The Toughest Season
When former Cardinal Chris Duncan learned—at age 31—that he had a brain tumor, he did what he does best: crack a smile, lean on his family, and fight like hell.
Photos by Jay Fram; Courtesy of Chris Duncan
Chris Duncan tasted metal. Actually, it started with a tightening in his cheek, followed by the metal taste, numbness in his right arm, and a moment of disorientation. The episode would last 30 seconds, maybe a minute, then disappear, leaving him asking, “What was that?” His wife, Amy, wondered whether it might be a stinger, that universal, excruciating, yet gloriously temporary sports injury. If only.
Chris thought the bizarre symptoms might be related to the titanium disk that was implanted in his neck during his injury-plagued five-year career as a left fielder and first baseman with the Cardinals. (In 2008, he suffered from a degenerative neck condition that caused numbness and pain in his arms and hands, requiring a rare procedure to embed the prosthesis.)
As days and weeks passed, the metal taste popped up more often, and at random times, once a day, then twice a day, with each occurrence lasting longer than before. “It was weird,” Chris says. Amy, who works in medical sales, went online looking for answers, and came up with a list of several possibilities, some of which sounded scary. In his playing days, Chris was known for silently soldiering through severe pain without so much as mentioning it to trainers. Persuading him to see a doctor ranks up there with Middle East peace talks on the list of conversations unlikely to end well.
Amy did her best, pleading, even threatening. “If you don’t get checked out, I’m leaving you,” Chris remembers her saying in desperation, weaponizing her love when all else failed.
He wasn’t convinced until his symptoms affected him at work. Chris co-hosts the afternoon drive-time show, The Fast Lane, on 101 ESPN with D’Marco Farr and Randy Karraker. During a show in late September, Farr asked Chris a question. He tried to respond, but the metal taste struck, and suddenly, the words vanished. “I kind of went out of it,” he says. “I tried to talk, and I couldn’t.”
Afterward, he called Dr. John Ellena, who has worked with the Cardinals, and went in the next morning for an MRI. After the scan, the technician told Chris not to go anywhere, because the doctor would need to come in. “He had this real scared look on his face,” Chris says. “I was like, ‘All right, this is not good.’” Amy was in the waiting room, starting to worry, as what was supposed to be a 30-minute appointment turned into an hour. A nurse came by and told her, nonchalantly, “Mrs. Duncan, you can come with me.”
Amy turned the corner and saw Chris pacing the hallway. “Something’s not right,” he told her. “Something’s not right.”
When Ellena arrived, he confirmed that fear. Chris and Amy could see it with their own eyes, right there on the scan: a 4- by 6-centimeter tumor in the center of his brain. “The scariest part is seeing it on the MRI,” Amy says, fighting back tears, “and knowing that it could have been a ton of other things, and that’s the only one that we wanted ruled out.”
As kids, Chris and his older brother, Shelley, were always competing, archetypical sibling rivals, and often the competition was to see who could cause more trouble. “We were always a really, really mischievous tag team,” says Shelley, who also went on to play in the majors.
They grew up splitting time between Oakland, Calif., where their father, Dave, was the pitching coach for the Athletics, and Tucson, Ariz., where they lived on the golf course at Oro Valley Country Club. One day, they found their grandpa’s BB gun and shot a few cans on the patio. When that got boring, they set up barracks in a bathroom on the fourth hole and had the not-so-hot idea to shoot a golfer. There was an opening between the wall and the roof, so Chris lifted Shelley up. He aimed at a guy in the middle of his backswing and pulled the trigger. “We didn’t know if we were going to hit him or not,” Shelley says. Then they heard him howl a series of profanities.
The boys were sitting ducks in that bathroom, and their giggling didn’t help throw the golfer off their trail. They tried to pretend they didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was hard to explain away the gun. The guy took it to the clubhouse, and then Dave got wind of it. That was the end of the BB gun. “He chopped it in half with an ax,” Shelley says, still laughing.
Suffice it to say, the brothers didn’t exactly learn their lesson. From then on, you didn’t want to be a golfer at Oro Valley. Think water balloons. Air horns. They would take little pins and put them around a hole. Some unsuspecting guy would go to putt, hit it perfectly, and then the ball would bounce away at the last second.
