Obituary: Chris Duncan (1981-2019)

RIP to Chris Duncan, a first baseman/outfielder who was part of the 2006 World Champion Cardinals team. After his retirement as a player, he became a popular radio host in St. Louis. He died on September 7 at the age of 38, after battling a type of brain cancer. He was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2012 but was able to return to his radio job after surgery and treatment. He announced that the tumor had returned in 2018 and took a leave of absence before stepping away permanently from his job in 2019 to focus on his health. Duncan played with the Cardinals from 2005-09.

“The Cardinals are deeply saddened by the passing of Chris Duncan and extend our heartfelt sympathy to his wife, Amy, the entire Duncan family, and his many friends,” said Cardinals chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. in a statement. “Chris was an integral part of our 2006 championship team and a great teammate and friend to many in the organization.”

Chris Duncan was born in Tucson, Ariz., on May 5, 1981. He came from a baseball-centric family. His father Dave had an 11-year career in the majors as a catcher and was a well-respected pitching coach after his playing days. Brother Shelley Duncan played in the American League for seven years. Chris made a name for himself as a slugger while playing at Canyon del Oro High School in Arizona. He hit 11 home runs in his senior year in 1999, nearly breaking the Tucson city record, which was set by big brother Shelley in 1997. He was set to follow Shelley to the University of Arizona when the Cardinals drafted him in the 1st Round of the 1999 June Amateur Draft. He was the 46th overall player taken in the draft, as a compensation pick the Cardinals received for the free agency loss of Delino DeShields.

Chris Duncan was already known in St. Louis, or at least his last name was. His father was the Cardinals pitching coach, which gave Chris the chance to work out with the big-league club prior to the draft.

“Everybody knows him — and that’s real important,” the elder Duncan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The people at the big-league level know him, of course, and he’s been exposed to some of the people at the minor-league level.”

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 14, 2006.

“I’m glad it worked out this way. The Cardinals organization is one of the best organizations in the league,” Chris said at the time.

The family connection would become a mixed blessing at times. Duncan had a slow rise in the minor leagues, and maybe the team was a little more patient with him than other prospects because of family ties. Certainly, whenever he struggled in the majors, critics hurled charges of nepotism. Still, his draft pick was well earned. Duncan, at 18, was 6’5″ with obvious power, as evidenced by his high school accomplishments. Once he made the majors, his heroics helped get the Cardinals into the postseason, not his last name.

Duncan hit just .214 in a half-season with the Rookie League Johnson City Cardinals in 1999, but his 6 home runs were second-best on the team. He brought his average up to .256 with the Peoria Chiefs in 2000 and hit 16 homers for the Chiefs in 2002. He also hit Quad Cities catcher Joe Mauer hard enough to jar the ball loose in a game on May 10, 2002. Duncan was hit in the back in his next at-bat, sparking a brawl that, unlike most baseball fights, led to actual injuries. Duncan himself suffered a broken nose when he was hit in the face with a thrown helmet.

He rose steadily through the ranks, spending a full season with the AAA Memphis Redbirds in 2005. His 21 long balls led the team, and he hit a respectable .265. He was among the rookies who earned a promotion to the majors in September.

Duncan got 2 hits in 10 at-bats that September, and both hits went for extra bases. His first hit was a 2-RBI double off the Brewers’ Dana Eveland on September 24, and the second was a pinch homer off the Reds’ Brandon Claussen on October 2. That blast gave Dave Duncan two reasons to celebrate that day. For one, his son’s homer broke a 5-5 tie and gave the team a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish, for its 100th win of the season. For another, the Cardinals won their first ERA title since 1969, with a team total of 3.49.

“He had a big grin on his face when I came in [the dugout],” Chris said of his father. “It was pretty neat. It was a rush.”

That home run happened to be the last regular-season homer ever hit at the old Busch Stadium, which was replaced by a brand new Busch in 2006.

Duncan spent the offseason in the Arizona Fall League learning to play the outfield. First base was pretty well occupied by Albert Pujols, but the presumed retirement of right fielder Larry Walker created an opportunity for Duncan to stick in the majors in 2006. He started the year in AAA again, but he came back to the big-league club when they needed him the most.

