Reflecting on the Duncan family’s strength

ST. LOUIS — Shelley Duncan was smiling when I walked up to his locker at the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring-training base a few months ago. Of course, Shelley Duncan usually is smiling.

We talked about his mom, Jeanine, his brother, Chris, and how unfair life could be that both of them would be diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor just 14 months apart.

Well, I talked about the unfair part. Shelley wasn’t interested in such sympathy.

Shelley said that studies were being started to see if their illnesses – and the timing of them — were more than just an awful coincidence. He frankly admitted that absolutely he wondered if he could be next. “It’s hard not to be paranoid,” he said as he reached out to knock on wood in his locker.  

But he expressed such optimism that I left thinking the Duncans were going to be fine. With their strength, their courage, their willingness to take this fight head on, they would beat a couple of lousy brain tumors.

So when news came that Jeanine Duncan died Thursday night, I was more than a little surprised. It proves that strength, courage and as positive an outlook as a family could have aren’t always enough. From what I have heard, the Duncans’ strength stemmed from their mom. Like most wives whose husbands are gone half of the year for their jobs, Jeanine Duncan had to play the role of both parents much of the time.

That was no easy task with a pair as active and as adventurous as the Duncan brothers.

In an story from last year, Shelley recalled their days as youngsters in Tucson, Ariz.

“We caused a lot of trouble,” Shelley said. “We caused a lot of trouble at school and a lot of trouble in the neighborhood. But the best thing that I’ll always remember is that, no matter what we did, our mom was always on our side. (Once) I heard her yell at some people for us after we caused the trouble. She was always sticking up for us no matter what we did. 

“And then she’d yell at us behind the scenes.”

Chris appears to be winning the fight with his brain tumor, which was caught at a point that improves his chances of being rid of it. A fast-rising radio talk-show host on the St. Louis sports scene, he just got moved again into a more attractive time slot. 

He has been coming around the ballpark, still as popular with the Cardinals players – if not more so — than when he was manning left field and hitting 22 homers during the Cardinals’ run to the 2006 World Series championship. 

Shelley stuck with the Rays until their main DH, Luke Scott, returned from injury. Now Shelley is in Class AAA, the only Duncan still donning a baseball uniform these days. 

I find it fitting that next Saturday’s services for Jeanine will be held at the Cathedral Basilica, the same church where the memorial for Stan Musial was held earlier this year. 

No one meant more to St. Louis than Musial, but few have meant more to the Cardinals in the past 18 years than Dave Duncan, Jeanine’s husband and a man rightly considered one of the best pitching coaches of all time.

Since Dave left the Cardinals in 2011 to care for Jeanine at their home in Branson, I have wondered if he ever would be back in the game. I figured his return would mean that Jeanine had beaten brain cancer once and for all. 

As strong and as positive as the Duncans have been through all this, I wasn’t ready for any other outcome. 

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