The College World Series known as “The Greatest Show in Dirt,” which will be decided Wednesday night, has been shadowed by the nation’s two biggest ills.
One is racism as manifested by the epithets allegedly spewed at Vanderbilt University parents as their team defeated Mississippi State in the first game in the best-of-three contest on Monday night.
“I am deeply troubled that some of our student-athlete parents were subjected to racist slurs during last night's game,” Vanderbilt Athletic director Candice Storey Lee tweeted on Tuesday. “This is absolutely unacceptable and disgraceful behavior, and such hateful language has no place anywhere in our society.”
The other ailment is COVID-19, which prevented a North Carolina team that was only half-vaccinated from a chance to make the championship and realize a baseball fairytale come true.
The Wolfpack, as the North Carolina State team is known, battled its way to the national championships at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, and then was hit by what Coach Elliott Avent casually termed “a bug.”
On June 21, the Wolfpack roused itself to defeat the reigning national champions, the Vanderbilt Commodores, 1-0, in the first round of the tournament. Freshman pitcher Sam Highfill was on the mound and struck out seven.
“I had a lot of help behind me,” the teen said in a video interview after defeating the Tennessee team. “We got it done.”
He is the third generation to attend the university and he added, “I always dreamed about coming here growing up, pitching in games like these. It’s unbelievable.”
Then, on Tuesday, June 22, a player who had the “bug” tested positive for COVID-19. Two more players tested positive on Friday, as the Wolfpack was preparing to face Vanderbilt again in a matchup that could have sent them to the championship.
As North Carolina parents waited for the game to commence, they noted the tarp was still on the field and the baselines had not been refreshed. They learned that National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) officials had decided that only the 13 vaccinated members of the 27 in the Wolfpack lineup could compete. The team was given a choice: play with a reduced roster the next day or forfeit.
The coach let the players decide. They chose to go ahead.
“I don’t think you do things from the top,” Avent later said at a press conference. “I think it’s always a decision made by the people that have done the work. It’s always the people on the ground to get the work done. And sometimes at the top, you have to make a decision. But this wasn’t one of those circumstances.”
He continued, “And I told the team... let me know what you want to do. They talked about probably six seconds.”
Avent declined to say whether he had encouraged his players to get vaccinated.
“I teach them baseball, make sure they get an education and keep them on the right track forward, but I don’t try to indoctrinate my kids with my values,” he said. “Obviously, we talked about a lot of things but these are young men that can make their own decisions and that’s what they did.”
He also declined to say whether he himself had been vaccinated: “If you want to talk baseball, we can talk baseball. If you want to talk politics or stuff like that…”
The Wolfpack was due to face Vanderbilt again on Saturday, but the fourth positive result triggered testing of the whole team. Four of the vaccinated players tested positive.
At 1 a.m. Saturday, the NCAA declared a “no-contest.” North Carolina’s fairytale ended without the team getting another chance to play. The Wolfpack was defeated in the end by the highly contagious delta variant, NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson announced on Tuesday.
The team had learned the hard way what has long been clear to scientists and those who follow the science: The virus keeps trying to find a way around the vaccine and it will continue to do so until enough people are vaccinated to stop it.
The failure of North Carolina State athletes to get vaccinated cost them their shot at the national championship—a tough lesson, for sure. They could have fared much worse; elsewhere, the decision not to get vaccinated is still costing Americans their lives.
Some North Carolina State parents have a tradition of taking a shot of vodka laced with pink lemonade before each game. They call it “a shot to win.” The true shot to win is the COVID vaccine and if the Wolfpack had taken it, they might have gone on to Tuesday’s championship.
Instead, Vanderbilt went on to play Mississippi State in the national championship, scored seven runs in the first inning, and won 8-2. Mississippi State’s Athletics Director John Cohen subsequently condemned whoever hurled racial epithets at parents of the victors.
“We join Vanderbilt in declaring such behavior unacceptable and in direct conflict with the values of both institutions and our fanbases,” Cohen said in a statement.
“The College World Series serves as a celebration of the entire sport of college baseball. Highly inappropriate events must neither be tolerated nor allowed to detract from the on-the-field accomplishments of the student-athletes and their teams who have earned the right to participate on this national stage.”
Mississippi won the second game 13-2 on Tuesday evening. Wednesday’s game will decide who becomes the national champion.
However it turns out, America will be left with the two great ills of COVID-19 and racism, a sickness for which there is no vaccine.