And car drivers weren’t safe either. Chris and Shelley had a dummy that they would dress up like a kid, put on a bike, and push out into traffic. Terrified motorists would slam into the bike, then panic, thinking they’d hit a child.
Raising those two should’ve put their mother, Jeanine, on the short list for sainthood. Even when they did something stupid, she always stuck up for her boys, arguing with the principal about their punishment, before taking them home and punishing them herself. “No matter what, through thick and thin, we always knew we had Mom in our corner,” Shelley says.
Despite the shenanigans, Chris’ trademark toughness was already on display. Throughout his life, that toughness, along with pride, perseverance, and a penchant for hard work, has been the defining characteristic of his personality, both his best and worst trait.
Before he hit his growth spurt in high school, he was shorter, chubbier, and quieter than his brother. In eighth grade, Chris was cut from the basketball team (shades of Michael Jordan). “That’s when I saw this change in him,” Shelley says. “He became the hardest-working person I’ve ever known in my life.” Chris would work on his game in the driveway every day after school. Shelley was on the freshman team, and when he got home from practice, Chris would still be out there, taking shot after shot, for hours on end. The next year, he made the team.
In the summer, the family moved to Oakland. Shelley and Chris hung out in the A’s clubhouse, getting hitting tips from coaches and players. Dave was famous for his meticulous preparation, so while Dad worked, the boys would be catching pop-ups, hitting in the batting cage, playing pickle. They loitered on the field after games, having home-run derbies. “It was incredible,” Chris says.
Starting in the late ’80s, the Athletics played in three straight World Series, and Chris was there for all of them. He was at Game 1 of the 1988 World Series in Los Angeles, when the Dodgers entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 4–3. He remembers seeing the headlights of cars as they left, fans thinking the game was over. Then Kirk Gibson, with two injured legs, came up as a pinch hitter and belted perhaps the most famous walk-off home run ever. Chris asked his mom why everyone was crying. “Just that whole experience, it’s like I can pull it up right now,” he says.
When the boys got a little older, Tony La Russa let them sit with their father in the A’s dugout. What better way for a high-school player to learn the game than shadowing a future Hall of Fame manager? It’s no wonder that when Chris’ English teacher asked what he planned to do for a living, he said he wanted to be a professional baseball player. She asked whether he had a backup plan. His answer: No.
“It’s almost like if you don’t have a backup plan, you are 100 percent all-in on making it,” Chris says. “I always felt like backup plans are for someone who’s not fully committed to doing whatever it takes to make it.”
Before he became one of the greatest pitching coaches of all time, the horse whisperer who could turn journeymen into All-Stars as La Russa’s right-hand man, before he helped the Cardinals win two World Series, Dave Duncan was a Major League catcher. He met Jeanine in the early ’70s, when he was playing for the Cleveland Indians. It was spring training, and she was sitting by the pool at his hotel in Tucson, her hometown.
Jeanine was diagnosed with a brain tumor in August 2011, after she crashed a golf cart while going to get the mail at the couple’s home on Table Rock Lake in Kimberling City, near Branson. There are dozens of types of brain tumors, and Jeanine had the worst one, grade IV, a glioblastoma. She has endured an endless parade of brutal treatments: multiple surgeries, chemotherapy wafers implanted in her brain, radiation. “She’s been through the gamut, and she’s handled it like a trooper,” Shelley says.
Dave took a leave of absence to care for his wife, but when the Cardinals reached the postseason, La Russa asked him to come back. The boys and their wives volunteered to look after Mom, so Dad could return to the dugout. Every day, they would drive Jeanine to Springfield, Mo., for radiation. They took the back roads, telling stories and sharing memories. “It was sad,” Shelley says, “but it was really neat getting to just spend time with Mom.”
With the real-life challenges they were confronting, Dave’s family back at the lake house wasn’t worrying much about the Cardinals, at least not until the World Series. With the Texas Rangers leading St. Louis three games to two, the Duncans crowded around the TV for Game 6. The Redbirds fell behind, then rallied. Chris and Shelley were jumping up off the couch with every hit, but Jeanine reacted differently. “I guess when she gets really nervous,” Shelley says, “she irons.”
Most St. Louisans probably remember the details of that historic comeback, but just in case: David Freese hit a two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. The Cardinals fell behind, 9–7, in the top of the 10th, only to tie it again in their half of the inning. Then in the bottom of the 11th, Freese played the hero again, smacking a walk-off home run to deep center field. In all of the excitement, Jeanine burned a hole through Dave’s favorite shirt.
