ST. LOUIS — Late summer. 2006. There I was at the Club Fitness in Florissant, and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. Chris Duncan was at the plate with runners on base, and if you knew anything back then about this slugger, excitement was going to take place whether he got a hit or not.
You see, Duncan was different. He swung the baseball bat like a lumberjack, never getting cheated and sometimes coming up empty. He wasn't a great outfielder, but he did whatever Tony La Russa asked him to do that summer. With more well-known stars and veterans on the team hurt, Duncan played the outfield and infield that year. He was an everyman. More than anything, he looked like an underdog out there. Like one of us.
That night, he hit a game-winning home run. A rocket out to right field that cleared the fence and knocked out the other team. When it left his bat, I screamed so loud that at least two people at the gym that night strained their back, and another probably wanted me to leave. I didn't care. This was back before the writing began when I was just a fan. I had a fever all summer and the only thing that could cure it was more Cardinal wins and some cowbell.
In just over 200 games between the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Duncan would hit 43 home runs, helping the Cardinals win a World Series and becoming a fan favorite. But Duncan's baseball career wouldn't last as long as expected, with injuries robbing him of longevity and bringing it to a halt in 2009. He would only play over 100 games in one season, but he hit 55 home runs and slugged .458 for his career. If he got a hold of it, it was gone.
After his playing career ended, Duncan found new life on the sports radio scene, teaming up with Anthony Stalter on a drive time sports show on 101.1 ESPN WXOS in St. Louis. I remember hearing Duncan join a show prior to getting his own, and bringing a knowledgeable yet friendly and relatable aspect to sports talk radio. You never felt as if he was talking down to you, and hearing him go back and forth with Stalter or a guest was entertaining. There's an argument to be made that he was better at the mic than he was at the plate, but he managed to never stray too far away from the game of baseball, something he loved and cherished.
If there's one thing Duncan has, it's fight and the will to defy people who say he can't do something. He is putting that to the test with his current fight against cancer. Years back, Duncan had a brain tumor, and he battled it and beat it. He fought off it last year as well. Recently, it has returned with a vengeance, and last night 101.1 ESPN announced he would be stepping away from station permanently to fight this disease.
You see, when it comes to cancer, it's simple. Cancer sucks and needs all the fight it can handle. It takes good people every day, and everybody has been affected. You can look in the mirror or to your left or right in a public place, and see someone who has lost a loved one to this ungrateful disease. If you need something that stands for the epitome of life's unfairness, it's cancer.
I'm going to pull for Duncan to beat it again, and it doesn't take a lot of effort to do so. Why? He's a good guy who lives his life with passion and grace, distributing his talents to anyone who happened to listen to him for the past decade. He entertained us for so long, and he needs us now.
When it comes to professional athletes, most seem like untouchable gods to the average fan. Duncan always seemed like one of us, an outsider trying to make it in a brutally tough league. The son of pitching coach legend, Dave Duncan, Chris had a steep hill to climb expectation wise, and you never lost sight of that as a fan. You pulled for him then, and you will do so now.
I love good stories and great people, and Duncan gives you both.
One more story before I leave. Oct. 2, 2005. Busch Stadium 2.0. Bottom of the fifth inning. Reggie Sanders had just hit a home run to tie the game against the Cincinnati Reds, 5-5. A tall lefty-swinging guy who looks like the lead singer in a heavy metal tribute band walks to the plate. In his last at-bat of the season, Chris Duncan hit a go-ahead home run to right field. A pinch-hit blast that gave the Cardinals their 100th win on the last game of the season, the final regular season game at Busch Stadium 2.0.
I was up behind the manual scoreboard watching it take place, and thought to myself, "look at this guy!" Duncan made his presence known in a hurry, and while the fun only lasted for a couple of years at the plate, he made a new life on the radio.
Still, I'll never forget that first swing from Duncan.
Take a moment today, and send some good vibes to the Duncan family. They are good people. They are true Cardinals for life. If you love Cardinals baseball, you love the Duncans.
I'm pulling for you, Chris Duncan. Let's do the unthinkable again.