In life and baseball, changed perspective for Duncan
As mother and brother fight brain cancer, Rays slugger cherishing his time as a player
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- "Do you watch 'The Bachelor'?"
Up until this point, Shelley Duncan and I were having a pretty serious conversation. We were talking about how his mom, Jeanine, and his brother, Chris, were both diagnosed with brain cancer within 14 months of each other and about how Shelley's wife, Elyse, gave birth to twin boys in between those diagnoses. We were talking about how all these major life experiences added a powerful layer of perspective to what Shelley does for a living.
And now Duncan, a non-roster invitee with the Rays, wanted to talk about "The Bachelor"?
"Of course I watch it," I replied.
Yes, I admit it. I watch "The Bachelor." I love the catfights. I love the manufactured drama. I love seeing the guy visit four girls' hometowns and ask four different dads if he has their permission to propose (so respectful and yet so ... dysfunctional). I love the overuse of the words "journey" and "connection." I find the whole thing phenomenally entertaining.
"Good," Shelley said. "Most people say they don't watch it, and I don't understand. I think it's awesome."
Yes, it is awesome. We could have stood there all day and talked about how awesome it is.
But why were we suddenly talking about it now?
"You know the girl with one arm?" Shelley asked.
Ah, yes. There was a contestant this season named Sarah, who only had one arm. She tried to win the affections of the Bachelor. And in her unsuccessful bid to do so, she participated in whatever stunts the producers cooked up for her and the other girls, including, most frustratingly, a game of roller derby, in which Sarah's lack of balance prompted her to fall to the floor some untold number of times.
It was typical reality TV ridiculousness, but it was spiced with a genuine human-interest component.
And as strange and silly as it may sound, that's when it hit Duncan that all the events of the last year and a half have changed him.
"Usually I crack jokes left and right watching that show," he said. "But I felt really bad for that girl. She was born like that. She can't help it. I think I'm more sensitive to other people's problems that they go through where they have no control over it. I really understand, and I feel for it."
Duncan is still trying to come to grips with what happened to his mother and brother. So are the doctors treating them.
"They've never seen it in a mother and a son before," Duncan said. "They think you have a better chance of winning the Powerball twice than this happening to a mother and son."
Naturally, Duncan worries for both of them as they continue to undergo chemotherapy treatments. He also worries about whether his family is afflicted with some sort of genetic predisposition toward the disease -- specifically, whether it's something that would or could be passed down to his 8-month-old sons, Walker and William.
And with all these thoughts, all these emotions, all this newly discovered sensitivity coursing through his mind, you can see where Duncan might have learned to put baseball in proper context.
A player with more than four times as many plate appearances in the Minors than the Majors (including parts of six seasons in Triple-A) knows all about the business end of the game. So while Duncan is here in Rays camp, trying to latch on as a right-handed corner outfielder and first baseman who can do some damage against lefties and giving his all to earn the trust of Joe Maddon and Co., he tries not to fret too much about the organizational depth chart.
Rather, Duncan tries to simply appreciate this opportunity for what it is.
"I try to say it would be easy to walk away from the game, especially with everything that's going on in my family," Duncan said. "Just have fun and live life, do all the stuff you want to do. But Chris always says he would give absolutely anything in the world to have one more at-bat. When he says that, you start to appreciate the fun of the game a little more."
Indeed, baseball is a blessing, a diversion that Duncan has been fortunate enough to turn into a career, no matter how many promotions and demotions he's received or endured along the way. He's seen his father, Dave, the legendary Cardinals' pitching coach, step down from his duties to be by Jeanine's side, and he's seen Chris' career cut short by an array of injuries.
So Shelley knows that to be the last Duncan in pro ball is to have the others living vicariously through you.
"Tomorrow is promised to none of us," Chris said. "I let Shelley know how much he should appreciate baseball. To be able to go to work as a baseball player is something extremely special that I don't think you truly appreciate until you're out of the game."
Where once the relationship of these two brothers was defined by its competitiveness, now they are pulling for each other with the utmost intensity.
Shelley was at his brother's bedside throughout Chris' recovery from brain surgery last fall at Duke University's medical facility, and he is absolutely convincing when he says, "Chris is going to beat this thing. I really believe that."
Chris, back at work as a sports radio host for WXOS in St. Louis, dutifully follows Shelley's Spring Training games, hoping his brother will land a spot on the Opening Day roster.
"He's the last person in our family in baseball," Chris said. "We're all pulling for him to go as long as possible."
What a life-altering, love-affirming couple of years it's been for the Duncan family. Shelley is, frankly, still trying to process it all. But there are moments -- like that moment when he found himself sympathizing with, rather than laughing at, a reality TV contestant or those moments when he steps into the batter's box and tries to make good on this opportunity with Tampa Bay -- when he realizes how much it's all impacted him.
As for me, well, I feel a small amount of shame in admitting that I cave to the guilty pleasure that is "The Bachelor." But I feel absolutely no shame in saying that I'm rooting for Shelley Duncan this spring.