Vandy hurler Armstrong flips for his teammates

Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 1:29am
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Freshman pitcher has become the ignition switch for the VU baseball team with his pregame flips. Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

It’s all in the presentation.

When Erik Bakich first saw Jack Armstrong do a back flip from a standing position it wasn’t the first time he’d ever witnessed that sort of thing — although the Vanderbilt assistant baseball coach admits it’s not exactly something he sees every day.

“The only other … guy I had ever seen do a back flip at that height was David Price,” Bakich said. “He used to get naked in the locker room, say ‘watch this,’ do a back flip in the locker room, and we would say ‘Price, never do that again.’”

Armstrong prefers to do his while in uniform and on the field, in front of fans, the grounds crew and anyone else who might be in that particular stadium at that particular moment. And rather than discourage him, his Commodores’ teammates and coaches actually encourage the maneuver.

The 6-foot-7 freshman pitcher has become the ignition switch for the VU baseball team, which this week is in Hoover, Ala., competing in the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament.

Each time he is asked, which is now pretty much every game, Armstrong flips out while surrounded by the rest of the Commodores. It happens as soon as coach Tim Corbin completes delivery of the lineup card and a review of the ground rules at home plate.

Once Armstrong lands on his feet the players engulf him in an energetic mosh pit, which they hope sets a tone for the nine innings (or more) to come.

“Ever since the first couple practices, (Bakich) told me he wanted me to keep doing it,” Armstrong said. “I like jumping.”

The namesake son of a former Major League pitcher, the Jupiter, Fla. native said he began to roll over in his mind the notion of the gymnastics stunt several years ago after having done it a few times off a diving board.

First, he went to the beach, where the sand provided some measure of safety. Eventually, though, he took it to terra firma.

“It was just a bunch of practice,” he said. “ …I just kind of do it for fun. I thought it would be pretty unique to have a big, old guy doing a back flip.”

That’s exactly what Bakich thought during a recruiting when he noticed it prior to one of Armstrong’s summer games. While it wasn’t a fastball that approached 100 miles per hour or a curve ball that fell off a cliff, it was something notable in the mind of the man behind a string of seven straight recruiting classes ranked among the 25 in the nation.

“The light bulb went on,” Bakich said. “I thought to myself that he must be a special athlete because only special athletes can do that.

“…When I go out and recruit in the summers, I’m not just watching the games and the results. Honestly, the results are fine, but I’m trying to figure out the total player — mentally and physically.”

It helped too, of course, that the one he had seen do a flip previously — Price — turned out to be the most decorated player in VU baseball history.

“Erik came back and said, ‘This kid can do a back flip too,’” Corbin said. “He did it for us on his visit, and I was just stunned.

“He stands in one position — he doesn’t get a running start — and he does a back flip. That’s unbelievable spring and athleticism for a kid. He’s doing it now before games and they like it. I just shake my head every time,” the coach said.

Several times this season, the flip has been the most significant activity Armstrong has had during games. The former high school All-American has yet to develop a consistent role on the Commodores’ deep experience pitching staff.

During the regular season he appeared in just six games and pitched in 7.2 innings. A rough outing in his first appearance inflated his ERA [12.91] and he did not pitch enough thereafter to lower that number to respectability.

His athleticism and versatility have been evident, though in the fact that he also got four at-bats (two hits) and was used occasionally as a late-inning replacement at first base.

Yet, those involved insist he would be doing the flips even if he were an everyday player.

“I don’t think that (injury) is anything you worry about,” Bakich said. “Jack’s been doing it for I don’t know how long, but he’s got it mastered. Sure, he could sprain his ankle, but he could sprain his ankle just as easily running the bases.”

It’s highly unlikely, though, that anyone would get a charge out of him rounding second similar to what they get when he spins around a few feet off the ground.

“It kind of stuck,” Armstrong said, “and I do it in that little energy circle before the game.”

Of course, he does it in a way that makes everyone want to see it again.