like a Tidal Wave or an Avalanche”
Humor, a fun-loving spirit, and a palpable bravado have been essential ingredients in the Vols’ success. “Last year they started to embrace that swagger,” says UT Daily Beacon writer Andrew Peters. “This year, they’ve really gone all in. Last year, they wouldn’t have said they were the villains. Now they know they’re the villains.”
At 6:50 p.m., the loudspeaker plays an amped-up version of Rocky Top. News Sentinel beat writer Mike Wilson sweeps by the overflow tent to give a game-on fist-bump to Peters and the WUTK guys. Pinch me: a seasoned sportswriter offering enthusiastic encouragement to young reporters? Am I a cub reporter again, sitting next to kind and generous icons like Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford? “It definitely is big to me to encourage the student media,” Wilson explains. “I’ve been there and know that intimidating feeling of being around ‘those’ reporters. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Wilson covers the Amazin’ Vols with considerable energy and creativity, does in-depth player profiles, and analyzes the twists and turns of navigating the season atop the rankings. In the after-game interviews, Wilson waits like Boswell at Samuel Johnson’s table for the next Vitello-ism that will make his stories go viral. What Grantland Rice was to Rockne’s Four Horsemen, Wilson is to this team of destiny. And if Wilson is a throwback to hallowed wags of bygone eras, these Vols are throwbacks to the shaggy, mustachioed, bombastic early-70s Oakland A’s of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Mudcat Grant, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, and Sal Bando. (No coincidence that lefty pitcher Kirby Connell’s handlebar moustache earned him the nickname “Vollie Fingers.” He also led the team with a 1.66 season ERA.)
The cockiness and champions’ élan exploded in the seventh inning. With the Vols trailing 4-2, catcher Evan Russell, a fifth (additional COVID)-year guy from Lexington, Tennessee, doubled off the left field line. Pinch hitter Seth Stephenson, a junior from Buda, Texas, and shortstop Cortland Lawson, a junior from Potomac Falls, Virginia, singled, cutting the lead to 4-3. Then leadoff hitter Christian Moore—a .342-hitting freshman from Brooklyn, New York, who loves country music—singled to load the bases.
Moore had been the hero of a come-from-behind victory at Florida on April 24. Down 4-2 with two out in the ninth, Moore singled with the bases loaded to tie the score. In the 11th, he came up with a runner on base and sent the ball over the left field wall. “It felt amazing,” says Moore. “Close game, bottom of the 11th is something you dream of as a kid, to hit a go-ahead home run. I put a pretty good swing on a fastball and it went over, and I got to celebrate with my teammates.” That win over the Gators was sealed by 5’9” left fielder Christian Scott, who used his 52-inch vertical leap to rise above the fence and pull an apparent Gator homer back into the park and seal the win.
Ducks on a Pond
With the bases loaded, still in the seventh inning on April 29, Jorel Ortega, a sophomore from Naranjito, Puerto Rico, by way of Spanish River High School in Florida, found himself waiting with a 1-2 count while Auburn pitcher Blake Burkhalter realized he had pulled something in his arm and had to decide whether to continue. It took a while, with many practice pitches. Burkhalter continued. When play resumed, Ortega lined Burkhalter’s next pitch over the left field wall for a grand slam to put UT up 7-4. The packed crowd went wild. “It’s loud in the dugout, as far as the audio goes,” says Vitello. “It creates a great vibe, like a tidal wave or an avalanche. They have helped us. We have very active fans. You can just feel it. The crowd gets behind you, and it’s like an avalanche.”
“Jorel is kind of what you want a baseball player to be,” Vitello says. “He has a passion for baseball. He is a fun-loving kid. He’s got the ability to be relaxed and kidding around, but when it’s time, he’s locked in. It allows him to relax and execute in a pretty extreme fashion.”
“I just wanted to put the ball in play because a strikeout would be huge in that situation,” Ortega says afterward, in his charming Puerto Rican accent and, for old schoolers, those cool rectangles of grease spread on his cheeks to cut the glare. “Better to put the ball in play and bring a run in. That is what I did, and it went over the fence.”
The Home Run “Fuh” and Making Things Fun
In the dugout, Ortega donned the fur “home run coat,” or “fuh” as it’s often called—think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, or maybe Liberace after an all-nighter partying with Wayne Newton. White with black highlights. “It could be a woman’s or a man’s coat that you would wear to a 70s gangster party,” Vitello explains. “It kinda looks pimped out. The fans love it.”
