Dan Fleser: Late Night Call To Vitello Was Prelude To Vols Baseball Reawakening

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

Tony Vitello was wide awake in the wee hours of a spring morning in 2017, watching the movie “Tombstone,” when his phone rang.


Vitello’s attention was being redirected from – in this critic’s opinion – one of the all-time great guy movies to a matter of greater importance. Then-Tennessee athletic director John Currie was calling.

Thus began the process that converted the former Arkansas assistant into Tennessee’s head coach.

Vitello, in turn, has initiated the resurgence of a dormant program.


Life resembled art last Saturday night when Kirby Connell pitched the final three innings of a 5-4 victory over Florida. Connell erupted with joy with the game’s final called strike, which clinched a fourth consecutive SEC baseball series victory for the Vols. It was the first time that had happened since 1970.


Tennessee has risen to No. 5 nationally in the DIBaseball rankings. The Vols (28-6, 9-3 SEC) face No. 2 Vanderbilt beginning Thursday night at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in a series that ought to be brimming with drama.


Connell, the Vols’ sophomore left-hander, has a swashbuckling presence. He sports a distinctive mustache, which calls to mind one of the Tombstone movie’s most iconic characters. Val Kilmer played Doc Holliday in the Western and had similar facial grooming. He had one of the movie’s best lines (I’m your Huckleberry) and was central to one of the best scenes (a duel with pistolero Johnny Ringo).


Connell has resisted his mother’s pleas to shave the mustache. During a postgame interview on the Vol Network, he said teammate Redmond Walsh has supplied mustache wax and is encouraging him to curl the ends.


Former Vol Chris Burke worked the SEC Network broadcast of last Saturday’s game and was focusing more on Connell’s pitching than his manscaping. Burke said on Wednesday that Connell makes up for any lack of velocity with fortitude.


“There’s a conviction and a belief in his (pitching) offerings,” Burke said.


During the broadcast, Burke said Connell called to his mind former teammate Will Curtiss from the 2001 team that advanced to the College World Series.


Curtis didn’t look anything like Connell. I covered that team and recalled him as a quiet, unassuming sort. The resemblance was his pitching. Although Curtiss’ repertoire was understated, he got outs. He became a key reliever for a team that didn’t have much pitching depth and still won 48 games.


Overall, Burke said the 2001 Vols were not understated. They had a lot of moxie and it enhanced how they competed.


“I always joke that if Twitter and Instagram were around (then) some of our guys would’ve been superstars,” he said.


Burke and his former teammates communicate regularly these days via a text threat. He said the alums are getting into the current team. They can watch via the SEC Network and other viewing outlets that weren’t available when they played.


Perhaps they’re noticing a resemblance. Burke has and it will serve them better than any likeness to a movie character.

 

“I think this team plays with a ton of personality,” he said.

 

----

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.


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