Chris Duncan made his St. Louis Cardinals debut on September 10, 2005, and he was almost immediately my least favorite Cardinals player.
The reasons behind this were largely circumstantial. Duncan debuted not too terribly long after I began my first job, one which I hated, and one at which I was constantly tormented by the boss’s son. He was hard-working and a very capable employee, but all I could see was a guy who got away with obnoxious behavior and could act with impunity. His name was Chris.
When he first joined the Cardinals, Chris Duncan was “Dave Duncan’s kid”, and this was perceived as nothing less than a triumph for The Cardinals Family, in the way that baseball celebrates Cal Ripken Sr. managing Cal Ripken Jr., or Ken Griffeys Senior and Junior hitting back-to-back home runs for the Seattle Mariners, or Barry Bonds, the son of a borderline Hall of Fame-level baseball player in his own right, chasing his godfather Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. But this angle never did much for me. My dad didn’t play or coach Major League Baseball; why would I particularly relate to the son of a former big leaguer? Did his genetics somehow make his soul fundamentally purer?
Chris Duncan wasn’t a great Major League Baseball player, but he certainly had his moments. And in retrospect, I took my first impression and managed to yeahbut all of them. Chris Duncan hit the final regular season home run at the old Busch Stadium, but this was just a matter of luck–he pinch-hit in a meaningless Game 162 and couldn’t even remain in the game in right field instead of Hector Luna. He was a formidable bench bat for the 2006 Cardinals, hitting 22 home runs in just 314 plate appearances, becoming arguably the most valuable non-Albert Pujols hitter on the team, but he was a dreadful defensive corner outfielder. A rational baseball analyst could take Duncan’s defensive shortcomings with a grain of salt–he was a first baseman by trade being a good soldier by accommodating Albert Pujols at first base, and he was still a net positive for the team because of his bat. But I wasn’t a rational baseball analyst in 2006. I was a seventeen year-old who was mad at the world.
Duncan played in parts of the next three seasons with the Cardinals, never again duplicating his 2006 success. You might think that this left me feeling validated, but truthfully, I just kind of stopped thinking much about him. Like all teenage boys, I had the attention span of a puppy with none of the charm. Chris Duncan became a distant memory. But not long after Chris Duncan arrived on the scene, another Chris arrived on the St. Louis sports scene when the Rams drafted Virginia defensive end Chris Long, son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long, who had a decent college career but was mostly heralded for “bloodlines” and “being from a football family” and various other platitudes that did little to convince me that professional sports was the meritocracy it had long claimed to be.
As it turns out, Chris Long is one of the most truly awesome dudes in the NFL. Wishing him success has been my primary rooting interest in the NFL ever since the Rams left St. Louis. Long slowly built my support over the course of the last decade, while Chris Duncan’s temporary absence from my life allowed me to reexamine him through an entirely new lens.
After Duncan was traded to the Boston Red Sox near the 2009 trade deadline, he spent a month in Pawtucket before being released, and in 2010, he struggled with the Syracuse Chiefs, the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Chris Duncan was a symbol of my youthful anger, and he took his final at-bat in professional baseball at a younger age than I am now. This makes all of my previous anger feel so petty.
In fall 2011, Chris Duncan joined St. Louis’s ESPN Radio affiliate, and admittedly, I had my trepidations. I had no recollection of hearing him speak as a player. He certainly wasn’t some all-time great Cardinals player; even his biggest fans would acknowledge that much. I was starting to regularly listen to sports talk radio for the first time in my life around this time–I had just moved back to St. Louis after college a few months earlier, and filling my commutes with analysis of the local teams was my way of reacquainting myself with the culture I had left behind. And I was worried that the station had just hired the Cardinals’ pitching coach’s son and not a real analyst.
But then I listened with as open of a mind as I could and Chris Duncan was…great. He had a natural calm on the radio and he spoke insightfully–he wasn’t an advanced stats guru, and he didn’t purport to be, but he had played baseball and both succeeded and failed at various points, so he could speak to both experiences (there is nothing worse than the sports radio personality who only knows success and makes sure to remind the listener at every turn). On every panel of hosts he ever joined, he was the jokester, but in a laid-back, organic way–maybe his jokes were a bit sophomoric but that’s just who he was, and the sense that he was having a blast being himself was always there.
Nothing resonated with me, and nothing changed the way I looked at baseball and baseball players, more than the way Duncan spoke of his fielding. I spent so much time bemoaning Chris Duncan’s miserable defensive play, but it somehow never occurred to me that Chris Duncan realized his own limitations. When he played, I took his clumsiness as a personal affront, but seeing him years later able to joke about it revealed not a baseball robot but a human. And a human with proper perspective–why dwell on your limitations years after the fact (ones only exposed because you had superhuman talents at something else) when your life is so much more than that one time you dropped a baseball?
The lesson here isn’t that I initially didn’t like Chris Duncan and instead I should have. The lesson is that baseball players are avatars upon which we project our emotions and feelings and that even if I had been an expert on his baseball skill set, I barely knew a thing about Chris Duncan. He was a guy in a baseball uniform. And then he was a guy in a radio studio that I started to feel like I actually knew a little bit. And I liked him.
Barely a year after he burst onto the St. Louis radio scene, Chris Duncan was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Less than a year after that, in what felt like a sick twist of irony, his mother passed away from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Chris Duncan eventually returned to the radio, but continued to receive treatments for cancer, and last March, Duncan announced that he was taking a leave of absence. Yesterday, it was announced that Duncan will be taking a permanent leave 101 ESPN’s The Turn. Much of the afternoon’s episode was dedicated to discussing Duncan and how much he has meant to the radio station and his coworkers.
I don’t know Chris Duncan personally. I only know what I thought of him from an extreme distance, first as a player and then as a broadcaster. And I’m glad that, without ever having physically met the man, I got the chance to get to know him better.