“Letting his players show their personality is a big reason why the team is playing so well,” wrote blogger Zach Ragan. This is part of how Vitello got all these MLB-bound players to come to UT. “The kids want to play for Tony because of how he coaches,” Wilson says. “Players’ coach all the way.”
“It’s pretty awesome for Jorel to be where he is,” says catcher Russell in the postgame interviews, where, as a fifth-year guy, he seems to be the adult in the room. “A year ago, he was not traveling. He was not in the lineup. But he has worked hard. This team is a lot of guys who have grinded and bought into approaches.”
After Honcho (Beck) flied out to center, centerfielder Drew Gilbert, a junior from Stillwater, Minnesota, singled. Gilbert is an example of a player who came to UT because of Vitello’s special sauce. “He was committed to Oregon State and then flipped after Tony got an extension in 2019, if memory serves right,” says Wilson. Third baseman Trey Lipscomb, a senior from Frederick, Maryland, singled. One out, two men on.
Transformation into a Powerhouse
In a profile of Lipscomb, Wilson described the transformation from unsure freshman in 2019 to offensive powerhouse, with 16 homers and 61 RBIs as of late April. He used to rush to the batter’s box, eager-beaver style. “It is almost like I was asking to get out or something,” he told Wilson. “Now, when I go to the box, it is my show. No one is going to stop me.” Lipscomb said he needed to learn patience. He started doing yoga during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown. He read It Takes What It Takes by Trevor Moab and books by Seahawk-turned-Bronco Russell Wilson. “He slows down by painting and learned to be in the present moment,” wrote Mike Wilson.
Up with Gilbert and Lipscomb on, Russell blasted a homer into the UT bullpen to make it 10-4 and duly donned the coat. The Vol faithful continued its deafening roar. “Lindsey Nelson Stadium is a hard place to win,” says Russell, “Something happens. The crowd erupts. It’s fun for the fans to watch.”
Leading off the eighth, Blake Burke, a lefty freshman from Brentwood, California, pinch hit. With a 3-0 count, he blasted a pitch 435 feet past the light tower in right center. “Being able to see Blake Burke hit a 3-0 pitch to the moon is something that this program has turned to that I’ve never seen before,” says Russell afterward. “I’ve never seen a freshman swing at 3-0 pitches, let alone hit one like he did.” Burke duly donned the coat, as did Ortega, after his second homer of the evening that made it 12-4.
The Onslaught Continued
Beck doubled, Gilbert hit a blistering liner off the pitcher’s heel, scoring Beck. Lipscomb homered to right field, his 17th of the year, to make it 15-4, donning the coat in the dugout. Pinch-hitter Logan Steenstra walked and Russell homered to left, 17-4. “It was amazing,” says Ortega. “It was a barrelfest.” The Vols’ six homers brought their total to 100 in 42 games. Says Russell, “Being able to hit 100 homers at this time of the season shows there is a lot of talent in this lineup.”
There were fireworks after the game, which ended around 11:30 p.m.
On Sunday afternoon, May 1, Beck hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning to give the Vols a 5-3 victory. “He might be the most explosive hitter in college baseball,” says Vitello afterward. “Anything crazy can happen at any moment because he is so explosive.”
Ben Joyce, a 6’5” freshman from Farragut, came in with the score 3-3 and two runners on in the sixth inning. He pitched four innings of clutch relief, throwing a 105.5-mph fastball. The fastest pitch ever measured in Major League Baseball was 105.8 mph, by Aroldis Chapman of the Reds in 2010. “I ain’t the smartest fella,” says Vitello, “but I ain’t taking that guy out of the game nor are any of the other coaches.”
Looking toward the Major League draft, Beck, Gilbert, and righty pitcher Blade Tidwell, a sophomore from Loretto, Tennessee, are projected as first-rounders. Overall, as many as 20 of the Vols are projected as draft picks in the next three years.
After winning the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, the Volunteers, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, were upset two games to one by Notre Dame in the Super Regionals and did not advance to the College World Series. “They say time heals all wounds,” said Vitello afterward. “I don’t know who ‘they’ are, because sometimes it takes a long time.” Still, the Vols were a dominant force throughout a remarkable season, the first team ever to lead the nation in both home runs (158) and ERA (2.51) and ending with a program-record 57-9 record. “One of the best teams to never win a national championship,” said ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson near the end of the 7-3 loss to Notre Dame.