Sports

A pair of aces: Kumar Rocker, Jack Leiter lead Vandy’s quest for a repeat national title

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The College World Series-champion Vanderbilt Commodores were spilling out into the workout areas of Hawkins Field in Nashville for their first fall practice of 2019. They were led by pitcher Kumar Rocker, the ever-smiling teenage wunderkind who had led Vanderbilt to the title by way of one of the most dominating postseasons performances ever witnessed by the people of Omaha, Nebraska, or anywhere else college baseball is played. But the 6-foot-5, 245-pound righty didn’t pause to take a selfie with the new NCAA championship trophy that was then on display in the lobby, and he didn’t pause to polish his CWS Most Outstanding Player award or Freshman All-American plaque.

Instead, he made a beeline to the bullpen, eager to catch the workout of a new teammate, New Jersey-raised freshman Jack Leiter. Rocker watched just one toss — a sharp, rising fastball that all of college baseball now recognizes as Leiter’s signature pitch. Rocker leaned into the ear of Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown and said, “Congratulations, Brownie! How’d you get this guy in here?”

Over the course of the 20 months since that quiet moment, the seemingly so-opposite pitchers have figured out a way to meet in the middle, shoring up their individual weaknesses by learning from the each other’s strengths and evolving into the nation’s best one-two pitching punch and perhaps the top one-two picks in the 2021 MLB Draft on July 12. This season, they are a combined 19-4 with 256 strikeouts (Rocker has 129, Leiter 127) and entered this week’s SEC Baseball Tournament as the nation’s third-ranked team. This past Monday, they were both named first-team All-SEC pitchers.

The Vandy Boys are boys by every measure, an exceedingly young team who entered 2021 with largely little SEC or NCAA postseason experience. The roster that won the 2019 CWS title had a dozen players with three or more years on the team, but Vanderbilt entered this season with 31 players who had never experienced an SEC game. At times, they have looked like it. But this is a program that has been to four of the past nine College World Series and won two since 2014. This team knows how to peak in May and June. And so far this year, it has been led by college baseball’s odd couple. Rocker, the giant who was begat from a college football great, and Leiter, the not-so-giant who was raised by a long-time major leaguer. No. 80 and No. 22, one the disorganized never-stressed fireballer and the other a meticulous brow-crossed artisan.

“Rock and Leiter don’t look alike. They don’t pitch alike. They come from two different parts of the country,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin says. “But they have so much more in common past all of that. They both share a willingness to work, to be smart and to pursue perfection as part of team.”

Even during a sit-down interview together earlier this month, the pitchers couldn’t help but riff off each other like a pair of jazz musicians, routinely talking their way off topic because, after one gives an answer, the other instinctively follows up, and several minutes later, they both turn back at the interviewer with a look of “What were we talking about?”

“[Leiter] is a lot more goofy than people think because, on the mound, he has this very mature way, just because, I mean, he knows everything,” Rocker says as his teammate cracks a grin and starts to shake his head. “And then the mastermind part of it, that’s on and off the field. Academically and then on the field, the way he throws off his fastball, no one knows it’s coming and it’s just like, ‘Oh wow, he just did it again.’ But I like hanging out with him off the field because he’s got some goofy in him. He’s got some air guitar in him.”

Leiter responds by yanking a thumb in the direction of Vandy’s very literal Big Man on Campus. “He’s a lot more approachable than some people might think, and that’s an awesome thing for a teammate. That’s a really important characteristic because, if there’s something that I see them doing on the mound, or even off the field, and I think I want to make myself kind of more like him in that way, I feel more than comfortable to go to him and ask for advice or see what his thought process is in a certain area. And that’s the most important thing — that he’s more than willing to give advice and give feedback.”

Leiter and Rocker give each other that feedback all the time. When one is on the mound, the other is always locked in, frequently volunteering to chart the other’s pitches because, sure, it’s good for the team, but it is also a chance to learn and teach.

In the season’s second SEC series, a late March visit to Missouri, Rocker was pinballing his way through the lineup on a very cold night, pulling every pitch from the arsenal he could, to try to carve his way through the lineup. When he returned to the dugout in the fourth inning, Leiter never slowed down as he walked past, but said, “Throw your fastball more.” The next inning, Rocker retired three Mizzou batters via seven pitches, nearly all of which were fastballs.

That same evening, the pitchers had tossed warm-ups together, and Rocker noticed Leiter was monkeying with a bunch of different grips to try to improve his breaking ball. Leiter had just thrown a no-hitter against South Carolina, but, with Rocker’s input, decided to simplify his grip and revert to what he had used in high school. His curve livened up. The next day, Leiter threw seven more no-hit innings with 10 strikeouts.

“Jack has helped Rock in understanding pitching and how to pitch a little bit more, and be a little bit more deliberate with this stuff. And I think Rock has taught Jack, ‘Hey, just make a pitch sometimes, man,'” Brown says. “They play catch together all the time, to give feedback to each other. They’re fun to watch because it’s not just a method of operation that we need to get done today. They actually enjoy playing catch.”

Adds Corbin: “I would love to tell you that I am this amazing coach who taught them those things, but that’s DNA. They both brought that DNA into this building with them.”

That DNA will be on display in the grandstands of Hoover Met this week and back in Nashville next week for a likely NCAA regional appearance. The very large gentleman with the salt-and-pepper hair and wearing shades will be 55-year-old Tracy Rocker, the Outland Trophy-winning, All-American defensive tackle out of Auburn who spent the past two decades coaching at nearly every school in the SEC and is currently with the Philadelphia Eagles. The same-aged dad sitting down the row from Rocker with the exact same squinty eyes as Jack Leiter is his father, Al, he of the MLB and YES Networks who spent 19 seasons pitching in the big leagues, earning 162 wins and three World Series rings along the way.

