No, not a blue pill confession. It’s great stuff from Chad Jennings on the one time Yankees prospect -
After 10 years and nearly 4,000 minor-league at-bats, the man who might have been playing third base for the Yankees was instead reading through an English syllabus. It outlined a semester of scheduled readings, told him when he’d take a midterm and set a date for his final exam. Eric Duncan saw it as a gift. Or maybe it was more like a promise.
“If I do my readings, take notes and study, I’m going to do well,” Duncan said. “For so long, I would stay in shape, I would do my early work, I would do my homework on the pitcher, I would have a plan; and then either you get outside yourself, or you do everything right and you pop it up or you line out. Doing everything right and not being rewarded for it — even though I think that’s what makes baseball so great — was very difficult for me to deal with.”
Now 28 years old, Duncan is a second-semester freshman and volunteer baseball coach at Seton Hall University. He took his first class in the fall, a little more than a month after his abrupt retirement. He never had a big-league at-bat.
At 18, Duncan was a first-round draft pick. He was touted for his power and praised for his work ethic. The Yankees thought his left-handed bat would be perfect in the Bronx.
“You love him, you’re happy you got him, and as soon as you sign the guy, you think, boy, I hope he plays well,” Yankees vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said.
But a baseball contract offers no promises. Not for the organization. Not for the player.
Duncan’s quiet journey was not unusual. It is simply an untold truth in a game that celebrates only an extraordinary few.
“There are so many people that make us into characters,” said Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Shelley Duncan, Eric Duncan’s longtime minor-league teammate. “They look at us as numbers, fantasy objects. They have certain expectations of guys. They don’t understand what it takes, as a man, to go through the whole process.
“Every single day, it’s a character test.”
The home runs were going into the second deck. That’s what Cesar Presbott remembers. He had been a Yankees scout for more than two decades, had seen Eric Duncan play at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey and had sat in the Duncan family home.
A 2003 pre-draft workout at Yankee Stadium was simply an exclamation point in Presbott’s scouting report.
“Eric Duncan at that time was the most exciting position guy that anybody could see,” Presbott said. “You don’t find a kid who’s so prepared, so mature. …
“He was my gut-feeling guy. He was the guy that I wanted to pull the trigger (on) all the time. He was my No. 1.”
When Baseball America previewed the 2003 draft, it wrote that Duncan “reminds scouts of Chipper Jones at the same stage of his development.” But when Presbott saw Duncan again — this time with his career stalled in Triple-A — the exclamation points had curled into question marks.
“I saw the weaknesses that he wasn’t showing (in high school),” Presbott said. “One of the things was a little bit of confidence, like something was haunting him.”
Duncan’s ghosts were in his box scores. From spring training 2006 to the end of his Yankees contract in 2009, he went from being the organization’s top position prospect to no longer getting everyday at-bats in the minors. The Yankees kept him in Triple-A for three full seasons while his batting average and power numbers dwindled.
“He had flashes of it, and he would do well,” said Cleveland Indians outfielder Matt Carson, a former teammate. “He would try to do more instead of just riding that wave. … It was almost like he was tripping himself up because of his own desire.”
I just knew that he would end up coaching somewhere. Hopefully it becomes a paying gig for him soon.