Duncan inspired by late brother's toughness
Former big leaguer, Chris, died in '19 after long battle with cancer
CHICAGO -- There was a point during the latter stages of Chris Duncan’s long battle against brain cancer where he would have his dad, Dave, drop him off in the mountains near their Tucson, Ariz., home so Chris could hike for five or six miles.
At that point, Chris was struggling some with his speech and with movement on his right side, according to his older brother, Shelley. But Chris Duncan was not giving up.
“Every single day with a weighted vest on, just so he could make sure he kept walking,” said Shelley, of his younger brother’s fight, during a recent interview with MLB.com. “I went with him a couple of times and he would fall multiple times and he would get [upset].
“He’d get right back up and never complain about it. Just keep going, and he would do it every single day. Then he would go to the gym and he would make sure he’s doing all the arm exercises so he could keep using his arms as long as possible and have strength in his arms.
“You see him and knowing what he’s going through, you are like, ‘Man, you don’t have to be doing all this stuff,’ but he would. There was something special there,” added Duncan, with his voice trailing off for one moment. “Toughest guy in the world, by far.”
Chris Duncan died on Sept. 6, 2019, at age 38 due to glioblastoma. He was an accomplished baseball player with a .257 career average, 55 home runs and 175 RBIs over five seasons with the Cardinals before retiring following a Minor League stint with the Nationals in ’10. He also was a popular ESPN radio personality in the St. Louis area after leaving on-field action, and a loving husband to his wife, Amy.
But the toughest part of the loss for Shelley Duncan, who is beginning his first season as the White Sox analytics coordinator, went alongside losing a beloved brother. Chris was his best friend.
“We talked about anything together,” Duncan said. “At down times, you have your brother as your biggest fan to pick you up. He will shoot you straight when you need to. That’s hard.
“I’ll tell you: Chris will never leave me. I always feel like he’s there with me. I would never be able to get to where I was as a player without my brother, more than anybody. And the same goes for anywhere else I get in life.
“So he’s a part of me everywhere I go in terms of everything: family, life in general,” Duncan said. “The same goes for my dad. There’s a lot of pride I have for the work and dedication that my family has put into everything that they’ve done, and it’s an honor to have them all in my life.”
Chris’ brain cancer diagnosis came in 2012, according to various reports. It was, tragically, the same illness that would lead to the death of their mother, Jeanine, at age 64 in ‘13.
Chris’ tumor was not prevalent for some of that seven-year period, as Shelley explained, so there were good spans of time. Even when Chris was all but unable to speak near the end, he still was able to laugh at some of Shelley’s conversation, and in turn, Shelley knew exactly what he was trying to say, although the words came out in more of a mumble.
“I promise you he didn’t complain about it one day. Not one single time did he ever ask why, did he ever feel sorry for himself, did he ever say anything negative,” Duncan said. “It’s the most inspirational thing in the world. There’s not a more positive person when it comes to talking about others, viewing others, viewing this world and viewing life than him. It was the most amazing thing.”
“He was still doing speech therapy and physical therapy even knowing that the future looked pretty grim,” said Brian Anderson, a former White Sox outfielder and a longtime close friend of Shelley and Chris. “To me, that just shows you the type of guy Chris is. He knew what his fate was pretty much sealed medically, but he had no quit in him. There was no one more gritty than that guy.”
If the Duncan name sounds familiar beyond the competitive success for Chris and Shelley, who hit 43 homers over seven big league seasons, it’s because Dave, their father, was one of the most successful pitching coaches in baseball history during his 32 years in the role. The elder Duncan won three World Series titles with manager Tony La Russa in Oakland (1986-95) and St. Louis (1996-2011), and he was a pitching coach for La Russa from 1983-86 during La Russa’s first stint as White Sox manager, when Shelley began his baseball indoctrination at the age of 4 or 5.
La Russa has returned to the White Sox dugout for the 2021 season, but with Ethan Katz, a highly renowned young mind in the game, taking over as pitching coach. The Duncan/La Russa connection lives on with Shelley, and with Dave currently living with Shelley in Tucson, the elder Duncan won’t be too far away from the action.
“He’s a man of few words, but I think he’s excited,” said Shelley of his father’s reaction to his new White Sox position. “He’s had a lot of fun with the jobs I’ve had in professional baseball since I’ve been done playing, because I’ve always talked to him about everything. He served in an advisor role for a couple of clubs since he retired, but I always joke with him and say that [I’m] the one that uses him the most [and] he’s the personal assistant to Shelley Duncan.
“It’s fun when I show him the stuff that’s going on in a game right now, it’s fun to see his eyes light up. We talk the most, and I get the most information and help from him compared to anybody else. It’s a bargain on my end.”
Managing might someday be in the cards for Shelley, 41, who managed in Arizona’s Minor League system from 2015-18 and led Double-A Jackson to the Southern League championship in ‘18 and Class A Hilsboro to a Northwest League title in ‘15. But Duncan understands it would be a mistake if he doesn’t enjoy the moment he’s currently in and be the best he can right now.
That sort of philosophy seems to run in the family, but was reinforced by his brother’s warrior-like attitude.
“I’ll never forget. ... Yeah, it’s stunning. It takes you to your knees hearing it. It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair,” said Duncan of his first memories of hearing Chris’ diagnosis. “There’s not a tougher person on the face of this Earth than him after watching him go through what he went through.”