Kumar chose baseball over his father’s chosen sport but says he draws on the knowledge and inspiration he garnered during a childhood spent on SEC and NFL sidelines and in locker rooms. Leiter has no real memories of his father’s days with the Mets, Marlins and Yankees — he was only 5 years old when Al retired at the end of the 2005 season.

“There’s a bunch of stories my mom [Lori] has told me about the fact that I was scared of being around Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in the clubhouse, the 4-year-old me,” Jack says. “I was a huge fan, but I was really nervous. If I had been even 10 years old, I would remember a lot more. But also, my dad wouldn’t have been around as much, because the schedule is insanely busy, so it goes both ways.”

For the elder Rocker, coaching up his kid meant having to scale back his defensive football mentality. Recalls Kumar, laughing: “It started when I was young. ‘Why aren’t you mad? You need to run out to the mound!’ Stuff like that. I was like, ‘Hey Dad, they walk out to the mound. They take a little bit of their time. You can’t pitch mad all the time.’ And he’s starting to understand that as I’ve gotten older.”

As Dad Rocker’s coaching career took the family from town to town (he has been with 10 teams during’s Kumar’s 21 years), he says the goal was never to push his son into football, even if he was built for it from birth. Instead, he and his wife, Lalitha, signed Kumar up for everything — football, basketball, tennis, soccer (hated it), lacrosse (loved it) and all in between. He would become obsessed with whatever he had his eye on in the moment, perfecting it. The first time he got a bike, he rode laps in the garage until he felt comfortable enough to take the training wheels off. Only then was he ready to join his friends in the street.

“Skateboarding, practicing how to throw a baseball, or how to catch a football, it always happened at 6 in the morning in the garage,” Tracy recalls. “We would go down there, and stuff is banging in the garage, so we’re thinking, ‘Who’s in the garage?’ You know, we think an animal has gotten in the garage, but it’s him out there practicing.”

Nearly 1,000 miles away in New York City, little Jack Leiter had taken over the family apartment with rubber balls, turning the living room into the Shea Stadium infield. “I told [my wife] Lori, ‘Get the little bouncy balls that you see at Chuck E Cheese and just have them all over the place,'” Al remembers. “It’s not going to hurt anything, it’s an apartment. ‘If he wants to just throw it, throw it.'”

When their two older daughters were in school and Al was on the road, Lori was dragged down to the local city park to have a catch with Jack, over and over and over again, every single day. “They had the wall where people hit tennis balls. I would throw the tennis ball against the wall and then he would field the grounders,” Lori says. “Then, eventually, I’m like, ‘My arm can’t,’ so I’d bring my tennis racquet and I’d hit the balls and he would field the grounders. He was 4.”

Rocker and Leiter credit their fathers for teaching them a professional mindset, from charting workouts and studying film to how they hone their bodies and minds. They both dole even more praise to their mothers for teaching them how to counterbalance baseball with the right amount of life experience. The constant reminder is it’s OK to enjoy it, and a big part of that enjoyment is forging friendships like the one they have formed on such a big stage, even during this COVID-19-punctuated time.

That Rocker-Leiter bond has reached the stands, too, where the families have formed a team of their own. What began as a series of polite, “How are you doing?” conversations each weekend has grown into an increasing routine of pregame meals and laughs in hotel lobbies. Al Leiter teaches Tracy Rocker about the nuances of baseball, while Rocker answers Leiter’s “1,000 football questions.” The mothers have a connection that’s even stronger.

Lalitha “Lu” Rocker married a football coach, but the Baltimore native grew up a hardcore Orioles fan. With Tracy on the road more often than not, it was Lu who traveled with Kumar to his hundreds of ballgames. Her husband hasn’t been able to sit with her on a regular basis until these recent Vandy days, and even still Tracy plays second fiddle to the TV cutaways of Lu celebrating yet another milestone Kumar K. Bonding with a fellow baseball mom came naturally. “Lori and I, we don’t talk about the kids, or really anything at all. Now, what we do during game time is we give each other support. We know what a good day looks like, what a bad day looks like, and we’re just there to lift each other up.”

Corbin, known throughout college baseball as one who recruits families as much as he does individuals, loves seeing how players are reflections of their parents. “When I see Kumar pitch, I see animation [like his mom] and I would see the ferocity [like his dad]. When I see Jack pitch, I see calmness [from his mom] and I would see competitiveness and attitude [like his dad].” Corbin relishes this topic, but also makes sure to emphasize that these are not helicopter sports parents. Al Leiter lives to talk about pitching and Tracy Rocker loves to talk about coaching, but they will do so with Corbin only if he asks first.

“Their focus is not manufactured,” he says. “It probably had a lot to do with why we wanted both of them, because they were very, very team-oriented. That comes from home. These are family kids.”

Down on the field, their boys continue to lift and coach each other up, hoping to keep Vandy moving on through the postseason brackets and all the way back to Omaha three weeks from now.

Neither player is expected to stay in Nashville for another season with the July draft looming, though Leiter admits his pandemic-abbreviated college career has made him feel a bit cheated.

“I don’t know where we’ll both be after this summer, I guess no one does,” Rocker says. “When the phone rings and it’s a Major League team, that will be dream come true, for both of us. But we have a lot of business to take care of first for Vanderbilt. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I know it is, because whatever happens, we get to do it as teammates.”

He cuts his eyes over and looks for a reaction. “Right, Jack?”

Leiter nods. “Right. Man, that was deep.”

They both laugh, and Rocker points at his teammate with his lightning bolt of a right hand. “See? Goofy.”

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