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Emotional Conversations And An Unquenchable Fire: Cal Stark’s Rise For Tennessee Baseball

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

Cal Stark was five years old, riding in the backseat of his father’s car after a tee-ball game.

“Did you have fun?” Butch Stark innocently asked his young son.

Cal Stark had not had fun. They didn’t keep score in the Arlington tee-ball league, but Cal kept the score in his head. And he knew his team didn’t win.

“We lost and I don’t like losing,” Cal Stark recalled.

Stark didn’t like losing as a five-year old in Texas and he likes it even less as a senior catcher for Tennessee baseball. 

A piping-hot competitiveness runs through Stark’s veins. It’s why he’s back at Tennessee after others would have transferred last offseason and is a pivotal trait behind the plate for one of the country’s best defensive catchers.

More From RTI: Tennessee Baseball Postseason SEC Honors
Photo By Tennessee Athletics

Stark laughs when asked whether he expected Tennessee to add a catcher via the transfer portal following their run to the College World Series a season ago.

“I mean, I hit .180, so I think they’re dumb if they don’t bring somebody in,” Stark told RTI.

Stark transferred to Tennessee from Weatherford College ahead of the 2023 season. He eventually won the battle to be the Vols’ catcher, starting 22 games in SEC play and every postseason game on the road to Omaha.

He was good defensively all season and the way he handled Clemson’s running game was integral to the Vols’ thrilling 14-inning victory in game two of the regional. His nine-pitch, two-out walk in game two of the Hattiesburg Super Regional flipped the lineup and helped turn the two-run fourth inning into a six-run, season-altering inning.

“He helped get us to Omaha last year,” Tennessee associate head coach Josh Elander told RTI. “There is no doubt about it. Regardless of what his batting average was.”

But Stark’s batting average was .180. As the Vols’ offense struggled to find consistent production throughout the season the catcher position was the most obvious spot where Tennessee could improve over the offseason.

The Vols went out and landed the best catcher available in the transfer portal— North Carolina State’s Cannon Peebles. The switch-hitting backstop was a Freshman All-American the year before, leading the Wolfpack in batting average and slugging percentage.

Tennessee landing a catcher in the portal was one thing. Adding one of Peebles’ caliber was another.

“Teams are always going to try and go out and make themselves better by finding upgrades to positions along the way,” Butch Stark said. “We kind of knew that going in and when Cannon was mentioned as coming over it was an eye opener— I’m not going to lie.”

Stark now had a choice to make. He had one year of eligibility remaining and professional baseball aspirations. Staying at Tennessee meant no guarantee of playing time, a possibility that could sink his future goals. Leaving meant starting over somewhere new for just one season.

Searching for clarity, Stark had numerous conversations with head coach Tony Vitello and Elander— who coaches the Vols’ catchers.

“They were heavy,” Elander said. “That’s how I would describe them. A lot of emotion involved.”

“Some of them were pretty deep, heart-to-heart conversations, kind of trying to see what their image and thoughts were going forward,” Stark said. “They asked me what my thoughts were going forward. Very honest on both sides. Very mature, adult conversations. Very straightforward, to the point, no beating around the bush. … Those were some tough, tough conversations and times.”

Stark had one of his numerous conversations with Elander driving to his parent’s house in Farragut in early July. He and his dad sat on the back porch, weighing the pros and cons of each choice. After 20 minutes he had a definitive decision. He was going to stay at Tennessee.

Stark hadn’t made the Farragut baseball team when his family moved from Texas to Knoxville before his sophomore year. He had overcome challenging obstacles before and possessed the fire and self-belief to do it again.

“I’m 20 years old,” Stark said. “I’ve never ran from competition since I was eight, nine, whenever that competition became a thing.”

What Stark needed to know was that Tennessee’s coaches would give him a chance. That they weren’t going to hand the starting spot to Peebles. His conversations with Vitello and Elander assured him of that.

“He just wanted a chance and he felt like they gave him a chance the previous year so why wouldn’t they give him a chance this year?” Butch Stark said.

“He wanted to make sure that …  he was going to get a fair shot,” Elander said. “I think that’s what’s so cool about the way Coach Vitello writes the lineup and gets guys in and out. Once you’re here, competition is king.”

Once the decision was made, Stark’s excitement to get back to work on campus was palpable. An injury sidelined him for part of the fall, but Stark responded the right way. He supported and coached Peebles as well as freshman Stone Lawless— a fact that won the respect of his teammates and coaches.

“The way he’s handled himself with Stone Lawless and Cannon Peebles … like a true pro,” Elander said. “Still treating those guys that right way and helping them along instead of ‘this is competition.’ Being a teammate has been the most important thing. That’s not easy to do. It’s not.”

Working with Elander, Stark made adjustments to his swing over the offseason including moving his hands higher, but the most important thing was a needed “mental reset.”

