In sickness and health, Duncans inspire one another
Brain-cancer battles of mother Jeanine and son Chris bring baseball family together
The average Major League game lasts nearly three hours, the majority of which is down time. The pitcher picks up the rosin bag, the hitter adjusts and readjusts his batting gloves, the vendors locate their next consumers of peanuts, the infielders swipe at the dirt with their cleats. All before the next pitch.
For Tampa Bay's Shelley Duncan, saddled with the knowledge that both his mother, Jeanine, and brother, former big leaguer Chris, are battling brain tumors, and that while he's playing baseball, his wife is left to take care of their eight-month-old twin boys, those recurring moments of inactivity feel like hours. He can't control the paths his mind opts to travel, whether he's in left field, alone in a sea of short green grass or sitting by himself in the dugout awaiting his next at-bat.
"When you have stuff going on in your life, it'll filter into your mind," Duncan said. "That stuff is always there."
It's a constant convolution of how life has come full circle for the Duncans, one of baseball's iconic families.
There were signs that something was amiss with Jeanine Duncan. For a few weeks, she'd had trouble with her vision and mobility. But with her husband and two sons fully immersed in the last two months of the regular season, she didn't want to be a bother. She was the lone female in the Duncan quartet; she knew how busy and focused her boys were. This wasn't the time to disturb them with a silly concern, she thought.
Then one day in August 2011, outside the family home beside Table Rock Lake in Kimberling City, Mo., she placed her foot on the gas pedal of her golf cart as she headed to retrieve the mail. The mailbox stood at the bottom of a hill; she drove the vehicle off the road and off the incline.
Neighbors rushed to the scene of the crash, and Jeanine called her husband, Dave, then the pitching coach for the Cardinals, who contacted the team physician. Jeanine was taken to the hospital, where she saw a neurologist, underwent an MRI and was swiftly diagnosed with glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor.
Her maternal instincts kicked in. She immediately thought about Shelley and Chris, the prototypical brothers, separated by two years, whose relationship is ripe with petty fights, competition and tough love.
"'What's it going to be like for them?'" Jeanine recalled thinking. "'I still want to be their mother. I don't want them to lose their mother. They're too young.'"
Those fears were momentarily hushed when the entire family spent the night at the hospital as she underwent surgery to remove the mass in her brain. Chris, the younger of the boys, and his wife, Amy, picked up Shelley and his wife, Elyse, from the airport, and they all joined Dave on an assembly of cots.
"It was bonding and warming and comforting to me," Jeanine said. "They helped me get through it. They were really my strength."
Fourteen months later, doctors diagnosed Chris with a similar form of glioblastoma. That was a blow for which Jeanine wasn't prepared, a painstaking kick to the gut she still can't fathom.
"That just knocked me out of my socks," she said, her voice quivering. "It was really hard, because I knew what lie ahead for him."
Shelley Duncan didn't need a GPS to navigate the two-hour drive along I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, home to the Indians' Triple-A affiliate. He spent much of the summer of 2011 bouncing between the two cities like a pinball.
On Aug. 19, he was recalled from the Clippers as the Tribe embarked on a three-game trip to Detroit. Upon joining his teammates in the Motor City, he learned the news about his mom.
The Indians placed him on the bereavement list, and he left the team for a few days.
Shelley struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis. It wasn't grief or shock or panic he was feeling -- those emotions would eventually arrive, too. First, he worried about the thoughts funneling into his mother's mind, the perilous worst-case scenarios she could be pondering.
When he roamed the outfield, that distress dominated his conscience. It was when he stepped into the batter's box, however, that he found solace.
"The cool thing about baseball is how much it means to people," Shelley said. "The importance of coming back was to give Mom something to think about besides what's going on in her life. She got to watch me, and that gave her something to get away from her problems."
Shelley rejoined Cleveland's lineup on Aug. 23, and in his first game back, he tallied two doubles and two runs scored. The next day, he collected a season-high three hits. On Sept. 4, he clubbed two home runs and drove in a career-high five runs. Three days later, he launched a pair of Justin Verlander fastballs into the left-field bleachers during a three-hit, three-run, four-RBI performance.
"It wasn't as valuable and important to me as it was to her," Shelley said. "That's what made me push myself to do more."
His production still gives his mother joy, even a year and a half into her battle. When Shelley hit an RBI single for the Rays during a Grapefruit League game on Feb. 26, Jeanine celebrated like she did when Dave and Chris won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2006.
"He is such a good distraction for me," Jeanine said.
Shelley has plenty of distractions himself. Not only does he have endless concern about his mother and brother, his wife gave birth to twin boys, Walker and William, last July. Jeanine, who raised her sons while her husband coached in the Majors, calls it "payback."
"I'm still trying to figure out [parenting]," Shelley said, laughing. "I'm getting better every single day."
Shelley, 33, hasn't always stuck on a Major League roster -- he has never played more than 85 games in a season at the big league level. He has worked for every opportunity he has been awarded, having logged more than 4,000 plate appearances in the Minors.
He has come to accept that he might only be granted a reserve role with Tampa Bay, if he wins a roster spot at all.
That's OK with him, he says, as he understands that he needs to divert much of his attention to loved ones, new and old. That might be plenty to juggle, but his ability to do it doesn't faze his mom.
