Duncan led Commodores to first two SEC baseball crowns

March 19, 2014

DuncanCommodore History Corner Archive

As a high school senior involved with baseball, former Vanderbilt standout Rick Duncan (1972-75) had a choice -- college or professional baseball in the San Francisco Giants organization.

"The Giants in the 15th round drafted me," Duncan said recently from his Cleveland office. "They basically offered a very small bonus and something like $500 a month. That was not a tough decision considering how much a college education was at Vanderbilt versus what you might make playing pro ball. One of the guys from my hometown in Chattanooga did sign a pro contract. He played just one season and was done. If you are drafted low and get a chance to go to college you better take that."

Duncan attended Chattanooga Central and chose Vanderbilt over David Lipscomb, Florida State and Auburn. Larry Schmittou was in his fifth season as Vanderbilt's head baseball coach and building a program still in its infancy.

"I was a pretty good student and the education was attractive," Duncan said. "Obviously being in Nashville just two hours away from home was attractive. They had just won the Eastern division of the SEC the year before so the program was headed in a positive direction.

"Ted Shipley (1972-74) was a teammate of mine in the summer league in Chattanooga. We both played for American Legion Post 98. So I had a friend there. I did not have a ton of offers. My senior year we had tons of rainouts. The football coach was the baseball coach. He didn't try to make up the rainouts so I didn't have a lot of opportunities to show what I could do. It wasn't that tough of a decision to attend Vanderbilt."

In Duncan's freshman season, the left-handed batter earned a starting position on a team that went 35-15 (13-5, SEC) and won its second Eastern division title. The Commodores lost a best-of-three series to Ole Miss for the SEC championship.

"I had a pretty good fall," Duncan said. "I was hitting well. Then that carried over to the spring. I was a catcher in high school. We had a player, Chuck Boyett, who was a senior that was a good catcher. He had caught (Mike) Willis and (Jeff) Peeples and all those guys. He was going to catch.

"We had a guy, Greg Collins, who was a sophomore later drafted by the Cubs. So I was third on the depth chart, but hitting well. Coach Schmittou wanted to find a place for me in the lineup. He wanted to turn me into an outfielder. He told me if I could drive in two runs with my offense for every one run that I let in with my bad defense, he would consider it a good deal (laughs).

"I started in left field for about 30 games. I was starting and playing pretty well when one day he had me catching batting practice. We had over 20 guys to take batting practice. We would hit and hit and hit. I was the only catcher since Boyett and Collins had classes so they couldn't be there. So I caught all of the batting practice. I was exhausted and mad because I wanted to hit. I caught an attitude. So Coach Schmittou sat me on the bench for like two weeks because of my bad attitude."

The religious studies major would lead the Commodores in batting in his first three seasons. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder batted .356 (31-for-87) with one home run, 17 RBIs and two stolen bases in his freshman year. Vanderbilt would win back-to-back SEC championships in 1973 and 1974. They were the first SEC baseball championships for Vanderbilt in program history.

"I feel like the best team we had was my freshman year and we did not win the SEC, but we were absolutely loaded," Duncan said. "Especially with pitching since we had Mike Willis, Jeff Peeples and Doug Wessel. We had a ton of talent on that team with (Steve) Estep at second base and (Bill) Winchester in the outfield. We went to Mississippi and they swept us two games in a row for the SEC championship. They would throw real slow junk ballers. We just had a bad day. I wonder how far that team could have gone. Out of all the teams I was on in all four years there that one had the most talent.

"My favorite was that 1973 team where we won the SEC for the first time. That was a lot of fun. We went to California to play in the Riverside Tournament. We beat USC and Arizona State at the time was powerhouses. Peeples was one of those guys that we always said had an angel on his shoulder. We went to Alabama [1973] to play in a two-out-of-three between the Eastern and Western champions for the SEC. We were in Tuscaloosa and they got a guy on first base in the first inning.

"A guy came to bat and hit the ball to left center, between Tommy Powell and me. It looked like the ball was going to land on the warning track for a double and we would be down 1-0. The ball must have hit a rock because it bounced straight up over the fence for a ground rule double. So the base runner had to go back to third base. Then Peeples pitches out of the jam without giving up a run. That stuff happened to him all the time.