Stark didn’t turn into one of the SEC’s best hitters overnight but his improvement is noticeable. He enters the postseason with a .244 batting average, .250 in SEC play, and his slugging percentage is up .149 points from last season.

Things haven’t clicked for Peebles at the plate most of this season and Tennessee’s coaches were true to their word. Stark won the catching job. He started 24 of 30 SEC games and enters postseason play as the everyday starting catcher.

Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee was booting the ball around Robert M. Lindsay Field in game two of its series against South Carolina. A pair of errors led to a three-run second inning and a two-out error in the third inning gave the Gamecocks runners on the corners.

The Vols’ infield met at the mound without pitching coach Frank Anderson or Vitello.

“Cal initiated it. He just kind of told us that we’re drifting a little away, all of us were, so just bring it back together,” starting pitcher Drew Beam said. “He just kind of got us back into that right mindset. Cal was kind of the quarterback of that room at that point. He got everybody going, got everybody on the same path and got us going in the right direction.”

Stark’s improvement at the plate hasn’t made him a high-end bat. But that’s fine because Stark is elite behind the plate, controlling the Vols’ pitching staff and much-improved defense.

“We had him always as a defense-first guy that could be real competitive and handle a pitching staff and be a good teammate,” Elander said.

Understanding Stark’s competitiveness and fire is integral to recognizing how valuable he is as Tennessee’s catcher and defensive leader.

Elander describes Stark’s fire as “Vitello-esque” at times, a high bar for anyone to reach. He’s aggressive and eager to defer to the first or third base umpire on any check swing and isn’t afraid to exchange words with any opponent in the batter’s box if a tense situation presents itself. And Stark is comfortable sharing heated words with more than just the opponent.

It was the fifth inning of Tennessee’s series opener at Kentucky when a Billy Amick towering pop-up headed straight for the divide between the field and the Vols’ dugout. While every other Tennessee player stood still as they were taught, relief pitcher Marcus Phillips stepped back making the play easier for Kentucky’s Ryan Nicholson to make.

The top half of the inning was over but before Stark returned to the field for the bottom half, he chewed out Phillips in the dugout. It’s hard, tough leadership but the situation called for it. 

Stark’s desire to win and comfortability with his teammates made it easy for him to act. His relationship with those teammates and the way he handled the catcher competition makes it easy for them to listen to and trust him.

“He’s earned the respect of his teammates and I think the coaches in this league too,” Elander said.

“If you’re not showing them up, I think it is the right thing to do,” Stark said. “And our clubhouse is … such a close group that nobody’s going to get their feelings hurt because at the end of the day we’re all trying to win a baseball game.”

The way Stark leads helps him control Tennessee’s pitching staff. He has a tremendous rapport with nearly everyone on the staff and is “stealing strikes” every single game.

“Throwing to Cal is extremely calming,” junior pitcher AJ Causey said.

“Not many guys that I’ve thrown to have that kind of control over the team, people’s attitudes,” Beam said.

His passion always runs hot, but Stark is able to control his emotions and tailor it to what each pitcher needs. Chris Stamos, the Vols’ Friday night opener, is an even-keeled seasoned veteran. Stark can “say whatever he wants” to him and pump the left-handed pitcher up. Star sophomore reliever Nate Snead “pitches with a lot of energy and emotion” so the intense Stark finds the words to keep the right-handed pitcher under control while not extinguishing the fire that’s key to his success.

Stark knows what each pitcher needs and is able to tame his own intensity in his interactions with some while still bringing it to other aspects of the game.

“I think I do a good job of that just when I walk out there (to the mound) just relaxing myself more than I’m about to relax the pitcher,” Stark said. “That’s always a big part of it.”

Those skills don’t show up to the casual viewer but they are invaluable to a pitching staff. Elander emphasizes it to the catchers in the first meeting every fall. Last season, Chase Dollander and other Tennessee pitchers told coaches that they wanted to pitch to Stark and that was part of the reason he won the starting job.

“They trust him,” Elander said. “That has tremendous value.”

Stark’s defense and ability to control the running game are more evident. He’s catching runners stealing at a 24% clip— the second best of the Vitello era. Thanks to Stark, and Tennessee’s pitchers, opponents are attempting to steal bases against the Vols at the lowest rate of Vitello’s tenure.

That’s in addition to Stark and Blake Burke becoming elite at back picking runners at first base. 

“Frank (Anderson), V(itello) and I don’t call that— that’s more those two guys just hunting down outs. Just playing ball and being on the hunt,” Elander said. “They’ve mastered it at a high level this year.”

Others in Stark’s place wouldn’t have returned to Tennessee this season, but his competitive fire brought him back and helped him retain his job. Stark’s improved hitting is the icing, but his elite defense and relationship with the pitching staff is the cake for Tennessee baseball.

“He really can keep us locked in and keep the team going,” Beam said.

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