The LoHud Yankees Blog

A New York Yankees blog by Chad Jennings and the staff of The Journal News


The hard truth of the long road

Posted by: Chad Jennings - Posted in Misc on Feb 11, 2013 Print This Post Print This Post | Email This Post Email This Post

These past few months, we’ve spent a lot of time speculating about the Yankees future. We’ve heard the team’s financial plans, looked at their young up-and-comers, and we’ve wondered what might happen given a combination of minor league development and big league opportunity. From Mason Williams and Tyler Austin, to David Adams and Austin Romine, to Ty Hensley and Rafael DePaula, the Yankees system offers potential, and some of it is particulary high-end potential.

But the road to the big leagues offers no guarantees, and the career of former first-round draft pick Eric Duncan is a lesson in just how difficult it is to go from minor league prospect to productive big leaguer.

“There’s nothing else I would have loved more than to get to the big leagues,” Duncan said. “That was my dream my whole life, to be a big league ballplayer. Things kind of change as the process is going on and you’re going through it. I kind of learned how difficult it is to make it, how special it really is, how good those guys really are. You realize some things just aren’t meant to be. I truly believe I did everything I could. Some things just aren’t to be.”

Duncan retired in July, walking away in the middle of a season with the Royals Double-A affiliate. He had some moments of overwhelming success — got to High-A as a 19-year-old in 2004, Arizona Fall League MVP in 2005, best rookie in big league camp in 2006 — but Duncan ran into the same mental, physical and genetic roadblocks that stall many promising young players. His eyes weren’t great, his back began to bother him, and his tireless off-the-field approach might have done as much harm as good.

What I wrote for the paper is a profile of Duncan’s career, but it’s important to know that his story is not particularly unusual, and similar stories could have been written about any number of former prospects. Duncan could play — when he won that Fall League MVP, it was ahead of guys like Matt Kemp, Howie Kendrick, Joey Votto, Michael Bourn, Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis, Kendry Morales and Adam Jones (almost all of whom were older than Duncan) – and his work ethic was praised by teammates and front office types alike, but there are no sure things in this game. 

It’s like a line drive to the shortstop: A guy can do things the right way and still not see results.

“People think that it’s the express to get to the big leagues for a first rounder,” Royals farm director Scott Sharp said. “(But) every train is a local when it comes to getting to the big leagues.”

As always happens with a story like this, a lot of worthwhile information is cut in the name of brevity and focus, but for those interested in the minor league process, here’s some of the leftovers from the cutting room floor.

On the mental hurdles of the minor leagues
Duncan was built for the daily grind of the minor leagues — he said he actually liked the bus rides and the hotels — but he had a hard time staying out of his own way.

“The biggest hurdle to me was being so close (in Triple-A),” he said. “You work so long at something. When I was younger, I never told the teacher I wanted to be a fireman or a cop, it was big leaguer. That’s what I always wanted to be. All of a sudden, you’re 21 years old and you’re that close. All of a sudden, it clicks for a week or two, and instead of riding that and getting a feel for that, because I was so close it’s like, alright, how can I get even better? How can I make them see more? How can I force my way in there even more? In A-ball, it’s so far away, that urgency isn’t there.”

Former Yankees fifth-rounder Matt Carson became an entirely overlooked young player in the Yankees system, and he didn’t make his big league debut until he 27, the same age at which Duncan retired.

“I’ve been to that stage where its like, what am I doing here?” Carson said. “I’m just spinning my wheels. The road ahead is pretty cloudy and maybe I should start doing something else to continue on with my life. … You get to that point where you let go a little bit, you release, and everything comes a little easier. Then everything starts to fall into place and you remember why you love the game so much, and you enjoy playing it.”

On the minor league view of big league call-ups
I can tell you that not every minor leaguer shares Duncan’s opinion of major league opportunities, but I can also tell you that his point of view is not entirely uncommon. Whether it was Dan Giese or Justin Christian or Brian Gordon, we’ve all seen the Yankees award call-ups based not on prospect status or veteran comfort, but on who seemed best equipped to help win in the short-term (regardless of name or experience). For Duncan in particular, he was hitting well above .300 when Cody Ransom was hurt in 2009. Instead of promoting Duncan, the Yankees called up Angel Berroa.

“Not only do I think they made every decision with my best interest at heart, I think they make every decision trying to win the next game,” Duncan said. “Whatever they feel is going to help them win that next game, that’s what they do. If they didn’t think I was ready, then there’s a part of my game that wasn’t ready. But I know personally, that’s as ready as I felt. From their point of view, it might not have been, but that’s the oldest that I was, that’s the most mature that I was with them. If there was going to be time, that probably was going to be it. But it just wasn’t meant to be. If the Yankees thought I could help them win that next game, then they would have made that decision. I don’t fault them at all.”

