August 21, 2013 | by Michael Croley
On his first night in Toledo, in his first at bat, Shelley Duncan cue-balled a dribbler to the pitcher. On contact, he yelled, “Shit,” and began his reflexive sprint down the line. When he returned to the dugout, nobody on the team said anything to him or even looked his way. On this road trip, he was 1-10, with a .217 average for the season. He arrived in Durham from Tampa on May 6, after hitting only .182 in twenty games with the big club. As he pulled off his helmet to reveal a tangle of blond, thinning hair, I noticed a far-off look in his eyes, as though they had been hollowed out. It’s a look familiar to anyone who has seen the photographs of Walker Evans: complete exhaustion meshed with pure confusion. He took his helmet in his right hand and walked down the steps, lightly tapping the plastic against the metal railing; his lips, as he spoke to himself, made only slight putters of admonishment. He carefully put the helmet away in its nook and sat down on the bench with his white batting gloves still velcroed at the wrists. Before I even got to know Shelley Duncan, I was already worried about his future in baseball.
I first became interested in Duncan a week earlier when, watching the team in Columbus, I had spotted his name in the Durham Bulls’ media guide as having the most major-league experience of the roster. He had two considerable stints with the Indians and, before that, had made his rookie debut with the Yankees. I was intrigued because, on the surface, he seemed the aging veteran with big-league time, now toiling in the purgatory of Triple-A where everyone is either on their way up or down, or out of baseball altogether. Watching him at the end of the bench, I had no idea that his mother had passed away from brain cancer earlier in the summer or that his brother had been diagnosed with the same disease. I didn’t know that his twin sons had been born last July and he’d been away from them for almost half their lives. He was just a player who seemed near the end.
When we met for tacos two days later—after I’d done my research—I was determined not to ask him about these matters; I was going to keep to baseball and life on the road. But when I asked how the season was going, he replied with one word: “Strange.” Then he proceeded to tell me about his personal problems and how those may have affected him this year.
This was the first year baseball had ever felt like a job, he said. “I’ve always been a very intense player. I took pride in the fact that I could always get myself ready to play, but this winter was the first winter I didn’t have that feeling of excitement to get to the ballpark and start a new season.” He explained that baseball is such a mental game that you have to be keyed up and focused. When I suggested that his struggles might have more to do with life than talent, he quickly replied, “I think so. I hope so. I hope I’m not getting old and starting to suck.” Whatever it was, Duncan knew his confidence was waning, and he told me, “We always say you have to have confidence to play baseball, but which comes first? Do you have confidence because you’re playing well, or do you play well because you have confidence?”
He picked at a napkin and adjusted the cap on his head the entire time we were at the restaurant, but he was not reluctant to look me in the eye—he only wanted to get the words right. “Here’s the thing,” he said, lifting his head, his voice louder with authority, “I’ll have four at bats tonight and those four will determine how I feel about my entire day.”
Duncan’s face, hammered into angles, is reminiscent of a steelworker’s, and there is no sense of boyishness about him—which is to say, the playfulness of making a living at a child’s game has faded out of him. It was plain the combined weight of his personal and professional lives had worn him down, and he was carrying a lot more than his thirty-three years. If he weren’t so solid in his shoulders and arms, hardened from years of gripping barbells and bats, he likely would have been slouching.
That night, Duncan went 0-4 after another extended session in the batting cage, where he hit off the tee and took soft toss for more than an hour—the third such day I’d witnessed his routine. The next morning, we met in the hotel lobby and commiserated over the horridness of the rooms, which could have used an update ten years ago. He looked nearly as tired as the day before but was in relatively good spirits. As we were walking to a table, a man stopped us. “You guys play ball,” he said. I pointed to Duncan.
“What position you play?” the man asked.
“I’m a hitter.”
“I know who you are. You played for the Yankees, didn’t you?”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Shelley, Bob.”
“You were on the Yankees, weren’t you?” Bob asked again.
“Yes, Bob.” Duncan looked down at his phone, hoping body language would shrug the guy off. We sat down and Bob left, but ten minutes later he was back.
