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The game of baseball, elevated

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Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In the modern sports society, the game of baseball generally falls behind basketball and definitely behind the monolith of football, and more specifically, the NFL, in the public’s collective consciousness.

Nowhere is this disparity laid more bare than in the realm of college athletics. In the NCAA, football reigns supreme; and basketball manages its large share of attention, especially when March Madness rolls around. Baseball, then, is cast aside, not often garnering much more attention than its hockey counterpart.

On Rocky Top, however, perhaps that tide’s beginning to shift. We already knew that the Volunteer fanbase could be a ravenous, difficult-to-please bunch; we also knew they could be some of the greatest, most passionate fans in the country.

Now with the surge of the baseball team during the 2021 season, we’ve seen them come out in full force to support the “base-vols,” as I’ve noted in the past they’ve been colloquially called ‘round these parts. You have to wonder if the regular season, in conjunction with a tournament run, could catalyze a consistent and large following for this team as the years continue to roll.

On Friday night, Tennessee kicked off its tournament hopes with a game against Wright State, the fourth seed in their regional, but a deceptively good one. The Raiders led the nation in runs scored during the regular season, so the Vols knew they would have their hands full entering the game.

As luck would have it, the first regional held in Knoxville since 2005 would encapsulate everything in baseball that many have come to love — and some have come to hate — which is hitting tanks and pimping the trip around the bases.

In a game that concluded in a 9-8 Tennessee win, a combined nine home runs were hit between the two teams. In fact, only one scoring play didn’t include a home run. Wright State launched five — and didn’t score any other way — while Tennessee belted four, including what could reasonably be called the biggest home run of the season.

My intent here isn’t to write a recap — I’ll leave that to my colleague, Evan Winter, who promptly posted one at the conclusion of the game — but I did want to bring attention to this portion of the game. Trailing 8-5, Drew Gilbert approached the plate with the bases loaded and one out.

Firstly, we’ve seen grand slam magic before this season. Think back to Evan Russell against LSU and Vanderbilt. This club has seemed as though it hasn’t had a shortage of big-time, late-inning plays this season. For a team that’s 46-16, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

Gilbert proceeded to lift the ball to right field, and when it came down, Tennessee’s non-SEC postseason started not with a whimper, but with a bang. Gilbert then absolutely let everybody know what exactly he did, starting with a monster bat flip and ending with the helmet toss around home plate.

As one would expect, many people across the web took exception to Gilbert’s actions, but I have to wonder, if that’s not a moment to celebrate, when is? This topic is for a different time, however. Let the kids play, as they say!

All this to say, perhaps baseball is on the upswing. According to The Athletic, MLB’s viewer ratings haven’t been dwarfed by the NBA’s in the way that many were predicting it would ultimately be, which is a positive sign for the league. With eyeballs still on baseball at the professional level, perhaps more folks will begin to tune into college baseball games with similar attitudes and vigor they do for football and basketball.

Maybe more importantly, the newer viewers attracted to the sport will be of the younger ilk. While all fans are welcome, it’s the younger generation which might be more readily attracted to mammoth bat flips after daddy hacks and bombs. That’s something MLB is trying to embrace more in some corners but is still facing its share of resistance. Younger audiences tend to enjoy the showmanship associated with playing baseball in this way. A younger fanbase equals more fans for years to come, a problem seemingly proliferating within baseball over the last decade.

All that said, with Tennessee’s colossal introduction into this year’s NCAA tournament, it seems hard to believe the Volunteers can’t make some sort of sustained run en route to Omaha. First thing’s first, though, they have to make it out of a tough region. The Raiders and Vols may well meet again before the region’s all said and done. I would expect similar fireworks from two tested ball clubs if that second meeting comes to pass. The good news is this: For Tennessee, the road that leads to Omaha runs through Knoxville. Let’s see what these fellas can do.