"One time against Florida, the bases were loaded and Peeples has three balls on the batter. He throws ball four on an inside pitch. The batter held the bat up to defend himself. The ball hit the knob of the bat and popped up to Peeples who doubled the guy off first base. It went from a bases loaded walk to a double play. I think the 1974 team way over achieved. We had some Vanderbilt mojo going on that year."

(To read about the 1973 Riverside Baseball Tournament, locate April 1, 2009 in Commodore History Corner Archives)

Photo of Vanderbilt's 1973 SEC championship team. Rick Duncan is on the second row, fourth from the left.

Schmittou coached Vanderbilt for 11 seasons with a career record of 306-252-1 (98-98, SEC) which ranks third all-time behind Roy Mewbourne and Tim Corbin. He coached 20 All-SEC, eight All-SEC East, eight All-South Region and seven Academic All-SEC players. Schmittou was SEC Coach of the Year in 1973 and 1974. He retired from coaching in 1978 to bring professional baseball back to Nashville with the Sounds.

"Coach Schmittou was a genius entrepreneur," Duncan said. "He had a way of assessing talent and figuring out a system with a small budget and resources to get people to come together to do some amazing things. I have great affection for him and an appreciation for Coach Schmittou. So many doors have been opened to me during my life as a result of having the Vanderbilt experience. I live in Cleveland now and Vanderbilt is a known commodity here in northeast Ohio.

"He played a huge role in my life and most of the athletes he coached. Before I got there he had less resources. Chuck Boyett, who was a senior when I was a freshman, would tell stories about taking road trips in station wagons and people begging and borrowing cars. Boyett is in the back seat of Coach Schmittou's car feeding one of his kids. Somehow he was able to accumulate some amazing talent from almost nothing. That's how he built Greer Stadium (for the Sounds). He talked people into buying season tickets to a non-existent team in a non-existent stadium. He is a good business guy."

Vanderbilt was 36-16 (13-5, SEC) in 1973, winning the SEC title over Alabama in two straight games. The Commodores advanced to the NCAA Tournamnet to defeat Georgia Southern and N.C. State before losing to Georgia Southern and Miami (Fla). Duncan batted .343 (60-for-175) with four home runs, 51 RBIs and 22 stolen bases.

The Commodores repeated as SEC champs in 1974 again, sweeping the series against Alabama. They won their first game over East Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, but were eliminated from competition with losses to Miami (Fla.) and Georgia Southern. Duncan hit .324 (88-for-210) with three home runs, 83 RBIs and 29 stolen bases.

With some key losses including Shipley, who was drafted by Minnesota and left school after his junior season, Vanderbilt slipped to 30-29 (7-9, SEC) in 1975. In Duncan's final season he batted .348 (73-for 210) with six home runs, 51 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.

Duncan left Vanderbilt with these school individual season records: doubles (14), triples (6), at bats (210) and hits (73). His records for individual career include: games played (209), at bats (682), hits (232), doubles (43) and triples (10). In addition, Duncan was selected First Team All-SEC (1973, 1974 and 1975) and selected as Honorable Mention All-American by The Sporting News in 1975.

"They honored me at the end of my career," said Duncan. "When I left I had played all four years and hit in the middle of the lineup and had some records, including some SEC. A lot of them were due to longevity like most at-bats. They honored me with a plaque and a "Rick Duncan Day."

"My favorite is when we beat Tennessee 9-8 in Nashville (1973) where Tommy Powell hit a grand slam to come from behind and beat those guys. They were up 8-4 when we came to bat in the bottom of the ninth. We pushed one run across and he hit a grand slam. That was fabulous. I was a Chattanooga guy and a lot of my friends went to Tennessee. When I came to Vanderbilt I really got addicted to the black and gold. Right now I am sitting in my office with a UT rug under my feet. So I wipe my feet on the University of Tennessee rug everyday at work (laughs)."

Duncan was selected in the second round of the 1975 MLB draft. He was expecting to be drafted.

"Today if you are a junior you are automatically eligible for the draft," Duncan said. "Back then you had to be 21 to be eligible. I was just 20 when the draft took place after my junior year. So Coach Schmittou figured out a way for me to get a little bit of leverage. I actually dropped out of school in the fall of 1974, which made me eligible for the secondary phase of the draft, which took place in January of 1975.

