By: Ryan Wallace - www.vandaliabutlerbaseball.com
VANDALIA - When Trent Dues took the reigns as head coach in 1995, he knew he had something special in an upstart sophomore named Cory Vance. What he didn’t know however, was that the young lefty was on the brink of a legendary high school career, one that would see him rewrite the Butler Baseball record books along the way.
“I coached him in 1994 as a JV coach and I knew he was good, but I didn’t realize he was a future big leaguer in the making,” recalled Dues. “His biggest leap came between his sophomore and junior seasons, when he went from good to great.”
An all-around great athlete and five-tool baseball player, it was the southpaw’s flame throwing ability on the hill that would cement his legacy at Butler and ultimately take him to the major league mound.
It was a journey that started at a very early age for Vance. “After making all the all-star teams growing up and seeing success in the "big" games, I started to believe I could play at a high level,” Vance said.
Vance didn’t just play the game at a high level, he played it on a whole other level — a sentiment that Dues echoed. “His talent level for baseball is probably the best I have ever had here at Butler,” Dues said.
After garnering attention as a freshman and sophomore, Vance would enjoy his breakout season as a junior.
The southpaw was the crown jewel of a District Championship Butler team that finished 25-4. He recorded an eye-popping 144 strikeouts, incredibly a number that he would duplicate as a senior. Not only did he break the school record for strikeouts in a season, he also shattered the record for ERA with an astonishing mark of 0.56.
“The moment was never too big for him. The bigger the game, the better he was,” remembered Dues. “He was an absolute fearless warrior.” A point that would be made evident in the tournament that spring against perennial power St. Xavier.
“I remember the atmosphere was electric, which was not always common for a high school baseball game,” Vance recalled. “The students had packed the bleachers that day. The support for our teams was incredible and the students were loud and really excited.”
They had a lot to be excited about. Not only did they see Butler slay a giant on that day, they watched in awe as Vance mowed down the Bombers one-by-one, pitching a complete game and no-hit win.
“That game at Wright State is one of my best memories at Butler. We won a big game that day against a very good team and I was fortunate enough to throw a no hitter.”
While the stakes were higher on that particular day, every game with Vance on the mound seemed to be a spectacle. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the Butler faithful each and every game would be a host of scouts.
While some would fold under that type of pressure, Vance welcomed it.
“I loved seeing scouts and radar guns in the stands, to me, that's what I worked so hard for,” said Vance. “I was just talking to my daughters (who are big into competitive softball) about the days that scouts used to come to my games. They are both getting ready to attend showcases themselves, so I was explaining to them that when scouts attended my games it raised my confidence level which resulted in better performances.”
As his senior year rolled around, Vance continued to dominate against what is an always ultra-competitive Butler schedule. In those days the Aviators were grinding it out with familiar GWOC foes in the now defunct GMVC (Greater Miami Valley Conference).
“We played several very strong teams from Cincinnati, but I remember Piqua and Sidney both having strong hitters in the middle of their lineup, Vance recalled. “I always felt like the advantage definitely goes to the pitcher when a team has never faced you before, but I faced Piqua and Sidney many times so I assume their confidence level went up with each game I pitched against them.”
Vance would go on to play collegiately with one of those strong hitters in Sidney’s Derik Goffena. “Derik was probably my toughest out, and coincidentally became my teammate at Georgia Tech.”
When his high school career came to an end, Vance was named a High School All-American, All-Ohio First Team selection and the Division I Player of the Year. In addition to the numerous awards and accolades, Vance owned every single season pitching record at Butler. A distinction that he still holds today, some twenty years later.
After high school it went without saying that Vance would be playing baseball at the next level.
The real question was where. As Vance continued to flourish on the mound, the D-I college offers flooded in.
“I took several visits to colleges like Ohio State, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, LSU and a few others but after all my visits and it became decision time I narrowed it down to LSU and Georgia Tech,” said Vance. “I was very close to choosing LSU before making my final decision.”
In the end, Vance would choose to play for Danny Hall at Georgia Tech. But the choice would not be an easy one.
Vance entered the 1997 MLB Draft and was selected with the 348th overall pick in the 11th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. After much consideration, Vance chose to stick with his commitment to the Ramblin’ Wreck and was Atlanta bound.
Before heading off to campus however, Vance was selected as a member of the USA Baseball 18U National Team, where he would play alongside familiar names like Rick Ankiel, Austin Kearns, and Matt Holliday.
“Team USA certainly helped prepare me for the college game,” said Vance. “The players I was blessed to play with and against were all either drafted or going on to play at big D-1 colleges, so it allowed me to compete at that level prior to jumping straight into college ball.”
The team finished the World Junior Championships in New Brunswick, Canada with a 4-2 record, falling only to Chinese Taipei and Cuba. Vance would finish 4-1, with a 1.55 ERA and 25 strikeouts.
From there it was off to Georgia Tech where Vance would jump right into the mix of the very competitive ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference).
“There was a significant jump in talent level but it’s still the same game,” Vance recalled.
“The hitting lineups you face in high school typically consisted of three or four strong hitters when facing a good team, whereas in college the lineups usually had six to eight strong hitters.”
The freshman made the adjustment, and went 6-4 with 102 strikeouts in 19 games, 11 of which were starts.
As a sophomore Vance got the nod to start 18 games, and finished 9-3 with 103 strikeouts.
When his junior season rolled around, the southpaw’s dominance only continued to strengthen. Vance capped off his junior campaign and college career with 13-3 record, 3.40 ERA and 123 strikeouts and was named a College All-American.
Vance also touted a win mark that tied him for second most in a single season at Georgia Tech and he would end his college career with 328 strikeouts and 28 wins, the fourth most in school history respectively.
