The training plan for Cobie Vance was always there even when Sergeant Major Randy Vance was gone. Vance would have to deploy when his son was growing up, but baseball practice never stopped.
One day there might be fielding drills. The next would be conditioning and running to improve Cobie’s 60-yard dash time. Another day would have strength training with dumb bells or resistance bands. There would be hitting almost every day.
“I’m sure it was killing him, not being able to watch,” Cobie said.
Deployments during his army career sometimes kept Randy Vance away from home. He was in Panama in 1999-2000. Then in Kuwait in 2003-04. His unit was in Iraq in 2005-06. Then there were two trips to Afghanistan in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Those were just the longer tours; there were “shorter” trips of a month or two at a time as well.
It’s what Cobie grew up with. Both of his parents served in the Army. His mother, Michelle, left in 1995 before Cobie was born. Randy retired in January after serving 31 years, mostly working in logistics. He spent the latter half of his career at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina where he was assigned to Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command.
It wasn’t the most dangerous job in the Army, but still took Randy away from home often. Cobie go to the airport with his family and watch his unit leave for somewhere 7,000 miles away.
“I thought it was cool, that he was getting on a plane,” Vance said. “I didn’t fly until I was probably 12 or 13. He’d get on the plane and we’d watch him leave and I thought it was so awesome. I thought it was so cool, what he was doing. I didn’t cry or anything. My mom obviously did, but I had no clue really what he was going to do. He’d just tell me he was coming home and he’d see me later. I thought it was amazing. He was like a superhero, almost.”
Randy Vance played college baseball at Bethune-Cookman. He sized up Cobie at a young age and thought his son had a chance to excel at the sport as well. Cobie is now listed at 5-foot-7, too small for football or basketball. But he always had excellent coordination and quickness. Those qualities that show up on the baseball diamond. He batted .293 this season for Alabama baseball and had six errors all season despite starting all 56 games.
His road from tee ball to Sewell-Thomas Stadium was never easy, though. Randy made sure Cobie competed in leagues with players a year older than him. Cobie sometimes struggled against the best competition they could find. He also got better.
“I had that military mentality,” Randy Vance said. “You get hit by a pitch? Don’t cry, don’t lay down, don’t fall on the ground, just turn around and go to first base. If it’s not broken and you’re not bleeding, you’re not hurt. People used to always say I was too hard on him.”
He was firm, but not forceful. Cobie never had to practice or had to do push-ups after an error. Randy made sure his son was challenged when he played. By the time he was a freshman in high school, facing 18-year-olds was just one more step up to make.
Randy stopped coaching Cobie’s teams long before that. But he was still a large part of his son’s baseball career. They transformed their garage into a batting cage so Cobie could hit even in the winter. He’d travel to tournaments and showcases, no matter where they were.
Baseball was part of what kept them close even when they had to be apart. Randy would call home two or three times a month while he was deployed. Baseball was all they talked about. Randy would ask about the training plan he had left behind, or if Cobie needed new equipment.
“I’d be talking to his mom, emailing her about how the game went,” Randy said. “She’d say ‘He had two hits tonight,’ or ‘He was 3-for-4, made a great play at short.’ I talked to him about working out. ‘What’s your weight? How’s your 60 time?’ It wasn’t ‘How you doing in school?’ or whatever. I was like ‘How’s baseball? How many home runs did you hit?’”
Michelle was also a key to Cobie’s career. She checked in on homework, drove him to games, and even threw him batting practice once.
Military spouses work double duty during deployments to run the household by themselves. They’re caretakers, disciplinarians, providers and more while their husband or wife is gone for months at a time. They do all that even while knowing their partner could be in a dangerous situation.
Cobie didn’t always think of that when he watched his father’s unit leave the airport. He didn’t always ask his father about work, but learned about it slowly as he grew up.
“I saw Blackhawk Down when I was like 10 or so,” he said. “It had been out for a while, but that’s kind of when I realized, ‘Man, that’s what my dad does. They’re dressed like my dad.’ I was like ‘Dang, I wonder if he does that. That could happen to him.’ That’s kind of when I realized, after seeing Blackhawk Down, that it was real.”
The Vances spent much of Cobie’s childhood in Fayetteville, but friends would sometimes come and go. Some moved when the military sent them to a new post.
“Some of them, it was because their parent passed away,” Cobie said. “Their mom was moving back to wherever she was from. That’s when I kind of realized, ‘Dang, he’s really going overseas to fight.’”
Cobie’s military upbringing eventually paid off. He arrived at Alabama on a Yellow Ribbon Scholarship as a military dependent. He came to campus with experience playing against dozens of future college baseball players in tournaments around the country as a young player.
He also arrived with the perspective that came from growing up in a military family.
“Something that means a lot to me is respect for the people that do it,” Cobie said. “Every time I see a veteran, I try to talk to him and thank him, ask where he’s been and stuff. I really have respect for people who put their lives on the line for our freedom. That’s insane. … I have a lot of respect for what they do. That’s one thing I’m really thankful for, for everybody. Not just my family, but everybody who’s ever served.”
The Army couldn’t keep Randy away from games this spring. He retired before the season after 31 years. It was just in time for what could be Cobie’s final college season should he choose to go pro.
All those years finally paid off.
“It’s wonderful,” Randy said. “But the biggest thing that we really, really enjoy hearing from everybody is ‘You raised a good kid. You raised a fine young man. He’s polite, he’s respectable.’ That’s the biggest thing.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.