As they celebrated, Chris and Shelley decided to take their mom to St. Louis for Game 7. She couldn’t miss a day of radiation, but a rainout had pushed the series back, so the decisive game was set for a Friday. They could go to the week’s final treatment, then head for Busch Stadium. “It just worked out perfectly,” Shelley says. “That’s the first time we got to all watch a baseball game together since we were little.” The Cards won, and the whole Duncan clan was there to revel in Dad’s latest—and last—great baseball accomplishment.
After the season, Dave retired to focus on caring for Jeanine. Now, he helps her stay on track with her treatments, and takes care of things around the house. He does all of the cooking, though he says his skills begin and end with the crockpot. “My wife was a great cook,” he says.
About a year after the Cardinals won that World Series, Shelley was visiting his parents at the lake when he got a phone call. The phone call. He walked out on the back deck. “All of a sudden, I saw him start crying,” Dave says. He asked what was wrong, but Shelley didn’t want to say. Imagine having to tell your father that now both his wife and his son have brain cancer. “It just didn’t seem real,” Shelley says. Brain tumors were supposed to be one in a thousand, not two in a family of four. “You couldn’t believe that both of them had the same thing happen to them,” Dave says. “It’s still hard to believe.”
It’s a Saturday in February, and Chris’ oatmeal is getting cold. We’re at The Wolf, a coffee shop, locavore eatery, and live-music venue in Ballwin with a distinctly rustic feel. The decor is somewhere between knotty pine and log cabin; bike-racing jerseys hang on the wall, while canoes rest in the rafters. Chris eats breakfast here just about every day (“It’s better than cooking”). Because of his treatments, he’s not allowed to drive, so Amy’s here, too, sitting across the table.
Chris has been called Little Dunc (a result of sharing a dugout with his father), but the nickname doesn’t quite fit his 6-foot-5 frame. Before the diagnosis, he was up to 250 pounds, but he’s noticeably thinner now. He says he’s lost 30 pounds and laments his decreased muscle mass. In a baggy flannel shirt and a backward baseball cap, his pale, freckled skin and soft eyes that change color at every angle seem weary. Even his fingers are thinner than they used to be, so his wedding ring hangs on a chain around his neck. But when he cracks a joke and breaks into that goofy grin of his, the mood is instantly lightened.
Everyone who knows Chris mentions how upbeat he’s been, how well he’s maintained his sense of humor, but today, the smiles are few. He’s talking about his surgery and the subsequent treatments, reliving the harrowing experience. “It was four months ago and it seems like it was yesterday,” he says.
Being told he had a tumor stung. “I think it hit me for a second, where I was really scared,” he says. “I might have lost it a little bit emotionally, but I felt like I bounced back quick.” Most people in that situation might have a hundred questions, but because of what his mother had been through, Chris already knew the answers. “I have to battle this,” he thought. “This is going to be shitty, but I know how to handle it.”
The family flew to Duke University Medical Center, where Jeanine had been treated, on a private plane provided by David Pratt, one of the Cardinals’ owners. Chris saw Dr. Allan Friedman, a renowned neurosurgeon who had operated on his mother. “That guy is like the Albert Pujols of surgeons,” Chris says. His tumor was in a bad spot, in the part of the brain that controls speech. Friedman told Chris that surgery was possible, but it wouldn’t be easy. “Where the tumor was located, a lot of neurologists wouldn’t have the balls to go in there and get it out,” Chris says. There was a chance that afterward, Chris wouldn’t be able to walk or talk—not a happy thought for anyone, much less a radio host.
The surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, October 10, more than a week away. In the meantime, doctors ran Chris through a series of tests to map out his brain. They did functional MRIs, having him talk and then charting which areas lit up.
There was also a lot of downtime. A few of Chris’ friends from back home and the minor leagues came to visit, and they all went golfing. If you’re going to be in North Carolina anyway, they figured, you might as well take advantage of it. “There was a very good chance that I could have a lot of problems afterward, talking and losing mobility,” Chris says. “So we were like, f—k it. Let’s go golfing and throw the football and go to the mall and just be active.”
