Duncan not wasting opportunity with Indians
Spring shaping up to be important as slugger eyes regular role
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Shelley Duncan got up from his seat and headed a few lockers down inside the Indians clubhouse. When he reached Maxwell Perez, the big Indians outfielder bent down, and with his left hand on a knee, he extended his other paw.
"Hi, Max," he said with a wide smile. "I'm Shelley Duncan."
Maxwell, the 18-month-old son of Cleveland closer Chris Perez, froze with a baseball clutched in his hands, and quickly moved back toward his dad. Duncan laughed and headed on his way. He also couldn't help but think back to his days as a youngster going through childhood within a Major League clubhouse.
With his father working as a pitching coach, Duncan and his younger brother Chris grew up surrounded by big leaguers. Being around ballplayers was not a luxury -- it was just their way of life. They did not know anything else, so it hardly seems a surprise that both Duncan brothers climbed to the Majors as players in their own time.
"We were very fortunate," Shelley Duncan said.
As normal as this way of life is for Duncan, though, the past year has presented him with experiences that have been both trying and rewarding. Off the field, his family has dealt with the serious health woes of his mother, Jeanine, and the expected arrival of twin boys for his wife, Elyse. On the diamond this spring, Duncan is trying to win an everyday role for the first time in his career.
In many ways, this baseball season and the entire year ahead represent an important chapter for the Duncan family.
"Everyone is really happy and in a good frame of mind right now," Duncan said. "I feel like we're as close as ever as a family."
Last week, Duncan's parents made the journey from their home in Kimberling City, Mo., to Arizona to spend time with Shelley and his wife.
For Dave Duncan -- a big leaguer for 11 seasons and a longtime pitching coach -- it marked the first time since 1962 that he was not in a baseball uniform during Spring Training. He is on a leave of absence from his post with the Cardinals to help care for Jeanine, who has enjoyed much improvement since her August surgery to remove a brain tumor.
"She's doing good," Dave Duncan said during a stop to the Indians complex to watch a morning workout. "She's responding to the treatment that she's getting. The doctors are very encouraged with the results that we're getting. It's a very positive situation for us."
The trip, which lasted about a week, allowed Dave Duncan to watch Shelley play a professional baseball game for the first time. And it also gave Jeanine an opportunity to go shopping for baby items with her daughter-in-law.
"It was really neat," Shelley Duncan said.
Securing a starting role with Cleveland would make this spring even more memorable for him.
Dave is also thrilled to see his son get that chance.
"He loves Cleveland, and I loved it when I was there," said Dave Duncan, who was a catcher for the Indians from 1973-74. "He's getting a little bit more of an opportunity to play and that excites him. He's always keyed up. He's always fired up to play. It's a situation that he likes a lot, so it makes me happy."
Throughout his big league career, the 32-year-old Duncan has been labeled as a solid clubhouse guy capable of providing a good right-handed bat off the bench. That has been his role with the Indians over the past two years, during which he has served as a part-time first baseman, left fielder and designated hitter.
Now Cleveland has an opening in left field, and Duncan is doing everything in his power to win that job. During Thursday's 9-4 Cactus League victory over the Padres, Duncan came off the bench and blasted a two-run home run. That marked his team-leading fifth blast of Spring Training, continuing a trend that began in September.
Duncan -- shuttled back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A last season -- received an opportunity to play on a regular basis after injuries plagued the Tribe's outfield down the stretch. He responded by hitting .265 with seven homers, seven doubles and 23 RBIs in 26 games in the final month.
That showing helped Duncan earn a spot on the Opening Day roster at the least.
"The main thing is he has a job here, which he hasn't had in the past," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "We're very happy with what he's done and he continues to improve as a hitter and mature. ... But we have to evaluate everybody in camp and make a decision at the end."
One thing the Indians know is that Duncan would quietly accept his role as a bench player, if that is what Cleveland decided to hand him at the end of camp. Dave Duncan believes that kind of attitude and maturity stem from Shelley's background.
Dave Duncan said his sons both learned the right way to conduct themselves by being around the big leagues as kids, especially during his time as pitching coach for the Oakland A's in the late 1980s and early '90s.
"I I think he saw the way things should be in a Major League clubhouse," Dave Duncan said. "He learned from that. I've always reinforced those actions and behaviors and I think he understands the value of it."
Of course, they learned some other things along the way, too.
"I remember being 4 or 5 years old and guys swearing in the clubhouse," Shelley Duncan said. "They'd tell my dad, 'Sorry.' My dad would be like, 'Hey, don't be sorry. He's got to learn those words some time.'"
Asked who was the bigger troublemaker -- him or his younger brother Chris -- Duncan cracked a smile.
"Both of us," he said. "Chris got sent off to military school in eighth grade and I got suspended and expelled from schools a couple times. We were both about as bad as it gets. We gave our mom [grief]. We've got a lot of funny stories, and a lot of funny stories that affected my dad's checkbook, too."
Duncan did not delve into details.
He did tell of how Tony La Russa -- the longtime manager and working partner with Dave Duncan -- often gave Shelley and Chris free reign of stadium clubhouses and facilities. That included letting the boys hang out in the manager's office after games, when closed-door discussions are often held.
There was the time La Russa, Dave Duncan and Sandy Alderson -- then the general manager of the A's -- started chatting about a blockbuster trade.
"Sandy was talking to Tony," Duncan recalled. "He said, 'Hey, there's a chance that we can trade for Rickey Henderson.' They were talking about the parameters of the trade."
Henderson was indeed shipped to Oakland by the Yankees in June 1989.
"We would always just hang out in those meetings," Duncan said, "and listen to those guys talk about the game and how people played. I think that's how we were taught, just sitting in the office after the games."
That is one reason why Duncan stops to say hello when his Indians teammates bring their boys -- like Maxwell Perez -- into the clubhouse.
"When I see other kids coming up and getting that chance," Duncan said, "it brings back memories."