A slugger with a familiar last name who often powered through pain and lifted the Cardinals to a World Series championship in 2006 and then later had a second act as a candid sports pundit on St. Louis radio, Chris Duncan died Friday in Tucson, Ariz., after years of battling brain cancer. He was 38.
The son of former Cardinals pitching Dave Duncan, Chris reached the majors in 2005 and became a force in 2006, just as an injury-riddled Cardinals team started to flag. Duncan’s 22 home runs in his rookie season, 19 after the All-Star break, and his .977 OPS in that season’s second half helped carry an 83-win team that limped into the playoffs before finding its stride and winning the organization’s 10th World Series title. Duncan would play three more seasons with the Cardinals before being traded to Boston in 2009, though not one gleamed like the rookie year that ended with a ring.
“We wouldn’t be here without him,” manager Tony La Russa said at the time.
Duncan was first diagnosed in 2012 with glioblastoma, the same sinister brain cancer his mother Jeanine had, and after surgery Chris was able to make significant progress and return to work as a co-host for 101.1 FM/WXOS. In March 2018 he acknowledged, on air, that the tumor had come back. He had been hosting shows, prepping opinions, and keeping the tumor’s return quiet for several months. Duncan took a leave of absence and, in January, made his departure from the radio station permanent so that he could “focus on health.”
“The Cardinals are deeply saddened by the passing of Chris Duncan and extend our heartfelt sympathy to his wife, Amy, the entire Duncan family, and his many friends,” Cardinals Chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement from the team. “Chris was an integral part of our 2006 championship team and a great teammate and friend to many in the organization.”
After an unrelenting stretch of injuries and a series of subpar seasons in the minors ended his playing career, Duncan found his voice behind the mic.
In 2006, a newspaper quoted an unnamed scout who said Duncan was a “butcher” in the outfield. La Russa suggested that the newspaper’s writer avoid Dave Duncan because “I would fear for their safety.” Chris laughed off the scouting report, and that grew into his self-deprecating, wry, and sometimes folksy personality on air. He would often mock his defensive play on air, wondering whether he needed a glove or not in left field. He told stories from the road and from the clubhouse, sometimes scouring them for cleanliness but never at the expense of humor or to protect himself.
He referred to beer as “man soda,” and the term spread.
Duncan threw himself into learning the radio business, first as a contributor at WXOS (101.1 FM), then as part of the drive-time evening show, and later as a co-host of “The Turn.”
As part of his prep for shows he would text reporters he trusted for background, test-driving opinions and double-checking on rules. He learned hockey from scratch to comment on the Blues. Duncan started at the station while living in St. Louis but continued to do shows after moving to California with his wife, Amy.
In the months leading up to his marriage in January 2011, Duncan secretly took piano lessons so on his wedding day he could surprise Amy by playing her a song.
Duncan was born May 5, 1981, the youngest of Jeanine and Dave Duncan’s two boys. He and his brother, Shelley, grew up around Major League Baseball, their father a coach for Cleveland, the White Sox, Oakland, and the Cardinals. Both sons, like their father, also played in the majors. A prep standout in Oro Valley, Ariz., Duncan was selected by the Cardinals in the first round, 46th overall, of the 1999 draft, the same draft that produced Albert Pujols 12 rounds later.
Duncan had a deliberate climb through the minors, and he would later talk about the pressure he felt being a first-round pick with his father’s last name.
In 2005 he hit 21 home runs for Class AAA Memphis and vaulted to the majors for the first time. The next spring, he impressed and by late May had reached the majors for good that year. By June he was a regular in the lineup, and in September, as the Cardinals made their last-gasp push for a playoff spot, he hit a club rookie record nine home runs.
As the Cardinals’ starting left fielder in 2007, Duncan hit 21 home runs and had a .834 OPS to go with his .480 slugging percentage. His 2008 season was halted by a degenerative disc in his neck, and though he had a strong initial return in 2009 the condition made it difficult for him to turn his head – even as he tried to hit major-league pitching.
“His toughness is off the charts,” La Russa said after a win that summer against the Cubs that Wrigley Field that featured a home run, two singles, three RBIs and one curious play in the outfield from Duncan. “You see it the way he plays, the way he runs the bases, the way he defends, the way he takes at-bats. He’s never going to give in.”
The Cardinals traded Duncan to Boston in July of that season and he did not return to the majors. He last played in Washington’s minor-league system in 2010.
The next year, in August, Dave Duncan took a leave of absence to be with his wife as she began her battle against brain cancer. That October, as the Cardinals won their 11th World Series in club history, Chris, his brother, and his mother watched from the Busch Stadium seats, huddled together with her daughters-in-law. Fourteen months after his mother’s diagnosis, Chris learned he had the same cancer. It started with a metal taste, then seizures, and then surgery, chemotherapy, and other treatment.
In Oct. 2012, one year after watching a World Series game with his mom, Chris underwent a 6 ½-hour surgery that removed part of his skull. A month later he was weeks into radiation and chemotherapy and taking daily shots to address a blood clot that had developed in his left arm.
“I’ve competed my whole life,” Duncan told Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Strauss in November 2012. “I worked for what I got in the game. To me, this is another competition. I’m not letting this beat me. I’m (going) to do whatever gives me the best chance.”
Jeanine Duncan died in June 2013, at 64.
She fought the fierce malignancy for 22 months.
Chris Duncan had returned to the air and was there almost five years before acknowledging, publicly, that the tumor on the left side of his brain had resurfaced. In September, after months of treatment for Chris, Amy Duncan shared positive news on social media that an MRI had shown “swelling was drastically decreased.”
Talking, she wrote, “is still challenging” for Chris, and it remained so for months. Late in 2018, Amy shared on Instagram that Chris returned to Arizona to live, to be with his father and Shelley, who is a manager in the Diamondbacks’ system.
“The light still shines,” Amy Duncan wrote, “in both of us.”
Chris Duncan is survived by his wife, Amy; his father, Dave; and his brother, Shelley.
Arrangements and information about services are pending.