When the appointed time arrived, Chris was ready. Amy pulls up a picture on her phone of him in a hospital gown and cap, making a silly face. “He always found a way to laugh throughout the process,” she says.
The basic procedure for surgery to remove a brain tumor goes something like this: The surgeon makes an incision in the scalp, then a window in the skull using a saw. He cuts the membrane that covers the brain; goes into the brain, using a combination of electrocautery (which stops the bleeding) and sharp dissection with micro scissors; then separates the tumor from the adjacent brain with microdissection techniques, a microscope, and special suction aspirators. Finally, he puts it all back together.
Chris’ surgery lasted six and a half hours, and he was awake for more than half of it, so the surgeon could monitor his speech. He remembers being strapped to a flat, uncomfortable bed and being tilted up at an awkward angle. “It was like being in a horror movie,” he says. A man held up flashcards with pictures of dogs and Ronald McDonald for him to identify.
When Chris first woke up after surgery, he could talk. Amy walked into the room, and he greeted her with, “Good morning, babe.”
“Oh my gosh, you’re normal,” she replied.
Chris even cracked a joke about the flashcards, which had looked old and dingy. “Those flashcards were dirty!” he exclaimed.
But then the swelling hit.
The Cardinals signed Chris out of high school in 1999. Dave was already with the organization then, but he didn’t recommend drafting his son. He didn’t have to. Chris would take batting practice in St. Louis and launch balls into the upper deck—as a high-school kid. But he didn’t make it to the majors until 2005.
Chris spent those long years in the minors working his ass off. He refined his approach at the plate, learning to lay off inside fastballs. He’d pick Mark McGwire’s brain for hitting tips. Glove work was never Chris’ strong point. “Unfortunately, when he was up in Oakland working out with those coaches, he forgot to talk to the fielding coach,” Dave quips. But Chris worked on the fundamentals: his footwork in the field, base-running, picking low throws out of the dirt while playing first.
“In minor-league baseball, you have to have such a strong mental attitude, because it’s such a grind,” Shelley says. “He would play balls to the wall every single day, almost to a fault.”
It went back to when they were in high school. Shelley was the natural athlete. Chris was the pudgy one. He didn’t seem destined for the big leagues. “But he willed himself into it,” Shelley says. “He surpassed me. He became better than I was… He became my inspiration.”
In the off-season, Shelley and Chris would work out together, pushing each other to the edge. That competitive nature reached its apex (or maybe its nadir) after the 2006 season, when Chris and Dave won the World Series together. In the weight room, one brother would do a set of six squats. Then the other would add 10 pounds and do seven. Back and forth they’d go, neither willing to give in. One would go to the water fountain, and the other would try to sneak in an extra exercise. They’d yell at each other. It would turn into a full-blown altercation. “We wouldn’t stop,” Shelley says, sounding almost spooked by the memory. Then they’d play basketball together, and the same thing would happen. A boxing class. Running. Everything was a fight. “That was him,” Shelley says. “It’s impossible to work out with him. It really is.”
The next season started well. Shelley made it to the big leagues for the first time with the Yankees, and Chris hit 21 homers. But at the end of the year, they both “blew out” with sports hernias, which they attributed to those workouts.
That started a string of injuries for Chris that would ultimately end his career. The sports hernia, which he tried to play through, “turned into something that wasn’t good, and I ended up getting surgery,” he says. The next year, his core was weak, and his back and neck started hurting. But he kept playing, leading to the neck surgery. In 2009, he clearly wasn’t healthy, but he told the coaches he felt fine. La Russa believed in him, trusted him, so he kept sending him out there, even though he couldn’t perform. Fans and talk-radio pundits bashed him, saying it was nepotism that kept him in the lineup. “It was hard to watch, but he insisted that he could do it,” Dave says. “It probably worked against him more than it helped him, but that’s just the way he was. If he had a broken arm, he’d tell you he could play.”
The Cardinals traded Chris to the Boston Red Sox, and in 2010, he landed with the Washington Nationals, playing for their Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y. He hit just .191 and needed surgery on both hips. “When I tried to come back after that, I couldn’t get a job,” he says. “No one would sign me.” The couple of teams that showed interested shied away when Chris couldn’t pass a physical.
It was a dark time.
He and Amy had planned to get married that November—the save-the-dates had already been ordered—but Chris was so devastated, he temporarily called off the wedding.
