When he came up to the major leagues in 2006 (besides his expanded roster cup of coffee in 2005), I was less than thrilled with the idea. Chris Duncan was not a prospect. He ranked 8th on the Cardinals’ Baseball America list in 2005, and he was unranked by the time 2006 came around. This was at a time when the Cardinal’s farm system as a whole was never impressive. Being an unranked Cardinals prospect was, well, not a sign of a future star. Being the son of Dave Duncan, he of the .214 lifetime average, wasn’t a sure sign of a slugger. Being a 1B in a system that had Albert Pujols – a superstar for 5 years, and only one year older than Dunc, was not a sign of a bright future.
It was a sign that you could easily stash the son of a coach somewhere without making many waves. Who cared who the AAA or backup 1B was when Albert was over there? There was always an excuse like that. Need a backup C behind Mike Matheny? Well, let’s give Yadier Molina more seasoning in the minors. In the meanwhile, we’ll put Cody McKay in the majors. What? He’s the son of a Cardinals coach? What a strange coincidence!
If you don’t think accusations of playing the buddy system over talent predated The Shildt/Matheny years, well, don’t look up the stats of Mike Gallego’s years in St. Louis.
But what was worse about Duncan was that when he was called up that by July, with less than 42 PA’s on the year, Chris was suddenly being stuck in the outfield while actual an actual OF with MLB success, who was having an actually good year, John Rodriguez, was usurped. Bias was in the air.
(I could go on and on about how many times Tony LaRussa was proven right over the naysayers about what players had it, and what players didn’t. I always sided with the naysayers. I don’t remember a time I ever ended up being right. But that’s for a never day that will never come.)
And, at least for me, bias was definitely in the air for how I judged Duncan. His father being on the staff definitely made me think his talents weren’t talents. His early success was more luck based than skill based. He would fall back to Earth and we’d be stuck with a bad 1B playing in the OF.
What I never thought about while telling myself Duncan wasn’t that good, or was undeserving, was that we were essentially the same age. And while I didn’t believe Duncan was hitting AAA pitching, something I could never do, well enough, I was doing so at a time where in my own life I was essentially homeless.
I was a college graduate with two degrees and a fantastic combination of ego and laziness, which had gotten me a part time job, and ½ of an apartment that was abandoned by my roommate that I couldn’t pay for (and never thought to work extra to afford) that resulted in a near eviction (I didn’t end up getting evicted…but I wasn’t invited to re-sign the lease, even with a roommate).
I ended up moving into an extra room of a woman dying of cancer for 3 months. When I say extra room, I don’t mean bedroom. I mean what was probably a dining room, but had a curtain hung up as my privacy while I slept on a twin mattress on the floor.
This was how I was living my life while I was judging how well Chris Duncan was living his. We were the same age. My idiocy knows no bounds.
Of course, I was wrong. Duncan had a magical season. He had a 140 OPS+. Matt Holliday, in his Cardinals career, had a 138 OPS+. The Cardinals added a non-prospect to their lineup and he wound up being Matt Holliday that year. Don’t think Devil Magic is a new thing for this team.
Naturally by the time the end of the season came about I would have gone crazy to see a lineup without Duncan, and we all dreamed of a DH lineup in Detroit where his glove could be hidden. He dropped two routine balls in that World Series, and didn’t hit at all in the playoffs. Had the Cardinals lost, he would have been viewed as the goat, I’m certain. The pre-twitter Internet boards I perused at the time had determined that he couldn’t handle the pressure. That’s probably true, I suppose. I’m sure the pressure got to him big time. Here was a 25 year old playing in the World Series in his rookie year out of position. And here was I, here were millions of us, looking at that amazing accomplishment that he absolutely earned while we all doubted his very presence, and judging him for his failures.
And there I was doing it in a curtained off room next to a bag of greasy Wendy’s food that amounted to my sole possession I had earned in life.
The Cardinals won, of course, which certainly saved Duncan a lot of grief. 2006 was also clearly his greatest season. 2007 was solid. The rest were disasters. 2006 looks like an outlier. It wasn’t.
Duncan’s body gave out on him. Mid way through 2007, again sporting an OPS well over .900, his back struggles started interfering with his play. His production plummeted. He wouldn’t ever be the same again.
I can’t imagine the body of a professional athlete. I truly cannot. The amount of work to maintain a healthy body. The focus on nutrition. The daily workouts to stay in peak condition. The tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to keep up with every other top athlete so that you can put your body through things it was never designed for. Inside pitch? Take one for the team! Let that 97 mph fastball hit you in the ribs! Then after it does, keep playing at the top of your game! I scowl as a player ducks away from a pitch, and then groan as I remove myself from a recliner for the 1st time in 3 hours.
The reason it never occurred to me that Duncan was my age, and somehow in my own pathetic life felt comfortable judging his, is because these ballplayers aren’t human to us. To us their “work” is 2-3 hours a day playing a game. We look at nothing behind the scenes. To us their job is to focus on the game. We never consider they might have the same personal life struggles we do. To us, if you can’t take the pressure, you don’t belong on our TV screens. We don’t consider what pressure even means. We don’t consider that failing at the highest level isn’t failing at all. It’s tremendous success over 99.9% of everyone else. We cast aspersions when an athlete at the top of their craft loses a battle to another, equally good athlete. To us, their tremendous success is not enough. To us, they must always satisfy us. They must always be the best, they must always be better, or to Hell with them.
That happened to Duncan. His body couldn’t take it. His back couldn’t handle the workload. He struggled. We did not feel bad for him. We did not consider his emotional or physical pain as his skills and his body deteriorated. We complained, once again, that he was only being kept around because he was a coach’s son. We’re terrible. I’m terrible.
Duncan survived the end of his career to be successful in another craft. Radio. He did so where other athletes fail. He gained the love of his listeners where other athlete personalities have gained scorn. He became, I believe, what every radio personality aspires to. Someone to whom a stranger tunes in on their dial to listen to another stranger, and believes they are listening to a friend. I believe they were.
He built a family. He built love. He lived a dream life, except that a dream life doesn’t have your own body-a body that briefly made you one of the best athletes in the world-take away a half century of love, and memories.
And me? Still breathing? Still living? Still with a Wendy’s bag somewhere nearby? What is the justice of losing a person who truly lived their life, while I wasted so much of mine? Is life fate driven? Is there a place for us in God’s plans that make our continuing existence still worthwhile, while Chris is gone? Or is this all just random chance, and a person that seemed to get such winning luck, in actuality got terrible, tragic luck, while the rest of us float along less deserving? I don’t know. I’ll never know.
One thing I do know, every day we’re all one day closer to the end. Maybe it’s at 38. Maybe it’s at 95. It’s so short, and yet we waste so much of it. Here I am writing something maybe 100 people will read. Here you are, one of those 100, spending your time reading an amateur hack.
What more can we do, then to look at the lesson of Chris? It all goes by so quickly, it’s imperative we make it worth it. We must leave our mark while we can. If it can take a professional athlete in his 30s, it can surely take you. It can surely take me. St Louis, baseball, and the Duncan family are all in mourning today, because of the love Chris spread in this world. The love will endure longer, and stronger than the pain ever will. That’s the glory of love. That’s the glory of life. That’s a life worth living. That’s a life worth all of us pursuing, right now.