Bulls Duncan finally heads to St. Louis for mother’s funeral
A baseball man to his core, Shelley Duncan soldiered on with the Durham Bulls for the past seven days.
Today, he takes a break to help heal his soul and his broken heart.
On June 6, 64-year-old Jeanine Duncan died after a battle against brain cancer that lasted just short of two years.
Her oldest son, 33-year-old Shelley Duncan, was with the Bulls on a road trip to Indianapolis when he learned his mother was gone. Basic human instinct told him to head home to Missouri to be with his father and younger brother.
But his dad, former major league catcher and recently retired pitching coach Dave Duncan, had other instructions. Shelley Duncan would stay with the Bulls, where he plays outfield and designated hitter, for a few more days.
After Thursday night’s 10-7 win over Indianapolis at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Shelley Duncan dressed at his locker ahead of a Friday flight to St. Louis for today’s funeral services. He said not being with his family at such a difficult time was hard.
“I wish I could,” Shelley Duncan said. “There is nothing more (important) right now than wanting to be with my family. But growing up and being in a baseball family, you kind of do what Dad tells you to do. Dad told me to stay here and play until he needs me and go back home.”
That time finally arrived Friday, and Duncan will miss three Bulls games this weekend. His plan is to return Monday in time for at 7:05 p.m. game with Louisville at the DBAP.
Today, he will be at his mother’s funeral at Cathedral Basillica in St. Louis, the family’s adopted home city. Dave Duncan was the St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach from 1996 until he stepped aside after the team’s 2011 World Series win to tend to his ailing wife.
Chris Duncan, Shelley’s 32-year-old brother, played for the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series championship team before a neck injury prematurely ended his career.
While St. Louis brings warm memories of good friends and baseball success, Durham also rates highly in Shelley Duncan’s heart.
When Jeanine was diagnosed with brain cancer in August 2011, she went to Duke University Medical Center to receive treatment from world-renowned neurologist Dr. Henry S. Friedman at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center.
Dave Duncan took a leave of absence from the Cardinals. Chris and Shelley joined him as the family rallied around Janine at Duke. When not sleeping at the hospital on a bevy of cots, they stayed at the Washington Duke Inn, often dining at the Inn’s Bull Durham Bar.
She returned to Duke periodically for follow-up appointments, never traveling alone.
This past October, while Janine overcame odds that would see her live 22 months with the disease, the family focused on Duke again. In a rare, cruel twist of fate, Chris Duncan also was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was treated at Duke and has recovered well enough to resume his second career as a sports talk host in St. Louis.
Having played in the Major Leagues with the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians before joining the Tampa Bay Rays this season, Shelley Duncan now finds himself playing for the Bulls.
He carried good feelings about Durham before donning the Bulls uniform.
“You know, it’s funny, being down here at Duke with both of them and still having really warm feelings about the place,” Shelley Duncan said. “Sometimes you have, like, bad feelings about places and they haunt you, you know? But this place, I have really warm feelings.
“Whenever we came here for the visits, we spent really good time together. I like this city a lot. I really do.”
Coincidence or not, Shelley Duncan’s on-field play has stumbled a bit since his mother’s death. He collected just four hits in 25 at-bats on the road trip through Indianapolis and Louisville.
On Thursday night, he was 1-for-4 with a single and a walk in his return to Durham.
Despite those results, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo respects how Duncan is handling a difficult situation.
“It’s tough to imagine what he is going through,” Montoyo said. “He wants to play, and he’s playing hard. He’s struggling a little bit, but he’s not using that as an excuse. This kid is great. I’m enjoying it so far managing this kid.”
Shelley Duncan characterized his slump, which has dropped his average to .239, as just a part of baseball. He talked about just missing on pitches to hit a few times and hitting into bad luck on others.
“That happens,” he said. “I have a heavy heart right now. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not.”
This weekend, though, baseball takes a back seat to family for the Duncans. Today, they will celebrate Jeanine Duncan’s life while mourning a life cut short.