Brian Cashman said Duncan was never close enough to the big leagues for the Yankees to make moves based on his expected arrival.

“He never got to that point,” Cashman said. “His biggest success level was like from A-ball. That’s too far away from New York to plan like that.”

On watching other players given opportunities
I doubt this comes as a shock, but not everyone works hard in the minors. Not everyone is willing to wipe out a second baseman, or change positions or do early work in the cage. And some of those guys who don’t work nearly as hard have enough natural ability to win opportunities that other guys can only dream about.

“I never really looked at it like that, and I especially don’t look at it like that now,” Duncan said. “For all the guys you see that make it and you think, ‘Man, if that guy made it definitely could have made it or should have made it.’ For every one of those, I played against two other guys that you’re like, ‘If this guy’s not making it, I’m never going to make it.’ Do you remember (eventual Cubs big leaguer) Bobby Scales? I remember playing against that guy in Pawtucket and he was just so good. Power and speed and he could play every position on the field, and then you talk to the guy and he’s like the nicest guy ever. That was one of the guys. It was like, if this guy can’t make it, Jesus, what am I going to do?”

Not surprisingly, Duncan’s long-time teammate Shelley Duncan put things a little more colorfully.

“You see a lot of prima donna players make it to the big leagues because they don’t play with that same intensity so it doesn’t beat up their body, but that’s not Eric’s character,” Shelley said. “… There’s as lot of horse**** players in the big leagues too, that people look at as really good, but the truth is they’re horse**** players, and there’s a lot of players in the minor leagues that are better than them.”

Photos from my old friends at the Scranton Times-Tribune

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119 Responses to “The hard truth of the long road”

  1. Russell Munson February 11th, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Great piece Chad.

  2. Shame Spencer February 11th, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    @YankeesJesus

    If you need me, I’m in Tampa. #SpringTraining2013 pic.twitter.com/UMmuOkv8

  3. Doreen February 11th, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Love Shelley Duncan’s candor. Gotta love it.

  4. tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Nice one, Chad.

  5. jacksquat February 11th, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Shame Spencer February 11th, 2013 at 4:25 pm
    @YankeesJesus

    If you need me, I’m in Tampa. #SpringTraining2013 pic.twitter.com/UMmuOkv8

    haha, cruel. :twisted:

  6. Nick in SF February 11th, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    Very nice article, Chad.

    “His biggest success level was like from A-ball. That’s too far away from New York to plan like that.”

    What does this tell us about 2014/2015, if anything?

  7. jacksquat February 11th, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    BryanHoch @pcaldera Got a feeling No. 20 will be used this spring.

    It better not be.

  8. Frankg February 11th, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Duncan had plenty of chances to make it in the big leagues. I sometimes wondered if his father helped his career by getting him those chances. His brother was a better player, I thought, whatever happened to him? He looked more athletic than Shelly.

  9. Shame Spencer February 11th, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    @YankeeSource

    So Mike Piazza admitted using androstenedione but denies using steroids? Isn’t androstenedione a steroid Mike? #PED

    @YankeeSource

    Piazza: “It shouldn’t be assumed that every big hitter of the generation used steroids. I didn’t.” – You did use Andro (steroid)

    @YankeeSource

    Pretty strange for Mike Piazza to both admit he used a steroid in Androstenedione and deny using steroids all in the same book.

    Wasn’t Andro legal…? Source can be pretty amateur… even for an amateur.

  10. jacksquat February 11th, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    pcaldera I’d retire 6 & 51, release 21. Undecided on 20. No one seemed to mind when Mussina’s 35 was issued. Would be a recall if he makes the Hall.

    Can’t see the difference between Mussina and Posada?

    Rings: O’Neill 4, Mussina 0

    No to retiring 6.

  11. tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Shame,
    Andro was over the counter. I know, I used it, too.

  12. Giuseppe Franco February 11th, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Since Chad mentions Shelly Duncan in this thread I’ll be the first to credit him for continuing to be a solid contributor in the bigs despite the hole(s) in his swing and the inability to play any kind of decent defense.

    The guy does display good power from time to time and is as intense as anyone out there who will give his team everything he’s got that day.

    Good for him. Never saw him as much more than a AAAA ballplayer during his time with the Yanks so I would not have predicted back in 2007 that he’d still be getting plenty of big league ABs in 2012-13.

  13. Shame Spencer February 11th, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Shame,
    Andro was over the counter. I know, I used it, too.

