If there were a nomination process for the biggest baseball fan in Nashville, Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys would receive a lot of votes. His passion for baseball goes back to his early youth as a small child and a relative.
"I originally got hooked on baseball when I was three years old," said Sterban. "I was born in Camden, New Jersey and lived in a suburb. I had an uncle that took me to my first major league baseball game. My uncle Pete, who died a couple of years ago, took me to the old Connie Mack Stadium [also known as Shibe Park] in Philadelphia and we sat in the bleachers. I remember the Phillies were playing the Cubs that day.
"I still remember walking into that ballpark. The smell of the ballpark and the green grass with white lines was something that hooked me that day. I still get that same type of feeling when I walk into Greer Stadium. Just driving to the park I feel the excitement. There is something about going to a baseball game that turns me on. That goes back to my first experience when I was three years old."
With Camden being located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, it was natural for Sterban to become a Phillies fan. His childhood heroes from that era were Ritchie Ashburn and Robin Roberts. When Sterban moved to Nashville in the early 1970s, there was no professional baseball in Nashville. But Sterban would find baseball in Nashville.
"When I first moved to Nashville, the only baseball that I could find was going out to Vanderbilt," Sterban said. "That is how I first met Larry Schmittou. He was the Vandy coach at the time. I loved baseball so much I just had to get my baseball fix so I'd to go to the Vandy games. When I read in the paper that he [Schmittou] was going to bring baseball back to Nashville, I thought I would drive over and talk to him. I wanted to see how I could get involved. He was an owner and general manager and they were in the process of building the stadium.
"Schmittou had a little shack for an office that was near where right field is today. I explained to him that I was an avid baseball fan and I wanted to get involved with this new venture of his. That first season I came to all the games and he let me hang out. I got to know Chuck Goggin our first manager that year. After that first season he called me and said that he's figured out a way for me to get involved. I purchased a small percentage from one of the other owners. I was one of the owners of the Nashville Sounds."
The Oak Ridge Boys have sung the National Anthem at countless number of sporting events in the past decades. They have sung at World Series, all-star games and regular season baseball games in stadiums across the country. Sterban and the Oak Ridge Boys also have sung at Hawkings Field on the Vanderbilt campus. Sterban has developed a close relationship with Vanderbilt baseball and Coach Tim Corbin.
The first Sounds general manager was Farrell Owens. He recalls seeing the Oak Ridge Boys each wearing Sounds jackets during an interview on a national television program after that first year in 1978. Owens said that type of publicity for the new Double-A baseball team in Nashville was priceless.
"I personally have worn my Sounds jersey on television shows, stadiums and numerous occasions like at "Fan Fair," Sterban said. "Right now I'm wearing my Vanderbilt baseball jersey that Maggie, Tim Corbin's wife, got for me. And I'm wearing my Vandy baseball cap. I am really into it big time. I got so much pleasure watching Prince Fielder win the Home Run Derby since he is a former Nashville Sound and Sandy Guerrero [former Sounds hitting coach] pitching to him.
"That was the coolest thing. I watched on the television Ryan Braun being interviewed and he mentioned playing with R.A. Dickey when he was with the Nashville Sounds. That was great for the Sounds. That night I texted Sandy and told him he did a great job of pitching. He text me back to let me know that when he would be in Nashville so we could hang out around the batting cage."
As an owner of the Sounds, Sterban would travel with the Sounds on the road especially at spring training camps.
"I did travel quite often during the Double-A days," said Sterban. "I actually took some of those bus rides with the guys on road trips. I will still fly sometimes when they are on the road. I've flown to playoff games like a few years ago to Sacramento to watch the Sounds. Tim Corbin allowed me to go on one of the Vanderbilt weekend trips to Florida. Not only did I hang out with most of the Vanderbilt players and coaches, but also I sat in as a color commentator with Eric Jones on the Commodores' radio for three days.
"That is another prized photograph that I have in my collection. The four of us [Oak Ridge Boys] with David Price in the Vanderbilt dugout the day we sang the National Anthem there. We've got other guys like Mike Minor playing all over the major leagues. Not only am I an avid Sounds fan, but a Vanderbilt fan. Tim Corbin has allowed me to get very close to his Vanderbilt team. I certainly enjoy following those guys. I know he [Corbin] is going to continue putting players from that program into the major leagues."
As a Sounds owner, Sterban would meet some of the biggest names associated with major league baseball. With the several franchises connected with the Sounds, Sterban would have the privilege of expanding his baseball experiences. Some of the best names in baseball that ventured through Nashville were connected to the New York Yankees (1980-84).
"I've got a great picture on the wall of my den of me, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in the Sounds clubhouse before any renovations had been done to Greer," Sterban said. "This was back when we were associated with the Yankees. Larry Schmittou had some type of promotion that he arranged involving Ford and Mantle. He called me up to ask if I wanted to meet with those guys to come down early. So I went down there in the middle of the afternoon and had a photo taken with the two of them. That photo is one of my prized possessions."
Sterban's allegiance to baseball does not end at appearing at games, but also is a pupil who wants to learn about the National Pastime's history.