Duncan didn’t exactly set the world on fire in AAA that year, and he struggled in the majors early on when he was recalled, but when he clicked, he became one of the team’s hottest hitters. Injuries had left the Cardinals without any good options in left field or the #2 spot in the batting order, and Duncan filled them both. He homered in three straight games three different times in the season, including one in each of a 3-game series against the Cubs on August 18-20. That performance against Chicago raised his batting average to .345. It eventually dropped to a still-excellent .293. In 90 games with St. Louis, he hit 22 homers with 43 RBIs and walked 30 times, showing more plate discipline than he’d previously displayed in the minors. He was the August 2006 Rookie of the Month after slashing .361/.438/.747 with 9 homers and 14 RBIs. His fielding in the outfield was… rough. But he provided the offensive spark that helped propel the Cardinals into the postseason.

The Cardinals defeated the Tigers in the 2006 World Series 4 games to 1. Duncan struggled in the postseason, with 3 hits in 22 at-bats. He did homer against the Mets’ Pedro Feliciano in Game Five of the NLCS, adding an insurance run in a 4-2 win.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 29, 2006.

Duncan worked hard to become a better outfielder in 2007, which was quite a challenge for someone who had never been taught to play the position. “When you go to a new position you’re starting over,” he explained in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in Spring Training. “It’s harder to be comfortable out there.”

Duncan played 99 games in left field in 2007 and committed just 2 errors for a .988 fielding percentage. Yes, his range was below average, but he was probably one of the larger left fielders in the game. More importantly, he proved his rookie season wasn’t a fluke, hitting 21 home runs and driving in 70 runs while playing in 127 games. His season ended a few weeks early due to a sports hernia and injuries to both sides of his groin. He blamed it on training too hard with his brother in the offseason. They tried to work out together, but they got so competitive that they had to eventually go to the gym separately. Shelley’s season came to an early end with a sports hernia as well.

Duncan struggled to regain his power stroke in 2008 and was demoted to the minors at the end of May when he was hitting .252 with 4 home runs and 16 RBIs. Further medical reports revealed more serious problems that were causing pain and numbness on his right side. That August, he underwent surgery to have a herniated disc from his lower neck removed and replaced with a metal and plastic prosthetic. He was believed to be the first athlete in the United States to undergo that particular procedure.

Duncan came back to the Cardinals in 2009, but his average dipped to a career-low .227, and the power from his first two seasons did not return. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in late July for infielder Julio Lugo and was optioned to AAA Pawtucket. He failed to hit .200 there or in Syracuse in 2010, in the Washington Nationals organization. At that point, he traded in his career in baseball for one in radio.

For his five seasons with the Cardinals, Duncan slashed .257/.348/.458. Of his 295 career hits, he hit 55 doubles, 5 triples and 55 home runs. He had 175 RBIs and a lifetime OPS+ of 109, making him an above-average player for his career, even after injuries cost him his power swing.

Duncan started as a contributor to WXOS/101.1 FM and then was promoted to co-host of the top-rated local sports show in St. Louis. According to this article by Derrick Goold, he became popular for his analysis and his sense of humor, including his reference to beer as “man soda.”

Duncan blossomed in his role as a radio analyst, even if it was tempered by a family tragedy. His mother, Jeanine, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2011, and Dave Duncan took a leave of absence from the Cardinals for much of the season to care for her. She died from the cancer in 2013, a year after Chris Duncan was given his own diagnosis.

After his cancer diagnosis in 2012, Duncan underwent surgery that included removing parts of his skull. It was a lengthy, six-hour surgery, because the tumor was in a part of the brain that controls speech. Duncan was awake and talking the entire time, to ensure that the surgery wasn’t adversely affecting his speech abilities. Doctors were able to remove 95 percent of the tumor, including a portion that was Stage IV. Duncan eventually returned to the air for the next five years before revealing in 2018 that a tumor on the left side of his brain had returned. He moved to Arizona earlier this year to be closer to his father and brother.

Anthony Stalter, Duncan’s co-host on their talk show “The Turn,” commended his transition to radio after his playing days. Unlike other athletes who think their background automatically qualifies them to talk sports, Duncan used the same work ethic he developed in his playing days.

“Just like Papa Dunc had his notebooks as a pitching coach, Dunc wrote everything out in freehand, and he had tons of notebooks filled with thoughts on the Cardinals that he would bring to the airwaves,” Stalter said earlier this year. He also noted that Duncan wasn’t afraid to be self-deprecating and joke about his flaws.

“We’re all self-conscious to some degree, but Dunc allowed himself to be vulnerable and, in turn, the audience showed great appreciation for his humility,” said Stalter

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