"I was a second round pick in that draft which gave me a little leverage to say if you don't give me a little bit more money I'm going back and play my senior season. The only problem with that I had dislocated my shoulder in fall practice in September. I had made a USA team that year. There was a tournament in November in Florida and I tried to play. But I could not throw. When the (Minnesota) Twins drafted me they really didn't try to sign me. They wanted to wait until my senior season was over to see how my arm was. They drafted me hoping my arm would be strong again."

Duncan eventually did sign with the Twins and was assigned to Reno of the California League. He batted .307 and played in 90 games. His Reno club won the California League title. Duncan moved to Orlando (1976) of the Southern League hitting .220 to Visalia (1977) in the California League batting .307 and Orlando and Nashville (1978) to bat .295.

"I played catcher, first base and the outfield," Duncan said. "I went back to catching, but that was an experiment that didn't go well. The second time I was in Orlando I had a strong season. But before the season was over and I had about three weeks to go, Coach Schmittou bought me for the Sounds (Cincinnati Reds Double-A affiliate). I was in the shower after a game in Orlando and the clubhouse boy told me I was wanted in the front office. They told me I had a long distance telephone call from a sports writer in Nashville. I think it was Jimmy Davy.

"He said, `How does it feel to be a Nashville Sound?' I said, `What?' He told me I had just been purchased by the Nashville Sounds. Nobody told us until then. My wife and I had to pack and in three days show up in Nashville. I think we played one game against Charlotte and the very next day my old team Orlando was in town. My wife was freaking out. She said she didn't know who to cheer for. She said, `I don't know any of these Nashville people.' We stayed with Gene Menees my Vanderbilt teammate and his wife for those three weeks until the season was over. The next season I was back in Nashville."

Nashville's first season was 1978 in a new stadium and an infield that was not ready for play until the morning of the first home game. Baseball had returned to Nashville. The city hosted its last team in 1963 with the Nashville Vols of the old Southern Association. That 1978 year the Sounds set many minor league attendance records

"The fans were exciting, but the field was not good," said Duncan. "I remember Gene Menees at second base starting to scratch around with his spikes and he uncovered this big slab of rock. It was a rough field. The fans were unbelievable. When I played in Orlando there was so much to do in the city. You might have 300-400 people at a ball game. The park was nice and the field was great. I recall once in Nashville we drew over 60,000 people in a four-game series against Knoxville.

"They had so many people they had to rope off the warning track for people to sit there. When I was still playing in Orlando we came to Nashville to play a game. Coach Schmittou created a night he called `Strike Out Rick Duncan Night.' If I struck out cokes were a dime and beer a quarter for that half inning. I'm up at back facing a lefty pitcher Rick O'Keeffe. I'm a lefty batter. They had about 9,000 people that night. So they are yelling, `Strike out, strike out.' O'Keeffe got ahead of me 0-2 and the next pitch hit me in the shoulder. The fans were booing him. I didn't strike out that night."

At age 26, Duncan would play his final season in professional baseball for the Sounds in 1979. He batted .286 (77-for-269) in 98 games. Duncan clubbed two home runs, 37 RBIs and 14 doubles.

"The Reds did not own my contract," said Duncan. "Coach Schmittou and the Sounds owned me and Bobby Hamilton who was on that team as well. Coach Schmittou was not a big fan of the DH. The Reds wanted their pitchers to bat in the minors obviously because they have to bat in the majors. We were the only National League affiliate team in the Southern League that had their pitchers bat. Coach Schmittou wanted the DH. The Reds would not budge on that. The Reds really liked their Double-A team in Nashville. They were playing in a new stadium in front of large crowds that helped players get ready for `The Show.' 

"They put some good talent on that club. Eddie Milner was in center field, Dave van Gorder behind the plate, Paul Householder in the outfield, Skeeter Barnes at third base and Duane Walker. We had some good pitching too. Bill Dawley, Scott Brown and Frank Pastore. They put a strong team on the field I think to placate Coach Schmittou hoping to back off his demands. We ended up winning the league title, but he would not budge. He probably thought they could not put that type of talent on the field each year. He ended the working relationship with the Reds. So the (New York) Yankees came in. Part of the deal he made with the Yankees they would have to purchase any existing players owned by Nashville. 