    —————–

    It was definitely legal in 1998 lol.. I was only 10 but I definitely remember that McGwire controversy.

  14. tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Shame,
    You should have bought some, you’d be in the bigs today.

  15. Giuseppe Franco February 11th, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    The number of WS rings a player owns isn’t always a good argument for HoF worthiness.

    Mussina didn’t win any rings but borderline HoF’er Luis Sojo has 4 rings.

  16. Giuseppe Franco February 11th, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Oops. The WS ring argument pertained to retired numbers – not HoF worthiness.

    That said…..

    Luis Sojo: 4 rings

    Don Mattingly: 0 rings and just one postseason appearance

  17. Shame Spencer February 11th, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    @YankeeSource

    Cortisone vastly different than Andro.

    @YankeeSource

    Legal or not at the time, andro is a testosterone precursor. You have to question the legitimacy of his statistics if he used.

    @dubnoxious

    @YankeeSource ‘legal or not’seems..weak. MLB allowed it,it was legal in the game and didnt count as a PED according to the rules

    @dubnoxious

    @YankeeSource ‘legal or not’ cortisone is a steroid. You can play that game all day.

  18. jacksquat February 11th, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Shame Spencer February 11th, 2013 at 4:51 pm
    @YankeeSource

    So Mike Piazza admitted using androstenedione but denies using steroids? Isn’t androstenedione a steroid Mike? #PED

    Technically, yes. But weak, very weak, especially what you got over the counter at GNC. I used that and actual, “real” steroids (for a short time) and I guarantee you andro did next to nothing for Piazza, or McGwire, or anyone else. If you have low T or something you might feel a little boost, but it could also easily be mental.

  19. Nick in SF February 11th, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    Can you ask him if he’s really Brian Cashman? Maybe we can settle that once and for all.

  20. Rich in NJ February 11th, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    “Can you ask him if he’s really Brian Cashman? Maybe we can settle that once and for all.”

    Or Eppler, his evil twin.

  21. Against All Odds February 11th, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 4:53 pm
    Shame,
    Andro was over the counter. I know, I used it, too.

    ———————–

    Well then dust off your gear and get behind the plate we need you in Tampa not on Lohud. :)

  22. Against All Odds February 11th, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    By the way, I heard the reason the Pope resigned was because he wants a more “hands-on” role in the Catholic church.

    ——————–

    raises eyebrow

  23. austinmac February 11th, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Silly work has kept me from reading much today, but has the Papelbon use of Toradol been mentioned? It sounds like the Sox freely handed them out and it’s us may have led to Buccholz hospitalization.

  24. austinmac February 11th, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    The Andro at GNC is nothing like steroids. If that is what Piazza used, good for him as it was perfectly legal in baseball and otherwise.

    Self righteous people who write this stuff.

  25. tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    AAO, JS,
    Worked for me in the day! Problem is, it never increased my speed, just muscle and endurance.

    Sad that Yogi won’t be at ST, but not a bad run for a guy who was too small to play off the Hill in STL. I love Yogi, and there will be a huge void when he’s gone.

  26. Nick in SF February 11th, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Might as well make sure he’s not Oppenheimer either. Can’t be too careful.

  27. austinmac February 11th, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    It is probably a good decision by Yogi not to come to spring training, but I’m sure his presence will be missed. He is a unique person and a very good man in addition to being an all time great.

  28. Against All Odds February 11th, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 5:32 pm
    AAO, JS,
    Worked for me in the day! Problem is, it never increased my speed, just muscle and endurance.

    ———————

    That’s better than nothing. Did you stop after a while because you felt like it?

  29. tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    AAO,
    I stopped when I could no longer buy it legally. It took me from a weakling to capable when I started doing physical labor after 18 years of desk and airplane duty at age 47 or so. No ill effects, far as I could tell.

  30. Against All Odds February 11th, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for the insight Tom. I appreciate that

  31. tomingeorgia February 11th, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    AAO,
    Wish I’d stocked up on it, in retrospect!

  32. Against All Odds February 11th, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Don’t worry yrs from most of this stuff will be legal or at the least under better supervisor.

  33. Rich in NJ February 11th, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    “Might as well make sure he’s not Oppenheimer either. Can’t be too careful.”

    Oppenheimer is my favorite baseball person in the organization.

  34. southbay February 14th, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Eric Duncan didnt make it to the big league but his determination and work ethics should provide him with the tools to be great at something else. He is a wonderful young man and hated to see him retire. It seems all the articles written about him over the past few years are about what went wrong and what might have been. I dont want to see him become a pro has been. There appears to be a mourning process involved here and maybe its time to let it go.

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