Duncans rally for each other

Shelley Duncan homers Friday against the Jays.
Shelley Duncan homers Friday against the Jays.
Published March 2, 2013

DUNEDIN — Chris Duncan said he always has been inspired by his big brother, Shelley.

As the two sons of former catcher and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan, they grew up in big-league dugouts and clubhouses, learning from A's stars on their three consecutive World Series trips (1988-90). The Duncan boys both made the majors, winning a ring of their own with different teams, while playing the same positions (outfield and first base).

But Chris, 31, never had appreciated Shelley, 33, as much as he did this past October, when the new Rays outfielder stayed by his side for a month while he recovered from brain surgery to remove a tumor. With their mother, Jeanine, still recovering from a similar procedure the year before, Shelley helped Chris learn how to talk and walk again.

"It's pretty special to have a brother like that," Chris said, "that can be such a good teammate when I needed him more than ever."

Shelley said, "It almost didn't seem real" when Chris was diagnosed 14 months after their mother, but they're both in a good place now. Dave took a leave of absence from the Cardinals after the 2011 season to take care of Jeanine at their home in Missouri. Chris, who retired in 2009 after five seasons in St. Louis, is still there hosting a sports radio show.

Their improving health and repeated encouragement enabled Shelley to feel comfortable continuing his career on a minor-league deal with the Rays.

"They kind of want me to," Shelley said. "Sometimes you question it, but they say, 'Play!' Especially Chris. He's always said he'd give anything in the world to just have one more at-bat."

Shelley could get a big-league opportunity with the Rays. Manager Joe Maddon said the former Yankee is "going to have a positive impact on us this year." Whether that's opening day or later remains to be seen. But Shelley's right-handed bat and his ability to play first, both corner outfield spots and DH, fits the profile for a platoon against lefties. The role would look like Friday, when Duncan started at first and hit a tying homer in a 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays.

"I like his energy," Maddon said. "I like the fact he's played a bit and has a veteranship about him."

• • •

Maddon has known the Duncan family for nearly two decades, since he and Dave went on a monthlong trip to Europe in the mid 1990s to run baseball clinics in Amsterdam, London and Florence.

Shelley didn't go because of high school basketball games, but he followed his dad in his coaching stints with the White Sox, A's and Cardinals. He and Chris got tips from Rickey Henderson and sat in the stands for several World Series games, including Kirk Gibson's legendary homer for the Dodgers in 1988 off A's closer Dennis Eckersley.

"When he hit the home run, it was like disbelief," Shelley said. "But when you look back on it, it was like the coolest moment ever."

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Shelley, a former University of Arizona star, was drafted in the second round by the Yankees in 2001 but spent six years in the minors before earning a part-time role in pinstripes, including playing 11 games for their 2009 Series title team. He also played a role in the second part of the 2008 spring brawl with the Rays, sliding hard and feet high into second baseman Akinori Iwamura. Chris, a first-round pick by the Cardinals in 1999, had his career cut short by injuries but got to win a World Series with their dad in 2006. "Incredible," Chris said. "Like a dream."

• • •

Chris said it felt like a bad dream when he and his mom were diagnosed in back-to-back years, 2011-12. Jeanine's tumor was more advanced and in the part of the brain that controls motor skills, while Chris' impacted his speech. The family derived strength from each other, and while the surgeries removed most of the tumors, Chris and Jeanine continue to fight the rest with chemotherapy and treatment, returning to Duke University Medical Center every six weeks.

The whole experience put everything in perspective for Shelley, whose wife, Elyse, gave birth to twin boys (William and Walker) in July. He appreciates every moment and any opportunity he can get with the Rays.

Chris said if Shelley makes the team, he will fly in for opening day, admitting it'll be an emotional experience to see his older brother.

Quips Chris: "The last Duncan left."