"That was Bobby Hamilton and I. I don't know what they paid for Hamilton, but they paid one dollar for me. I'm 26 years old and (Vanderbilt assistant coach) Roy Carter was a scout for the Yankees. The Yankees have exactly one dollar invested in me. I asked Roy what was happening with the outfielders in the Yankees' organization. This is back in the day where (Yankees owner George) Steinbrenner would buy whoever he wanted. They had guys hitting .300 in the minor leagues going nowhere. I talked about it with my wife. I thought if I did make it to the major leagues the odds were I'd be there for a short time.

"There was an article about me not going to play anymore and a guy who worked for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Nashville told me there was a job opening for the FCA in Jacksonville, Florida. He asked if I was interested. I applied for that position. The guy that was my predecessor was Bob Tebow who is the father of Tim. I got to be good friends with Bob. I was always a committed Christian at Vanderbilt and in pro ball. It just felt like the time to take the next step as far as my personal ministry is concerned."

In his tenure in Nashville, Duncan played for managers Chuck Goggin (1978) and George Scherger (1979).

"I did not know Goggin that well since I knew him for three weeks," said Duncan. "George Scherger was a quiet, business like guy. Gene Menees and I are committed Christians. Sometimes that works all right in pro ball and sometimes it didn't. One time before I joined the Sounds a manager looked at me in a meeting and said, `I'll tell you what we don't need on this team. We don't need milkshake drinkers. We need beer drinkers on this team. If you want to win, we need beer drinkers.' I thought `okay, I know who you are talking to.' I had a coach one time say, `the problem with this team it's a Sunday school class.' I was thinking to myself that the problem with this team is we don't have a shortstop.

"Gene and I were the baseball chapel leaders. We went to Scherger and asked if we could have a chapel service on Sundays between batting practice and the game. He said that would be fine. We were on the bus to Jacksonville before our first Sunday game and he stood up in the bus and said, `gentlemen, we are going to have chapel service today and I think it would be a good idea if all of you were there.' The entire season we probably had about 15-20 guys at every single chapel. And he would come, which was highly unusual. Most of the time before there was four or five guys. He put the word out and because of his experience and reputation guys showed up. The cool thing for me was a couple of those guys took significant steps forward spiritually.

"I remember this one player Mike Armstrong. I was out in the bullpen one night and he was a relief pitcher. I was able to talk to him about entering into a relationship with Christ. I drew some stuff in the dirt with the end of my bat. After I came up here to start this church [in Cleveland] Mike and his wife had made it to the big leagues. Somehow he ended up with Cleveland. I went over to see him for some memories and laughs. He mentioned to me the night we sat in the bullpen. He told me it was the first time that anyone had talked to him about God where it made sense. He told me the next season when he was in Hawaii he gave his life to Christ that God used me to play a very significant role in his life spiritually. And he thanked me for that. I didn't have the most success on the field as a professional baseball player.

"But there are things that happened in the lives of teammates that I played that made all of those years worthwhile. To me some of that ministry stuff outweighs the championship teams. The most significance for me was the opportunities to spiritually influence some of my teammates."

Duncan worked at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Jacksonville for four years. Bob Tebow became a mentor to him. Tebow believed that Duncan was an excellent speaker and set him up one night to deliver a message at his church. This is where he had serous thoughts of becoming a pastor. Duncan became a pastor of the Cuyahoga Valley Church in Cleveland.

"Before Bob went to the Philippines where Tim was born, he actually planted a church in Jacksonville and that sparked something in me," Duncan said. "I thought maybe I could plant a church somewhere. I decided to resign my position at FCA and went to a seminary to study and become a pastor. I went to Memphis for three years where I got my master's degree at Mid-America Seminary.

"While I was there I got more interested in Church planting. I wanted to get out of the Bible belt to go to a more needy area of the country to start a church. I thought about central Florida, but my seminary president said anybody could go to Florida, but who goes to Cleveland? I could not get away from that question. We came to Cleveland in 1986. I wanted to start a church for people that didn't go to church. I was senior pastor for 26 years where the church grew from two families to over 2,000 people today."

If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.



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