Through all of those wins, Vance does still have a favorite, and it came against the conference foe Seminoles.
“I remember beating Florida State at home in a nail biter, that was as exciting as baseball got for me.”
The stellar season on the mound earned Vance first team All-ACC honors and would springboard him into the upcoming 2000 MLB Draft.
Vance still cherishes those days at Georgia Tech.
“I have so many great memories of my time at GT, when it comes to on the field memories, pitching on Friday nights under the lights was hard to beat.”
But Vance wasn’t just a dealer on the mound, he proved that he could be a closer off the field too.
“I used to love when recruits would come in on their official visit and Coach Hall would assign them to me to show them around,” Vance mused. “Basically your job was to get them to fall in love with GT, in hopes of getting them to commit.”
At the conclusion of his junior season, Vance was again draft eligible. This time around, Vance was selected with the 107th overall pick in the 4th round, by the Colorado Rockies. For Vance, it was a realization of a dream coming true.
“That was an incredible experience,” Vance recalled. “I started playing baseball at five years old with a dream to play professionally. All you can ask for as a player is an opportunity. It actually blew my mind that I was getting paid to play the game I would have done for free.”
His first assignment as a professional baseball player was the A club in Portland, Oregon. He appeared in seven games, striking out 27 with an ERA of 1.11. The following season Vance made the “High-A” club in Salem, NC and was promoted to AA a season later in 2002.
Vance quickly adapted to his new “baseball life”, and found the life of a minor leaguer to be pretty routine. “The average day at home was a very normal life. I had an apartment with teammates, and we would do "normal" everyday things during the day until it was time to be at the yard,” Vance recalled.
“I was always one of the first players there to get my running and lifting in before BP started. On the road the team would usually have a time we would meet to take the bus to the weight room, come back and get some lunch then off to the yard.”
But as any minor leaguer will tell you — there are certain parts of the job that never get to be routine.
“I made very good friends along the way that become your family, Vance said. “Then out of nowhere, either you or your teammates would get the call to go up to the next level, and you’re left not knowing if or when you would see them again.”
For Vance “the call” came late in the 2002 season when Rockies pitcher Mike Hampton went down with an injury. The AA season had wrapped just two weeks prior, and Vance had returned home to Vandalia from Zebulon, NC.
“That call was very exciting,” remembered Vance. “I was at my mom and dad’s house, the phone rang and it was the Rockies. They asked what I was doing tomorrow morning, because I needed to catch my flight and join the team in Colorado.”
It’s a moment that Vance still can see vividly in his mind.
“I actually didn't comprehend what he meant, again I had been home for two weeks thinking my season was over. Once it was clear that I was literally joining the team I mouthed it to my mom while I was still on the phone, and she ran and jumped in my arms,” said Vance.
“Truly a moment I will never forget. I called my dad immediately and we were all so excited, a dream had just come true.”
Once in Colorado, the childhood dream became a reality. After years of work and determination, Vance was finally taking the mound in a Major League game.
“My first game in the big leagues was a whirl wind, I remember asking myself while on the rubber if the fans could see my knees shaking, to say the least I was nervous,” Vance recalled.
“My first batter faced was Steve Finley of the Arizona Diamondbacks and he flew out to centerfield.”
In the winter of 2002 Vance began to prepare for the upcoming spring training. What should have been a routine warm-up at the Butler Student Activity Center, quickly turned into the unexpected. “On the very first throw, it was like, 'Oh, no.' I knew right then something was wrong."
While he would eventually be diagnosed with nerve damage in his pitching shoulder, even today the root of the issue continues to be a mystery.
Vance was able to play through the pain that season with the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox and again made it to “The Show”, starting three games and appearing in nine.
But after four surgeries failed to address the issues plaguing Vance’s shoulder, he pitched his final professional game in 2004 for the Texas Ranger’s AAA club in Oklahoma City and left the game completely in 2006.
“There are two lessons that I take away from my journey,” Vance said. “It takes a lot of hard work, there are a lot of great players out there. Also, never take anything for granted. I was living a dream and out of nowhere had a shoulder injury and just like that it was over. Take it all in and enjoy every day.”
While his baseball journey was coming to an end, another journey was just starting to begin. While in Arizona with the Texas Rangers organization, Vance met his future wife Alison Cowart. The two would eventually marry and settled down in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix.
Vance would also go from throwing fire to fighting it, becoming a firefighter for the city of Casa Grande. A role that he has held for the last ten years.
Cory and Allison have two daughters whom they are very proud of in Taylor (14) and Kate (12). Like their dad, both girls are naturals on the diamond.
“My family spends a lot of our time at the softball fields,” said Vance. “Both Taylor and Kate play competitive travel softball that is year round. I love coaching them and it has created a bond that I remember having with my family growing up.”
It’s a journey that has come full circle for Vance.
“My journey in baseball throughout my life has played a huge role in who I am today, Vance said.
“A big part of that was my time at Butler. I had an awesome coaching staff in Coach Dues, Coach Thompson and Coach Matteson who not only helped me as a player but also as a person. I'm so thankful for everything I learned from them.”
It’s an admiration shared by his former head coach.
“Cory and I have grown to become great friends, which I highly value.”
In May of 2012 Vance was inducted into the inaugural class of the Butler Athletic Hall of Fame and also had his high school number officially retired. In October of that same year, Vance was inducted into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
Coming from someone who has been to the pinnacle, Vance has sage advice to offer this generation of Aviators.
“First off you have an amazing coach — Coach Dues has a tremendous amount of knowledge and you are blessed to be in a great program that he has created, said Vance.
“Stay humble and work hard. If your goal is to play at a high level then you will have to earn it. Most importantly, remember this is a game so have fun and enjoy the process. Trust me when I say, one day you will miss it, so give it all you’ve got.”