“I don’t think you ever picture your career ending,” he says. “‘Despite this injury, I’m going to come back and have success,’ that’s what you’re thinking. Otherwise, there’s no way you could handle the rehab.”
“It’s just like life,” Amy says.
Amy explains the aftermath of Chris’ surgery between bites of her veggie hash. A petite blonde with bright hazel eyes, cute dimples, and toned biceps, she has been “Chris’ rock,” in the words of both Shelley and Dave. She’s been the stickler who keeps the nurses honest and the Googler who keeps tabs on the latest medical research. “That’s why I married her; she was so tough,” Chris says.
The couple met in 2007. Ask where, and they answer in unison, though Amy says “at a bar” while Chris says “at a library.” It turns out, she’s the one telling the truth. They married in January 2011, but Amy strongly objects to being called a newlywed. “I am a veteran,” she says. “I’ve been to freaking hell.”
As his swelling built after the surgery, it seemed like Chris was going backward. The doctors had warned Amy and the rest of the family to expect that, but it was still hard to watch. He could hear what was going on around him, which made it extra annoying when people thought they needed to yell, but he couldn’t speak, and he had trouble moving his right side. For three days, the swelling mounted. Chris would sit at the edge of his bed, his head in his hands, the pain excruciating.
One of Amy’s girlfriends told her about a relative who couldn’t talk after surgery, but could write. At 1 in the morning, Amy pulled out a piece of paper and wrote, “I love you, Chris.” He replied with the thing that every baseball player practices writing the most: his autograph. “Yes! He’s in there,” Amy thought.
But the swelling persisted. A day or so later, he fell asleep and had a seizure, started shaking. “That was the scariest moment,” Shelley says. They rushed Chris to intensive care, where he was put on drugs to relieve the pressure. One day, Amy and Shelley brought back some food that Chris wasn’t allowed to have. “You got cookies?” he said, suddenly able to talk. “That’s messed up.” From there, he improved steadily. When he couldn’t find a word, he’d substitute a growl or a moan, which became his self-deprecating inside joke with the nurses.
When Amy plays a video on her phone of Chris starting to speak as he recovered, he turns away. It makes him uncomfortable to hear himself struggling to form even simple words. After all, his job is to talk on the radio. It was coming back, but slowly. That’s when the toughness made such a difference. “He practiced every single day to get his speech better on his own, even without the speech therapist,” Shelley says. “That was where all his hard work that you know Chris for really came in.”
About 10 days after his surgery, Chris was able to return to St. Louis, but his ordeal was far from over, with six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation still to go. He settled into a routine. He woke up and took antiseizure pills. Then he headed down to his basement to work out on a stationary bike. As he pedaled, he would look at a picture of himself with his father and at a goal board, where he scribbled affirmations like “I am strong” and “I am domination.” Back upstairs, he ate breakfast, took antinausea pills, and read the paper. Then it was time for chemo pills. He also had to inject himself in the abdomen with medication for a blood clot that had formed in his arm. An hour after chemo, he would go to the hospital for radiation. “And then it was just, like, foggy for the rest of the day,” he says. He’d get through dinner, go to bed, get up, and do it all over again. “For six straight weeks.”
While Chris dealt with chemo and radiation, Amy spent months planning a trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands, a belated honeymoon. She would listen to Chris on the phone. If he made an appointment for early January, she would call the person back and cancel it. When she gave him the itinerary on Christmas, with the whole family gathered at their home in West County, he was totally surprised.
The doctors had told Chris he might not be able to swim. But because of his cancer, he doesn’t know how much time he has left—so he’s determined to make the most of it. In preparation for the trip, because he was nervous about his balance, Chris swam at the gym, practicing his snorkeling. “It was so funny,” Amy says.
He’s been running on a treadmill, and he and Amy shoot hoops occasionally. “I’ll beat him,” she adds. He’s even back to lifting weights, now that the blood clot is gone.
Amy pulls up pictures from the trip on her phone. The sandy beaches, palm trees, and bright orange sun were picturesque, straight out of a Corona commercial. She also has a video of them swimming with sea turtles. It wasn’t easy to capture: She couldn’t hit the record button underwater, so she swam to the surface, hit it, then dove back down. The video shows a huge turtle, gliding peacefully through the water, slowly flapping its legs. And then a very different creature enters the picture, a big gangly white guy named Chris, making a funny face.
