While we’re on the subject of the Hall of Fame, shouldn’t there be a place for Dave Duncan?

In recent years when Tony La Russa would reflect on his amazing career, he would almost become emotional in discussing Dave Duncan.

“People sometimes ask who has been the most important person to my success,” he said. “That’s not even close.”

Duncan joined La Russa’s staff in 1983, Tony’s fourth year as manager of the White Sox. Thus began a 28-year relationship. Over the years, a professional bond melted into a close, personal tie that extended to the two families as well.

La Russa said his wife, Elaine, joked that her husband was closer to Duncan than to her, and that’s understandable because of the nature of baseball. Beginning each February, the two men would be together almost every day for the next eight or nine months.

They were both grinders. If the Cardinals were playing a 7:30 game, it wasn’t unusual for them to be in the clubhouse by noon studying video, charts, scouting reports, relentlessly looking for an advantage.

Duncan’s legacy is that he took very good pitchers and helped them become better, and he took struggling pitchers and helped turn their careers around. He assisted Dennis Eckersley in making the difficult transition from an average starter to a Hall of Fame closer. Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Woody Williams and Kyle Lohse are among dozens of others who credit Duncan for helping transform their careers.

Duncan has been a big league pitching coach for 32 years. That’s a major league record, well in front of Galen Cisco, who did the job for 28 years. Duncan had eight Cy Young Award winners on his staff. He was part of teams that went to the playoffs 14 times and made five appearances in the World Series, winning three.

He took a leave of absence for a few weeks last summer to be with his wife Jeanine, who has brain cancer. He returned for the final week of the regular season and stayed on the job through the World Series. He intends to take another leave of absence for the 2012 season, and it’s unknown when or if he’ll return.

His importance to the Cardinals is irrelevant when weighed against Jeanine’s care. But his absence continues the dramatic shift with the franchise that began with La Russa’s retirement and Albert Pujols signing with the Angels.

Duncan didn’t just help pitchers get better in terms of mechanics and pitch selection and preparation. They came to count on his presence in the dugout, on his counsel and guidance through games.

He has been in baseball since making his major league debut as a catcher in 1964, and his 11-year playing career turned out to be a small opening act to his greater contributions in his post-playing days. He’s not wildly famous in the way a player or manager becomes famous.

Inside the game, though, he’s a gigantic figure, someone with almost magical qualities for getting the most out of his guys. In the last five decades, he has made hundreds of friends who respect both his competence as a pitching coach as well as his decency as a man.

It’ll be the strangest feeling looking in the Cardinals’ dugout and not setting La Russa and Duncan huddled together, and the 2012 season will be diminished by his absence. His focus now is on something far more important, and our prayers go out to Jeanine and to her family.

1 Comment

There are some interesting points in time in this article but I dont know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

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