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For Vanderbilt’s two freshman phenoms, success is a family affair

Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Christian Little are shining at College World Series

OMAHA, Neb. — Locked in. It’s a term that athletes use when they are both focused and challenged, mentally and physically, regarding who they are as competitors and teammates. For Vanderbilt freshmen Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Christian Little, that’s been the case not just all season, not just their entire college careers, but for as long as they can remember, basically.

Bradfield is the SEC Freshman of the Year — the third Commodores player to win the award since it was started in 2000 — and he also made the ABCA/Rawlings NCAA Division I Gold Glove Team. Add to that, he was first-team All-SEC and named to the SEC All-Defensive Team. Little, at 17 years old, became the youngest player to start an SEC game and the youngest player to start a College World Series game.

They are part of a team that has eight Black players, a refreshing anomaly in college baseball, but not for Vanderbilt. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price and Colorado Rockies reliever Jordan Sheffield played there. A decade ago, the Oakland Athletics’ Tony Kemp won the freshman of the year award himself at Vandy. He was so good that it made Mookie Betts — yes, that one — change his mind about attending the school because he wasn’t sure he’d get a chance to play.

It’s a thing. Not the thing, but enough of a factor that when you see a group of parents all sitting together, like they were on Wednesday night rooting for their boys, you take notice in the best way possible. When Javier Vaz, the best player on the field for the Commodores Wednesday who made a run-saving diving grab earlier in the game, started a two-out rally in the ninth inning by drawing a walk after falling behind 0-2 in the count against Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Brendan Beck, the parents in the crowd were also completely locked in.

“It’s the ninth inning, and we’re down to our last ups. Obviously, I’m very intense, but you know, inside,” Roberto Vaz, a former pro player who is now a baseball coach and Javier’s dad, recalled on Thursday. “So the first thing I do is I move up to the concourse. Me and Enrique’s dad. We just needed room. We needed space.”

For parents, watching is often as intense as playing, and any advantage you can get to stay sane, with all the cameras on you, is one you’ll take.

“So [Spencer Jones] gets up, he gets the seeing-eye single,” Roberto Vaz continued. “They throw the ball away. Javi goes first to third. So now Enrique’s dad is literally going to leave and start walking onto the concourse. He’s one of those that can’t watch his son in a big situation, like he’s one of them types. I stopped him and said, ‘You are standing right here, you ain’t going nowhere.’ ”

What happened next is the stuff that dreams are made of, with Bradfield tying the game with a single and Vanderbilt ultimately coming from behind to win.

But if Little doesn’t keep his composure on the mound after his team behind him was struggling earlier in the game, and Vaz doesn’t work that count, and Bradfield doesn’t jump all over Beck to score Vaz and tie the game, eventually leading to the wild pitch heard around Omaha, Vanderbilt is sitting at home right now, instead of starting likely top 10 MLB draft pick Kumar Rocker on Friday against NC State (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) to try to stay alive coming out of the loser’s bracket.

It was a whirlwind of emotions.

For Bradfield and Little, specifically, their roads to Omaha have been intense.

SEC Freshman of the Year Enrique Bradfield Jr.

Courtersy of Vanderbilt Athletics

Enrique Bradfield Sr. was born in Panama. He represented his country on the baseball field as a youth player and eventually ended up playing college baseball at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. Coming from a family of baseball players, his own son took to the game right away, quite literally.

“In T-ball, I realized he already had the concept of the game,” Bradfield Sr. explained Wednesday from the team’s hotel lobby. “He knew that if somebody hit the ball, you have to catch a ball and run, tag a base. And at that age, he would get a little upset when … all the kids are, like, running around. I remember he had this little bouncy ball. He would throw the ball against the door. I could be walking the dog, like a block away, and hear, ‘boomp, boomp’ [against the door] when he was like, 9.”