“There’s the goof,” he says with a grin.
He returned to the radio full-time in January, though he still has to do one week of intensive chemo (triple the dose he was getting before) every month. For the first week or so, he felt a little uneasy on the air. He was unsure of when to chime in, and the 4-hour show felt long. But the second week, he found his groove. “He’s the same guy,” says program director Kent Sterling. “The show is better than ever.”
Chris is a natural. The direct, honest way he speaks is perfect for radio. He doesn’t blather like some hosts who fall too deeply in love with the sound of their own voices. “He says things in a sticky way,” Sterling says. “What he says tends to kind of lodge itself in your head.”
Plus, he makes listeners laugh. When he was little, someone asked Chris what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he answered, “Funny.” And while he has his pride, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
On the February 11 show, the guys started talking about the Grammys, and Chris ended up becoming the butt of the discussion after he said, “I’m still feeling Taylor Swift.”
Reactions from his co-hosts included: “She looks like she’s 12!” “You have to take that back.” “Sounds like my cat.” “The little girls love her.”
Chris salvaged the final shreds of his dignity by playing to women listeners, sort of: “I can find something attractive about any woman, how about that? She had cute ears. Her feet are looking good.”
In the minor leagues, on those infamously interminable bus rides, Chris coined several slang terms, which people around the office now refer to as Duncanisms. “Bevertise” means grabbing a few beers with your buddies after the game. “Tight cheeks,” which really gets them howling, refers to athletes who tense up in big moments.
Chris has personal experience with that one.
His rookie year, in 2006, the Cardinals played the Mets in the National League Championship Series. In Game 2, Chris was batting second. He stepped into the box, and all of a sudden, his legs started shaking. He stepped out, took a deep breath, gathered himself, and stepped back in. And then his legs started shaking again. “Finally, I was like, ‘F—k it, man, I’m going to have to hit like this.’” The count went to 3–2, and the sellout crowd at Shea Stadium came to its feet, going crazy. “I’m shitting bricks,” he recalls. Despite the wobbly knees, he managed to put the ball in play, a groundout. He finished the game 0-for-4, but hit a home run later in the series, and the Cardinals went on to win the World Series.
His treasure trove of stories like that makes Chris a budding radio star. “Their show is fun to listen to because you learn something,” Dave says.
The boss agrees. “He’s uniquely talented,” Sterling says, “and he has a great future ahead of him.”
Most of the newspaper stories about Chris’ battle with cancer haven’t delved deeply into the medical details. They might mention that the surgery removed all of the tumor that could be seen on the MRI (which is true, a “gross total resection”), but they don’t say much about his prognosis going forward. Chris doesn’t want people to think he’s dying.
But glossing over the particulars doesn’t change the truth. Like his mother’s, Chris’ tumor was a glioblastoma. Grade IV. The worst kind. The scary thing about glioblastomas is that they tend to grow back. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is around 14 months, though a small (but increasingly large) number of patients have survived five, 10 years—some longer.
Chris understands this; he just doesn’t like to dwell on it. He’ll run into people and they’ll say, “Oh, you had a brain tumor. You’re fine now, though, huh?” They don’t get it. “This is a lifelong battle,” he says. “This isn’t just like get zapped for six weeks, and you’re done. This is real shit.”
He removes his hat to reveal the long scar running across the side of his head. The pronounced swelling is gone, but his hair is only coming back in patches. “It’s a joke,” he says.
The conversation turns grim. Chris considers his mortality. “If you were only going to live two more years, how would you live your life?” Would you still go in to work tomorrow? Would you hug your spouse a little tighter?
Chris turns 32 on May 5. He meets people who are proud to be five-year survivors. He knows that no one is promised tomorrow, but he doesn’t want just five years. He wants 50. It’s hard to blame him. That’s why Chris likes the doctors at Duke. They don’t talk much about his prognosis. They talk about hope. “You want to believe that you can live as long as you want,” he says, echoing his comment about baseball.
And there is hope. Chris is young. He’s otherwise healthy. And new treatment options have become available in the past few years, with more possibilities on the horizon. The chemo that Chris takes, Temodar, is relatively new and has been shown to reduce the rate of recurrence.