“I liked when I asked you what position you played you said hitter. I remember you. I’m from New York. You smashed the hell out of it, I remember.”
“That’s nice, Bob. Thanks.”
I was amused by the way Duncan kept calling him by his name. The man drank coffee and stood on the periphery, wanting something more it seemed, but he never asked for an autograph. He appeared to infer some intimate connection between Duncan and himself from having simply watched Duncan play. Finally, he told us about his kids, that they played—“nothing like you”—and that he’d taken them to watch him play in Yankee Stadium.
“Thanks, Bob,” Duncan said again. “Thanks for stopping by.” He offered the man nothing more than pleasantries, and when Bob walked away, I thought about how this poorly lit and outfitted hotel compared to where the Yankees had put him up. I wanted to ask him about the difference between walking to the plate in Yankee Stadium versus anywhere else in the International League, but the answer seemed too obvious. Instead, I asked how often he experienced such encounters with fans.
“Is it always that awkward?”
“The first couple of times it’s kind of neat. But now…” His voice trailed off and he shook his head.
“Now you just want to be left alone,” I finished.
The day before he had told me, “I wonder sometimes if I’m missing out on the little things, or if the little things are just that. You know, I’ve never had a summer vacation. I’ve never gone to a lake and gone waterskiing for a week with my friends. I’ve never rented a cabin and gone there with buddies. Can you believe that?”
“And you think you’ve missed something in life by missing those?”
“I don’t know. I just wonder if I have or if those are just details.”
But when I asked what will become of him when his playing days are up, he said he’d like to manage.
“That means you’re still not going to have a summer vacation.”
“Then why would you stay in it?”
“I feel like I have a lot of knowledge, and I like helping the younger guys.”
“Do you think you could do something else?”
“I was talking to one of my teammates about this. I don’t know that I could get a job at an Ace Hardware. I mean, I couldn’t fill out a résumé. I’ve been playing professional baseball since I was twenty.”
Duncan grew up in baseball like his own sons are likely to do. His father, Dave Duncan, played major-league ball, and then was one of the top pitching coaches for thirty years.
With Bob on his way out, Duncan and I talked for another twenty minutes. As our time wound down, I finally asked him a question I’d been dreading: “Do you have a contract for next year?”
“Do you care where you end up?”
“It really doesn’t matter to you?”
“At this point, you’re just grateful to have a job.”
“Do you want another shot up at the big club?”
“So come September 1, will you be peeking?”
“No. Some of the other guys might.”
I told him that his manager, Charlie Montoyo, told me the month he spent in the big leagues, in 1993, was, looking back, enough for him. He could always say he made it. He thinks of his career as a success and feels good about it. “Do you see it that way? You had your time, so does that make it easier to be in Triple-A?”
“No. Charlie can say that and it’s probably true for him, but right now I can’t see it that way. For instance, I played in the playoffs and at the time it just seemed like regular baseball games. Later, I saw how special they were, but when you’re in the moment you just can’t see it that way. One day, maybe when my kids are older, I’ll look back and it’ll be special, but not now.”
We left it there and Duncan went to the bank of elevators. After the game that night, he and the rest of the Bulls caught a flight out of Detroit at four A.M. and headed back to Durham to take on the Gwinnett Braves. Duncan told me the minor leagues are the romance and the big leagues are the glamour. As I head south out of Toledo, its corroded and defiant landscape behind me, I think what a fickle mistress baseball is, how the longer its players are in it, the less they feel the delight it gave them when they were young and had first discovered it. And yet, long after they know better, those same players chase after that first feeling, until all the baseball that’s left in them is crushed out like the dust on the diamonds where they play.
Michael Croley was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in Corbin, Kentucky. His stories regularly appear in Narrative, and he was named to their list of “Best New Writers” in 2011. His other fiction and criticism has been published in Blackbird, The Louisville Review, The Southern Review, Fourth Genre, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. He lives in Granville, Ohio, and teaches creative writing at Denison University.