A lot of stories of young players are similar, and it’s easy to feel like every kid dreams big at that age. That might be the case, but Bradfield has clear memories of his baseball career, as young as it may still be. When asked if he ever thought about not playing baseball, he vividly recalled that at 8 years old, he stopped playing for a couple months. That’s it. He wanted to play other sports and was missing a lot of friends’ birthday parties and his travel team was disbanded. But that’s it. Who remembers random short stretches of time from an age when most children are still picking their nose with no shame? Bradfield does.

“I would say around 12 is when I realized, OK, like, I think this is something that I may want to do in the future,” he explained. He started as a freshman on his team at American Heritage High School. It wasn’t just because he was the lone good player on his team or anything of that sort. He was just that good.

But just because he’s a fast Black kid from Florida who reminds a certain generation of former big leaguer Willie McGee, down to his jersey number (51), doesn’t mean that he’s a superflashy guy that you’ll see on any number of Instagram baseball pages wilding out after great plays.

“I’ve always been a part of programs that approach a more professional look to the game. My high school program at American Heritage, headed by Bruce Aven, is as professional as can be. He played in the major leagues. So he’s seen it all. And he taught us and everybody walking in that program how to be professionals. From the way we ran training, the way we ran our practices, we were always the nicest-dressed team that translates to everything that I’m doing right now here at Vanderbilt. So the bat flips, like, that’s all fun, but we’re still having fun, it just looks a little different.”

We’re talking about a kid who, when he visited the Nashville, Tennessee, campus after several other big schools wanted him, was convinced it was the place for him. But, ever the professional as a teenager, it was important to him that he didn’t burn bridges, or more specifically, that he simply did the right thing as a highly coveted recruit.

His father said that after he made him think about his decision for a couple of days, Bradfield wanted to tell all the people who wanted him that he had chosen Vandy himself.

“The excitement was there. He called [his high school coach]. And he asked him, ‘Please don’t say anything yet,’ ” his father noted. “[Bradfield said] ‘I want to call every other coach that was talking to me and give them the proper respect and let them know, hear from me.’ So he made the rounds.”

Bradfield Sr. is a remarkably chill guy. Obviously an athlete, hailing from a part of the world where beisbol is everything, he made a decision with his own son to do things differently: He never officially coached him. For many players — Black or not, if your father was a player of any accord (and oftentimes unfortunately even if they weren’t) — their dad will likely be their most primary instructor both off the field and on.

Of course, being left-handed, Bradfield Sr. isn’t stupid. There aren’t a ton of positions to play in baseball if you’re a southpaw and don’t pitch. Considering how fast he was, he taught his kid how to track fly balls early on, knowing the speed would work itself out. But he didn’t want to coach him, because, frankly, he didn’t want to spend time coaching other kids, who were likely to be well behind his son’s skillset. Getting out of the way for his kid, who was clearly at an advanced level, just made more sense for them as a family. At the time, he worked in the Miami Heat’s front office, and he didn’t want to be that dad, so he just did his thing as a father.

Coming from Miami, though, his baseball family wasn’t one that ever made his son feel alienated as a Black player. Everybody else might not have been Black, but they certainly weren’t white.

“He was never part of a completely Black team, but there weren’t five or six or seven kids that were Black,” Bradfield Sr. said. “But I think the thing that never made it noticeable is now the Hispanic heritage. Because the majority of the kids were actually Hispanic.”

The younger Bradfield says Vanderbilt baseball’s diversity was certainly a factor in his decision to play there, but certainly not the decider. For him, the overall complexion of the team has been a point of growth for him.

“It’s definitely been a positive outlook,” he explained the day before his crucial first-pitch swing tied up an elimination game. “It makes it easier just to be surrounded by people who look like you and share some attributes with you. It’s not just, I wouldn’t say about our brotherhood. It’s all of us, from, I think, 19 different states that we have guys from. And we have somebody from Canada as well. You learn a little bit about everybody and you’re able to understand, OK, that’s how that person was raised. You can start to feel yourself having sympathy for other people and how they’re brought up. So then you start to understand at a higher level, which makes it easier to build a bond in a relationship with those people.”