"I'm really impressed with him," Jeanine said. "But if you look at his career, he's been that way. He's that kind of player. He hangs in there."
Chris Duncan wonders how long his mother was displaying signs of illness before the accident. Mental slip-ups or struggles to walk didn't trigger alarms at the time but now can be explained.
After watching his mother's trials, Chris learned not to downplay any health woes. He initially blamed the taste of metal in his mouth, the 10-second seizures and the numbness in his mouth and arm on neck surgery he'd undergone in 2008. But this past October, when those same symptoms prevented him from answering a question on-air from his radio partner, D'Marco Farr, he knew he needed to visit a doctor.
"[Farr] was looking at me like, 'Why aren't you talking?'" Chris said. "And I went, like, five, six, seven seconds when I couldn't talk. Because of what my mom went through, I thought it would be a good idea to get my head checked out."
He underwent an MRI two days later. He figured he'd go home and the staff would update him later in the week. Instead, the doctor, who Chris said "had this crazy look on his face," wouldn't let him leave. Another doctor rushed into the hospital in street clothes and delivered the diagnosis.
"He came in and said, 'You have a tumor just like your mom,'" Chris said.
David Pratt, one of the owners of the Cardinals, provided a private plane for the Duncan family to fly to Duke University, where Chris underwent surgery about a week later. Chris chose the same doctor his mother had selected, Dr. Henry S. Friedman, whom Jeanine calls her "rock-star brain surgeon."
"When it happened to her, we all freaked out," Chris said. "We're looking online, talking to every doctor, trying to make decisions. We didn't know what to do. When it happened to me, there wasn't that same panic. I knew the hand I was dealt."
He may have felt that way, but his family certainly agonized.
"It's still hard to believe, even today," Dave said.
Chris pushed through six weeks of daily radiation and chemotherapy. He leans on his mother for advice, and she leans on him for his spirit. He opts to block out the countless possibilities pertaining to his health. He acknowledged -- but dismissed -- the doctor's pre-surgery warning that he might never talk again or that he might have mobility problems on his right side.
For four months, Chris did one radio bit per day, a 10-to-15-minute phone conversation from his home, before returning to the studio for his four-hour weekday show about a month ago. He undergoes chemo for five consecutive days once each month, and he works out up to five times a week. Only once has he skipped work because he wasn't feeling up to par.
"He's really my inspiration," Jeanine said. "I tell him that all the time. To be so young and to be going through what he's going through -- he never has a pity party. He rarely has a bad day."
The Coach Turned Caretaker
For parts of five decades, Dave Duncan dwelled in Major League clubhouses. From 1964-76, he caught for the Athletics, Indians and Orioles. His coaching career took him from Cleveland to Seattle to Chicago to Oakland until he finally settled in St. Louis in 1996 with longtime friend, teammate and coaching companion Tony La Russa.
Dave made it a priority to call or videoconference his sons and wife every day, especially once the boys started playing high school baseball. The trio joined Dave when school let out for the summer, but Dave admits he missed a significant portion of his sons' lives.
"It was tough when the kids were in high school, because they were involved in a lot of sports and activities that I didn't get to watch," Dave said. "That was difficult."
When Jeanine was diagnosed, Dave's decision to step away from baseball wasn't even up for debate, no matter how much his wife pleaded with him to remain with the Cardinals.
Jeanine couldn't picture her husband away from a Major League clubhouse. That's where she would wait for the team when it returned from road trips.
"She was kind of like the team mom," said Indians closer Chris Perez, who played with Chris and was coached by Dave in St. Louis, and played with Shelley in Cleveland. "Jeanine was always there waiting for us."
Dave had been contemplating retirement for a few years, and when his wife fell ill, the choice was made for him.
"There was no discussion," Dave said. "That's what I had to do. There was no doubt about it."
Before he could call it a career, though, his family urged him to complete the 2011 campaign. Chris and Amy volunteered to care for Jeanine until the conclusion of the season. And as fate would have it, the Cardinals captured the World Series crown, and the entire family -- both sons, their wives and Jeanine -- watched the decisive Game 7 from the stands at Busch Stadium.
"It almost felt like it was meant to be," Chris said. "It was crazy."
Now the man who joined the Athletics organization as a 17-year-old and stayed involved in professional baseball for nearly a half-century plays the role of caretaker for his wife, who willingly occupied that role for their children all those years.
Dave drives Jeanine to her doctor appointments. He plays Scrabble with her. He even cooks for her, and according to Jeanine, "is a great chef."
"He's got the Crock-Pot down perfect," she said.
Dave takes Jeanine to Duke once every two months so she can undergo an MRI and a checkup. He takes her to her weekly treatment and her biweekly chemotherapy sessions.
He also keeps busy browsing the box scores in the newspaper each day. She keeps busy riding an exercise bike, doing crunches and leg lifts, listening to Chris' radio show and watching Shelley's games.
As time has elapsed, the Duncans have been together and apart, on different sides of the country and all under one roof. But they've learned one thing: Those thoughts that creep into their minds during the downtime -- whether between pitches, in a hospital waiting or on a commercial break from a radio show -- tend to reveal what is most important.
Said Jeanine: "We're just each other's rocks."