Chris Duncan’s tragic fate was inevitable despite his excruciatingly fierce efforts to survive an invasive attack of brain cancer. But the news of Dunc’s death was stunning, numbing and heartbreaking.
And another word applies: cruel. It wasn’t just that this big, brawny, bustling and brave man died too young at age 38. That reality, alone, causes the soul to ache for anyone that loved him, knew him, or enjoyed his baseball and broadcasting career from afar.
The pain runs deep among Dunc’s family, friends, teammates and fans. But for Chris to lose his life to the same form of brain tumor that took his beloved mother Jeanine in 2013 … well, damn it. That’s terribly unfair. The anguish of the doubly devastating blow endured by his father Dave Duncan, brother Shelley and wife Amy is unimaginable.
Chris Duncan was understandably rocked and shaken by the diagnosis back in the autumn of 2012. At times he cursed and vented his anger — just as we all would do under the same set of vile circumstances. Dunc didn’t win this battle, but he never lost the tenacity that carried him through a barbarous struggle.
The stress never owned Chris Duncan. Never took away his resolve. Never filled him with self-pity; that wasn’t a part of his DNA.
He was a Duncan, after all.
And this family has an abundance of character and strength. When backed into a tough spot, with hope running low, and the adversity roiling all around, the ONLY reaction by a Duncan is to dig in, and fight like hell.
Dunc handled his brutal crisis — one that no human deserves — with equal doses of courage and grace that left us inspired and humbled.
A quick story …
Working as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch, I arrived atBusch Stadium extra early one Sunday morning for a day game in July, 2013.
The press box was empty. And Duncan — always prepared — was assigned to work the pregame and postgame shows Fox Sports Midwest. He sat in the seat next to me. When I asked him how he was coping with everything, Duncan began talking … he was calm, poised, thoughtful, pragmatic, realistic and 100 percent candid.
Chris told me, straight-up, that he wouldn’t survive this cancer. Please don’t misunderstand what I just typed right there; he hadn’t given up, he wasn’t about to surrender, and he had no intention of leaving this world a moment too early.
That said, Chris knew what he was up against. After undergoing comprehensive testing and frank discussions with the brilliant oncologists at Duke University hospital in North Carolina, the rules of engagement were set: Chris Duncan vs. cancer and an almost certain outcome. But he was ready for the conflict.
Duncan quietly analyzed his probabilities. He told me that his goal was to beat the odds — even if he couldn’t defeat the cancer.
The doctors had given him a sliding timetable. If new, advanced treatments worked as hoped he’d be able to survive this for ‘X’ number of years. If the treatments brought disappointing results, then his life expectancy would be much shorter. Duncan accepted the truth, but vowed to push back against it.
Fumbling for anything of substance to offer at that point — heck, I didn’t want to start bawling in front of him — I stammered something about how he’d make history by whipping this insidious disease … and that one day his name would be all over the medical journals as a successful example of how the advanced treatments would greatly extend the lives of those afflicted with the ravages of brain cancer. (Except that my delivery of that message was rambling and weak.)
Duncan gave me a break by making me laugh. His sense of humor was always there, always rich. Even during the most trying of hard times.
“I hope you’re right,” Dunc said that day. “But here’s the situation. I’m looking at an 0-2 count. And I’m staring at combination of Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw. All I can do is hang in there, and keep fouling off pitches.”
I replied: hey, those guys lost games. Three of the greatest lefthanders in baseball history — but they weren’t undefeated.
Said Duncan, a lefthanded batter in his playing days: “Yeah, but I suck against lefties. I’ll just foul off those 0-2 pitches for as long as I can.”
And he did.
Duncan defied the expectations. He outlived the dire forecasts. He outlasted the cancer for nearly seven years. He kept swinging. His fortitude was remarkable.
And if the frustration of the ordeal occasionally got to him, he flicked it off, set his feet, and took his big cuts. Swinging until the end.
Both of our moms died merely days apart, in the first week of June, 2013. I had a wonderful relationship with his mother, Jeanine. We were email buddies. Near the end of her life, I got a call from Dave Duncan — the best pitching coach in MLB history — asking if I’d consider writing a column after her passing. This request was immensely moving; I get emotional thinking about it to this day.
Absolutely, I would be honored to write about Jeanine Duncan. But then … my mother, Betty Lee, died suddenly on June 1. I was interviewing Shelby Miller on a Saturday afternoon, after the first game of a day-night doubleheader, when by brother called with the devastating news.
The Duncans didn’t know. So several days later, when Dave reached out about writing a tribute to Jeanine, I told him about my mother and apologized. I wouldn’t be able to write the column. My mother’s passing — and all of the arrangements and planning and financial matters to take care of — knocked me out of the writing game. I was in Maryland, dealing with it all, and didn’t even bring a laptop.
Dave Duncan understood. He expressed his condolences for my loss. But I still felt awful; I had broken a promise to Dave. Joe Strauss wrote a lovely column about Jeanine, better than anything I could have presented. But I still felt bad about not coming through for Dave, and Chris, and Shelley.
And then, a day or two later …
From Chris Duncan.
He cheered me up.
And I have to say this: even though we were teammates at 101ESPN, and had become friends, there was a time when I ranked at the bottom of Dunc’s list of favorite sportswriters — and at the top of the list of his least favorite scribes. When he played for the Cardinals, we had some typical tussles, some misunderstandings. It happens.
Years later, while dealing with his own grief, Chris took the time to boost my morale at at a depressing stage of my life.
Yeah. That was Chris. That’s all you need to know about him.
Dunc’s mother had died of the cancer that now had turned its unrelenting wrath on him.
And he called to provide comfort to a buddy, and talk about our blessing to have such special moms.
That’s Chris Duncan to me.
That always will be Chris Duncan to me.
The cancer ultimately weakened Chris physically, but couldn’t reduce his defiance, his determination, his warrior core.
And it could not lessen his compassion.
It could not weaken his love for others in his life.
In need of mercy, he gave mercy to others instead.
Dunc may have been given three years, maybe a little more, to survive. But his intensity stretched into five years, then six, and into seven. And he reinforced that intensity with love.
And no doubt, Dunc loved his life. He was a World Series champion; the 2006 Cardinals wouldn’t have won the World Series without his power source, especially. He was a rising-star broadcaster for 101ESPN, and FSN Midwest — a natural who worked extremely hard to reaffirm his presence as an emerging talent in the studio.
But there was much more to this boisterous, frolicsome, giant of a man.
He was a great son, and brother, and husband. A loyal teammate in multiple fields. A generous friend. He was an ideal role model for those that have been hit with waves and blasts of virulent misery and woe.
Dunc never cowered. He stood tall, taller than anyone, until it was time to come to peace with his fate, and rest.
Let’s raise a glass to him … preferably a ‘Man Soda,’ one his all-time best slang expressions for drinking an ice-cold beer.
I’m searching for the right words here, something that can sum up my feelings, and the emotions of Dunc’s teammates here at our radio station.
And I remember Bruce Springsteen’s words in eulogizing his late sax man and dear friend, Clarence Clemons.
“Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies,” Springsteen said. “He leaves when we die.”
We’ve lost Chris Duncan, but he’ll never really leave us.