Vanderbilt freshman pitcher Christian Little.

Courtersy of Vanderbilt Athletics

Reclassification is sort of a dirty word in youth sports. Basically, what was once considered a tool to help kids who weren’t achieving at a rate deemed successful to advance in grade level in the classroom has been flipped on its head for the purposes of aggressive parents looking for any edge to make their kid appear to be better than the competition on the field.

Meaning, if your kid is on the younger side of the scale for his class, you hold them back to matriculate with a younger group, and thus be bigger, stronger, faster than everyone else, a sometimes sensible but often gross move that takes advantage of the fact that many kids in youth sports are just playing to have fun and team build with their friends, not because they’re all genuinely seeking the coveted holy grail of a college scholarship.

For the Little family, they went the other way. Christian, who at 17 graduated from high school early and went to Vanderbilt in January, did not hold back, he pushed up. It was an opportunity that took literal years of planning and had been on their radar since before he got to high school.

“Initially for me, it was about academics, you know, because for me, it was really hard to wrap my mind around the draft and the reality of that,” Little’s mother Terri said, sitting in the crowd with his dad and younger sister before Game 9 of the College World Series. “So as a mom, it’s kind of like, your kid is playing sports, you’re making all these sacrifices so that they can play at the collegiate level, you know? And so in my mind it was, I mean, he was 13 and we started really seriously playing around with it.”

To have a family plan when their kid is 13 years old to get him to school early is for one, flat-out impressive, and two, an indicator of just how seriously everyone involved takes this stuff. But their decision was as much about the realities of life as it was about baseball. And after dealing with the death of his grandmother, the calculus for that decision wasn’t easy.

“One of his other main choices was the University of Miami,” Terri Little said. “And one of the things I had to tell him was, ‘If you go to Miami, you won’t see me often. You know, like that’s not a drive, you know, that’s a flight and I have a job and another child.’ So, Vandy kind of became a stronger thing for him then just because it was closer to home. But I think when he went and did that visit and he sat down with him, [Coach Tim] Corbin felt like family.”

Again, he’s 17 years old. Playing for a premier baseball program in America. On national television every week, growing and learning. The family, not just the tall right-hander, was locked in, too.

“My parents were, full-fledged into it. They were really supportive about it. They wanted me to go early just as much as I wanted to,” Little, whose dad played professional baseball and considers it an honor that Coach Corbin picked his son to wear No. 42, said before practice Tuesday. “They wanted me to be there.”

What makes Corbin, who led the team known as the Vandy Boys to its first men’s NCAA Division I championship in 2014, a smart coach beyond baseball tactics is how he builds his program. With the limitations of the NCAA scholarships for the sport, they get creative. Between the different scholarships that Vanderbilt offers for everything from academics to demographics, they find both talented and hardworking young men. Which for the players, requires them to be their best all-around. Corbin isn’t just recruiting players of color because it’s good for business, so to speak. But Vanderbilt’s unique position as the lone private school in a power baseball conference, allows them to utilize their institutional resources within the NCAA’s 11.7 scholarships limit to their benefit. It’s not just progressive, it’s smart baseball.

“It was hard though. It took a while for the guys to accept me, since I wasn’t there for the first semester,” Little explained. “When I got to know them and they got to know me, we bonded. And we all go through the same daily struggles. Same daily things. We all learn together and grow together. And our team’s real tight.”

As for his pitching, his teammates know the deal. So when a TV camera shows the teenager exhibiting his passion, the Vandy Boys know that that’s just who he is as one of them.

“A fierce competitor. I’m sure you can see it when he pitches,” Bradfield said with a chuckle. “That kid, he’s already on his way to a great amount of success. And it’s in his near future as he gets older.”

As for the Commodores as a whole? The three errors and various miscues that nearly cost them a game against Stanford before they battled back to best the Cardinal, if what we saw from Coach Corbin on Wednesday firing up the troops was an indication of their mindset going into this next game — those will be gone.

That’s a lock.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.