Dr. Eric Leuthardt, an associate professor of neurological surgery at Washington University and a neurosurgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, touts new treatments like tumor vaccines and less invasive surgical techniques involving lasers. Each breakthrough allows patients to live longer, giving them more time to make it to the next breakthrough. “There is a lot of new stuff that is coming online that I think can fundamentally and substantially help patients with glioblastomas,” he says.
Chris has goals, things he’s looking forward to. They help him keep going. The anniversary trip was one. Seeing Shelley, now a utility player for the Tampa Bay Rays, in uniform on opening day was another. And the first birthday of his twin nephews, William and Walker, is a third. (“They act like me and my brother,” Shelley says of his baby boys. “It’s going to be hell, probably, but I really hope it is.”)
When his career ended, Chris was bitter. He needed some time away from baseball and hasn’t swung a bat since. But after what he’s been through, his perspective’s changed. That love of the game is rekindled, and he wants to get back in the cage. He needs to add a little muscle first, so he doesn’t hurt himself (“a lot of torque from the big man over here”), but he imagines what it would feel like. “If I could go down to the batting cage and just take rips with the bat, that would be the ultimate.”
Every member of the Duncan family has dealt with the past few years differently. Dave has approached it like a typical coach, taking it “one day at a time.” He puts his trust in the doctors, trying to follow their instructions as precisely as possible and “to stay as positive as we can.”
Cancer has made Chris more appreciative of all he accomplished. He grew up in the dugout with his father and La Russa. They all won a World Series together. “That’s special,” he says.
For his part, Shelley is one of the world’s foremost believers in positive thinking. “It’s truly true: If you think positive things, they will happen,” he says. “If you put yourself in a positive atmosphere with positive energy, nothing but good will happen.”
Most studies have shown that cancer patients with positive attitudes have the same outcomes as depressed ones, though positive thinking can help people cope with traumatic treatments.
But that’s not exactly what Shelley means. He talks about Chris wanting to swing the bat again, about the meaning of baseball.
“When Chris says that, it’s not just hitting off a pitcher that he misses,” Shelley says, launching into a heartfelt, off-the-cuff ode to the beauty of the game. “It’s going to the clubhouse and being in an environment where he gets to hang out with these teammates and crack jokes and tell stories in the training room; go to the cage and take 20, 30 whacks off a tee and toss; hit BP [batting practice] in a big-league stadium; smell the pine tar; hear the pop of the glove; roll around in the grass; play in a big-league stadium where the infield is perfect and the dirt is perfect and the lights are perfect; go in there with 30,000 people watching you and feel the adrenaline rush of facing a big-league pitcher. That’s the stuff that people dream of.”
Shelley believes that baseball is an analogy for life. The hard work. The ups and downs. The preparation and determination required to be successful. The daily grind. The need to balance work with family. An attention to detail and an appreciation for the little things. Enduring setbacks, and bouncing back.
Life is like baseball. Baseball is like life, like fighting cancer. When the Duncans talk about one, they’re really talking about both.
“That’s why I truly, from the bottom of my heart, believe that Chris is going to beat this thing,” Shelley says. “He’s been training for this his whole life.”
Update: Beginning May 1, Duncan moves to co-host the midday show, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., on 101 ESPN.
Team Dunc Mode
This summer, a 5K race called Head for the Cure (headforthecure.org/st-louis/hftc-st-louis), which raises money for brain-cancer research, will be coming to St. Louis for the first time. The race is set for 8 a.m. on June 30 in Forest Park. Chris and Amy are trying to put together the biggest team ever, and they asked me to help get the word out. Their squad is called Dunc Mode. For $40, you can register for the race, join the team, and get a supercool Dunc Mode T-shirt.
It’s a cause that’s personal for me. Last year, my brother-in-law Brett Miller was diagnosed with a grade II astrocytoma, a brain tumor the size of a grapefruit. He was 29, with a wife, Lydia (my wife’s sister), and a beautiful 1-year-old daughter, Malena. He had surgery to remove the tumor in February 2012, followed by six weeks of radiation. Since then, all of his scans have been clear, and his outlook is good.
Brett might come to St. Louis to run in June. But as of this writing, they have another baby on the way, so most of his plans are tentative. By the time they get this magazine, the little guy will have arrived, though he might need to wait a couple of years before he can read it.