Wiedmer: Will these Vols be remembered for all the wrong things outside Big Orange Country?

It was the late U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt who once described his ideal foreign policy as one that would "speak softly and carry a big stick."

The University of Tennessee baseball team got the second half of that philosophy right for the vast majority of its 2022 season. Almost no one in the sport wielded a bigger bat than the Volunteers in rising to No. 1 in the polls and staying there for much of the season while clubbing a school-record 158 homers.

But that first part, the notion of speaking softly, was never quite embraced by the Big-Mouthed Orange. Almost from the first of their program-record 57 wins to the final out of their ninth and season-ending 7-3 defeat on Sunday afternoon at the hands of Notre Dame, UT seemed to prefer something along the lines of "squawk loudly and carry a big stick."

Flipping bats in the first inning? No problem. Aiming obscene gestures at opposing fans and players? What's the big deal? Head coach Tony Vitello getting suspended for four games after making contact with an umpire? So what? Drew Gilbert getting tossed, then forced to sit out Saturday's series-tying super regional win over the Fighting Irish because he let fly an expletive-riddled tirade on the home plate umpire for a strike call he didn't agree with? Hey, boys will be boys. Pitching coach Frank Anderson getting ejected at that same moment by the same umpire, a mistake that banished him for the rest of the Knoxville Super Regional and would have cost him the opening game of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, had the Vols advanced? You can't fault a guy for standing up for his players.

Yet from the earliest stretches of the season, it was almost as if the otherwise remarkable Vitello wanted it this way, as if he was saying: "We're the biggest, baddest, nastiest college baseball team on the planet. Deal with it."

Somehow, against all odds, in front of the loudest, most passionate, fiercely loyal fan base the sport has possibly ever seen, Notre Dame dealt with the madhouse that was Lindsey Nelson Stadium as no team had all season. The Irish won the Friday night opener. Then, after Tennessee's victory Saturday, they won the rubber game Sunday to deny Vitello's Vols a return trip to the College World Series in perhaps the biggest upset of the college athletic calendar, or at least as big as Saint Peter's shocking Kentucky in the opening round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Tweeted one fan after Sunday's final out, a sentiment seemingly shared by everyone who doesn't bleed UT's pale orange: "When you can make America root for Notre Dame, you've truly accomplished something."

You could certainly argue it shouldn't be this way and shouldn't have been this way. Why turn people against you unnecessarily? Yes, there has always been a certain amount of gamesmanship involved in athletics. Getting under an opponent's skin is almost a badge of honor. But that's usually done in whispers, for them to know and no one else.

Instead, the Big Orange seemed to mimic pro wrestlers at every turn. Screaming. Muscle flexing. Taunting. It's a wonder they didn't rename themselves the Undertakers or something. Almost every trip to the plate turned into a show, sure to be captured on social media for all eternity, be that a good or bad thing.

Was this the whole team? Absolutely not. After Sunday's defeat Vitello rightly described the Vols as "a bunch of good kids" and "a couple of maniacs out there."

He soon added: "A lot of that was how dynamic they were as a group."

They seemed to be the closest thing to a sure thing to reach the CWS that there could be. They were brilliant on the mound and at the plate, leading the nation in both home runs and ERA, a stunning one-two punch. They could roar from behind or bludgeon you from the get-go. Heading into Sunday's seventh inning with a 3-1 lead, they were 49-0 in that situation this year.

No wonder Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett said of the Vols prior to the start of the super regional: "Probably the best team I've seen in any college sport this year."

But after falling behind in the seventh for the first time all season, they did what bullies sometimes do - they wilted. They got tight. They made a key error. They looked stunned, which was understandable.

This should in no way take away from all they accomplished this year. To see and hear the crowd at Lindsey Nelson this weekend was to know something magical is unfolding there under Vitello, even without a CWS berth this year.

But senior Luc Lipcius was probably a little bold to say afterward that these Vols put the program in a "really good position to keep this dynasty going."

No offense to the talented Lipcius, but a quick exit from last year's CWS and a come-from-ahead loss in this year's super regional on your home field is not normally considered a dynasty.

Instead, for most of the nation that doesn't bleed UT orange, this is the impression that many will always have regarding this team, including former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell, who tweeted the following after the Vols lost: "Congrats Tennessee baseball on a great season. So many memorable moments...flipping opponents off rounding the bases, coach getting tossed for chest bumping umpire, crying over balls and strikes, and of course soooo many pimped out bat flips...what a legacy."

Sometimes the truth hurts.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.