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The hard truth of the long road

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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 [3] 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.”

[4]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