Shelley Duncan is the most prolific power hitter in Tucson baseball history. There is no second place.
He set the city’s high school record, hitting 26 homers at Canyon del Oro. He broke UA records, 24 homers in a season and 55 in a career. He hit 193 minor-league home runs, and if that wasn’t good enough, he hit five homers in his first eight games as a New York Yankee.
He hit two home runs in the state championship game. He hit a homer in the NCAA tournament. He got “SportsCenter”-type curtain calls after hitting home runs at Yankee Stadium.
In the last week of his long baseball career, Duncan wanted to hit a final home run, a personal legacy, so that his twin sons, Walker and William, might remember their dad rounding the bases.
“I suspected I was about to be released by Cincinnati, and I knew I would then retire,” Duncan says. “But I was in Louisville, and my wife and boys were in Tucson. It was going to be close.”
Early this month, Elyse Duncan flew with Walker and William to Louisville to watch her husband play his last few games. By then, the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate was using Duncan infrequently. At 34, he got the message.
“They had me bunt,” Duncan said. “I had one sacrifice bunt in my entire career, and it was when I played for the Yankees. Look it up. One.”
In 1,077 minor-league games, Shelley Duncan did not have a single sacrifice bunt. He did not want to bunt when Walker and William arrived at Louisville Slugger Field. He would be swinging for the fences.
In the seventh inning of a June 12 game against the Gwinnett Braves, Louisville manager Jim Riggleman sent Duncan to pinch-hit. The former Eastern League and International League All-Star was hitting. 193.
This would be it.
Duncan hit a fastball from Gwinnett’s Ian Thomas over the left field fence and took his time rounding the bases. Two-year-old twins Walker and William didn’t take their eyes off of No. 9.
It was like something out of a movie.
“After I was released by the Diamondbacks in spring training, I moved back to Tucson and had a couple of good cries,” Duncan remembers. “All I’ve ever known is baseball. It was hard.
“But by the time I signed with the Reds and was sent to Louisville, I had accepted it and moved on.
“I knew I was at the end; I just hoped my boys could see me hit one final home run.”
He retired three days later.
Duncan hit 317 home runs in his high school, college and pro careers. He wore uniforms of the Durham Bulls, the Trenton Thunder and the Staten Island Yankees.
Nothing much changed from the way it had been with the CDO Dorados and the Arizona Wildcats. Duncan hit home runs. He made friends and impressed them with his wit and baseball instincts.
He grew up a baseball prodigy, the son of esteemed St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, spending his summers in big-league clubhouses opposite his younger brother Chris, a CDO grad who would go on to play five seasons in the big leagues.
But it all seemed to go by in a blur. Hanging out with Yankees captain Derek Jeter. Flying in the same charter jet with teammates Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera. Winning the International League Home Run Derby. Signing a $655,000 bonus contract on Yankees letterhead.
“I prepared for the end of my career, I knew it was coming, but it was very difficult,” he said. “I’ve already interviewed with several teams about becoming a coach and maybe a manager in their minor-league systems.
“But right now I’m learning how to live without baseball. Having 2-year-old twins is a full-time job in itself. My wife is an absolute saint.”
While playing for the Cleveland Indians, Duncan enrolled at the University of Phoenix and took online courses in an attempt to complete his college degree. In August, he will enroll at his alma mater and become an undergraduate assistant coach for the UA’s Andy Lopez.
Where that leads is anyone’s guess. Duncan is a people person of the first order; he would be a dynamic recruiter.
It’s not difficult picturing him as a college head coach someday, or a major-league manager. He has the genes, contacts and baseball résumé like few others.
For the first time since he was a 5-year-old Little Leaguer, Duncan doesn’t have any more games on the schedule.
“Instead of just hanging on, I decided to move on to the next chapter of my life,” he said. “I am going to get my degree. That’s a priority. I will also have a chance to unpack my bags and plant a garden, literally and figuratively.”
And, for the first time, smell a few roses.