"I recently read that Mickey Mantle book that came out this past year," said Sterban. "I thoroughly enjoyed reading that. And before that I read a Roger Maris book that I got to know after he retired. Reading the Roger Maris book made me want to read the Mantle book. Maris was so kind to Mickey Mantle and talked about how great a guy Mantle was. Right now I am reading a book called 'Driving Mr. Yogi' by Ron Guidry. It talks about his association with Yogi Berra. The baseball books that I've read go on and on. I read Joe Torre's book a couple of years ago and John Feinstein's 'Living on the Black.' [This book is about Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine during the 2007 season] Besides country music, baseball is really a passion of mine.
The thing that Sterban enjoys the most is being around baseball players. He has met some great baseball men that have become friends. Some of these ball players were with the Sounds and went on to contribute in a huge way to major league baseball.
"Back in the Double-A days I got to know Buck Showalter who is now the manager of the Baltimore Orioles," Sterban said. "We had a player back in those days named Erik Peterson that I became very good friends with. He never made it past Double-A, but he had a couple of pretty good years with the Sounds. Occasionally when we are working out in California Erik will come out to see us.
"I got to know Don Mattingly when he was here for one year. Over the years I've been able to hang out with many players including the Milwaukee Brewers. Watching Prince Fielder win this year's Home Run Derby brought back a memory. I remember a day where there was a rain delay and the game was eventually postponed. The players were sitting in the Sounds clubhouse just waiting and they allowed me to join them. I sat there telling them Johnny Cash and country music stories. Prince Fielder was sitting right there with me during that rain delay. It was a cool thing.
"I never got to meet Ryan Braun when he was here. He was here for such a short time and my schedule was such that I never got to meet him before he was called up. He is one player I would have liked to have met. I got to know Cory Hart. I follow the Brewers very closely since so many played here and I know them."
In those first few years of the Sounds there were many other country music stars that were part owners with Sterban. Conway Twitty, Larry Gatlin, Jerry Reed and Cal Smith were also owners that helped to promote the return of professional baseball to Nashville. Today such country stars as Joe Nichols, Emmy Lou Harris and others can be seen at Greer Stadium.
Sterban, 69, said that the two most memorable home runs he witnessed at Greer Stadium were by Erik Peterson and Steve Balboni. Both dingers were hit well over the centerfield wall. A favorite memory for Sterban was in 1979 when the Sounds clinched their first berth for the playoffs. Sterban joined the team on the field and in the old clubhouse to celebrate.
Not only did Sterban mingle with the Nashville Sounds players off the field, but he also joined them on the field as a player in a game.
"I actually got into a Nashville Sounds box score," said Sterban. "In 1986, the Nashville Sounds went to Huntsville to play in an exhibition game against the Stars. As a promotional gimmick, they had me suit up and coach first base. I was a part owner of the Huntsville Stars and Nashville Sounds; they were tied together. It was a thrilling experience for me. We got towards the end of the game and Scotti Madison was on that team, and asked me if I was ready to go in. He told me they wanted to put me in the game for the last inning in right field. I said I couldn't do that.
"The Sounds manager at the time Leon Roberts and he said we are going to put you in right field in the last inning when there are two outs. That way you can get your name in the box score. So Scotti Madison told me to go down to the bullpen with him to throw the ball and warm up. I was already in uniform. So I went down there, warmed up with Scotti Madison and sure enough when there were two outs in the ninth inning they announced my name and put me in right field.
"I don't remember who the centerfielder was, but he came over to me and said, 'don't worry, I've got you covered.' And I was praying that the ball wasn't hit to me. The last out was a ground ball in the infield. The team was laughing at me the entire time because I was standing so close to the foul line. I was almost afraid to get too far onto the field. The next day in the newspaper they had 'Sterban' in the box score. That box score is one of my most prized possessions."
Maybe the most pleasant experience Sterban has had with the Sounds was when the new ownership came to Nashville in 2008, and he was declared the official Ambassador of the Nashville Sounds.
"There is no question that is an honor for me to be named the official Sounds ambassador," Sterban said. "I am no longer a Sounds owner, but for 30 years I was an owner. I've gotten to know Frank Ward who came in a few years ago and bought all of us out. They have allowed me to be involved with the team and I do appreciate that. The Nashville Sounds have been a passion of mine for decades. It has been my little toy that I play with on the side. Even though I am no longer an owner, I still walk into Greer Stadium and feel like I am an owner. They make me feel like I've very much part of the team.
"I still have my seats behind home plate. I will come in early on a lot of days and stand around the batting cage just to hang out with the players. I try to be a student of the game. I like to watch them give instructions to the players and listen to what they are saying. So when I am watching a game, and if something happens, I understand why it is happening. I learn little nuances like staying back and not opening up too much, and keeping your hands in. I try to learn from coaches giving instructions. I feel like I've become a student of the game and not just a fan."
Traughber's Tidbit: Richard Sterban joined the gospel and country group the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972. Prior to that, he toured with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, who were singing backup for Elvis Presley. Sterban ultimately became famous for his "oom-pa-pa-oom-pa-pa-maw-maw" bass solo in the 1981 Oak Ridge Boys sensational hit, "Elvira."
Tidbit Two: The Oak Ridge Boys were originally founded in the 1940s, but were known as the Oak Ridge Quartet. The group gained popularity in the 1950s with southern gospel. In the early 1960s they changed their name to the Oak Ridge Boys and remained a gospel-oriented group until the mid 1970s then changed to mostly country music. There have been 11 previous members of the group (excluding the current members) going back to the 1940s.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.