Vandy's Esposito Exudes Northeast Vibe
He's shaken off that Northeast frost, but Vanderbilt's Jason Esposito still displays the same homegrown intensity on the field that is integral to his success, intensity that has not wavered in the warmer weather of the Southeastern Conference.
Known for his quick bat, deceptive speed and smooth infield defense, Esposito has developed into one of the top players in the country over the last two years at Vanderbilt, and major league scouting directors voted the junior as a preseason second-team preseason All-American heading into this spring. A Connecticut native, he is just one part of a long line of talented Vanderbilt products from the Northeast, bringing with them an attitude that players say is unique to that the region.
"We're all from the Northeast, we all have that 'Northeast mentality'—very up-front and forward. We're a tough group," Esposito said. "That's the way our team plays and acts. If there's a problem, we confront it. And we play to win. That's the way (Commodores head coach Tim Corbin) taught us."
After being named Connecticut player of the year as a senior in high school, Esposito was the Royals' seventh-round pick in 2008. Esposito chose to reject a $1 million signing bonus offer and headed to Vanderbilt.
"I just wasn't ready," he said. "I was a 17-year-old kid. I'm Italian, so I was kind of scared to be away from my mother, and I wanted to go to school. I wanted to have an education to fall back on. I didn't really have a lot to fall back on at home like some other kids did. Plus, I just felt my development would've gotten a lot better through college, especially at Vanderbilt."
The decision has paid off. Vanderbilt's coaching staff has helped Esposito develop as a player and mature off the field. The coaches also have fed Esposito's aggressive style of play.
"I am very comfortable with this place," Esposito said. "It's a family atmosphere here—a very fun but intense family atmosphere, and it's just the way I like to play."
As a sophomore in 2010, Esposito batted .359/.455/.599 with 12 home runs, a team-leading 64 RBIs and and 31 stolen bases in 35 attempts. Two weeks into his junior season, Esposito was hitting .280/.455/.360 with a team-leading six RBIs.
"Jason is a very talented kid," Corbin said. "He is exciting to watch, can swing the bat and is a talented baserunner, as well. He loves to play the game."
Although he is a highly regarded third baseman, Esposito made his debut at shortstop in Vanderbilt's season opener against San Diego. In his first game at his new position, Esposito made a spectacular backhand stop deep in the hole and threw a strike to first base for the out. While fans might have been surprised to see Esposito at a position other than third base, he was prepared to play shortstop—in fact, to play any position at all.
"In the fall, we all work out at different positions," Esposito said. "I'll work out at third, our shortstop will work out at second. We're always trying new positions and changing what we're working on, changing routines. It's not surprising that (Corbin) trusts different people to play different spots. That just shows you how well we work at different positions and how much trust he has in all of us."
Vanderbilt is loaded with hard-nosed Northeasterners like Esposito who are willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Senior catcher Curt Casali (from Connecticut), sophomore infielder Anthony Gomez (New Jersey), freshman lefthander Kevin Ziomek (Massachusetts) and sophomore outfielder Mike Yastrezmski (Massachusetts), as well as former All-American Pedro Alvarez (New York) and several other current and former Commodores all entered the program with this same "Northeast mentality."
Born and raised in New Hampshire himself, Corbin understands the type of player that develops out of the Northeast and has established quite a recruiting base in that region.
"There is a bit of mental toughness, a bit of an edge, but specifically, these kids are conditioned to play in temperatures and weather that may not be conducive to baseball, especially in the spring," Corbin said. "And there's a big type of personality that comes with that type of kid, and we've been fortunate enough to grab some of those guys."
Corbin's Northeast edge is reflected in his coaching style as well as recruiting patterns.
"We joke about having a (Northeast vibe) because Corbin is from the Northeast," Casali said. "We say he's partial to players from the Northeast, because with Northeast players, there's something a little different about them. He can relate to them, he knows we're hard workers, he knows we're not afraid to leave our home to play some high-quality baseball."
And the migration from the Northeast continues. Five of Baseball America's 2011 Top 100 high school prospects are committed to Vanderbilt, and three are Northeasterners: No. 19 Tyler Beede (Groton, Mass.), No. 35 Kevin Comer (Tabernacle, N.J.) and No. 91 John Woodward (West Orange, N.J.).
"I like the Northeast kids we're getting, particularly the arms," Corbin said. "I think we were fortunate that way. We had long relationships with several of those kids for a long time, and them being a little closer to where I lived helped."
Bringing recruits to campus and welcoming them to the Vanderbilt family is a huge part of the recruiting process, and Corbin makes sure to provide every potential recruit with a feeling that they belong.
"When they come to their visits, Corbin usually places the Northeast guys with us Northeast guys, just so they have a better connection," Casali said. "Kevin Ziomek is a Massachusetts guy, and he and I have established a very special bond. Mike Yastrzemski is from Massachusetts, as well, so we all have that in common. It's nice—it feels like home, and it's welcoming to the new guys coming in, as well."
Casali steered Esposito to Nashville. The two Nutmeg State natives became close friends at a young age and have been best friends, roommates and, as Casali claims, will eventually be best men in each other's weddings.