Spanning a generation, the New York Yankees experienced an unprecedented renaissance, restoring Yankee pride and tradition after a decade of uncertainty, frustration, and diminished prestige. Under Gene Michael and Buck Showalter an emphasis on prospects with untapped potential became the organizational strategy for their turnaround. The quartet of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte became known as the “Core Four”, winning five championships collectively and establishing a dynasty.
As the run of excellence reached its apex at the turn of the century, the Yankees farm system, once a crown jewel began to wither away, growing barren as heralded youngsters failed to develop. Names such as Drew Henson, John-Ford Griffin and C.J. Henry personified the empty returns and growing apathy of the system despite advanced billing. Eric Duncan, the Yankees first round draft choice out of Seton Hall Prep in 2003, became the most glaring example after many expected him to becoming the third baseman of the future. Now three years removed from his last professional season, Duncan begins the next chapter in his career, joining the coaching ranks for the Staten Island Yankees.
California dreams initially consumed Duncan, before his family relocated to Florham Park, New Jersey, where his infatuation of the Yankees grew exponentially. Duncan idolized beloved Bronx Bombers such as Derek Jeter and Paul O’Neill. His father, Hal, who grew up a fan of Mickey Mantle and the Yankee mystique resonated within the household. During a four-year tenure at Seton Hall Prep, Duncan emerged as one of the top high school products in the country, capturing two state championships and three conference championships. His senior season catapulted him to the upper echelon of amateur players in the country.
Duncan would set a school record that season with 9 home runs, 46 runs batted in and a robust .552 batting average, while leading the club to a 27-1 record. Projections of Scott Rolen and Chipper Jones made Duncan a desired selection for many teams in the first round of the 2003 draft. A scholarship offer from LSU and a signed letter of intent appeared to put a professional career on hold until the Yankees selected him with the 27th pick in the draft. Duncan instantly became one of the organization’s top prospects according to Baseball America and likely the first homegrown position player to come out of the farm system since Nick Johnson in 2001.
Duncan got off to blistering start in his first professional season, batting .301 across two levels, including a memorable 14 game stint with the Staten Island Yankees where he hit to a .373/.413/.695 slash line, including an OPS of 1.108. The “can’t miss” label seemed almost certain, but the acquisition of Alex Rodriguez at the big league level to replace Aaron Boone at third base blocked Duncan’s path. After strong showings in a full season of A-ball at Battle Creek and Tampa, Duncan declined precipitously at Double-A Trenton in 2005, batting just .235, despite 19 home runs. His prospect status would soon plummet as well, falling out of Baseball America’s top 100 by the end of 2006.
During the same season, the Yankees moved Duncan across the diamond to first base to eventually replace the aging Jason Giambi. After slight improvements in Trenton, Duncan would spend nearly four seasons in Triple-A between Columbus and Scranton through 2009, never eclipsing a .241 average and slowly losing prospect status. By the end of the 2009 season, the Yankees cut ties with their former first round pick just prior to his 25th birthday. Duncan would go on to play in three more Double-A seasons with the Braves, Cardinals, and Royals organizations amassing a career high in home runs with 22 in 2011.
Nonetheless, the end of the line drew near for Duncan who decided to call it a career one year later, choosing to return to college as a Political Science major at Seton Hall University and a volunteer baseball coach. It was on the campuses in South Orange, NJ where Duncan found his calling. It was then that he received another call from the Yankees to rejoin the Staten Island Yankees, this time as a defensive coach and hitting instructor, providing the tools and insight of nearly a decade in the professional ranks. Eric Duncan recently spoke to Baseball Essential about the next chapter in his career, originating with the Staten Island Yankees.
Baseball Essential: You had a storied career at Seton Hall Prep as a member of three conference championship teams. Who were some of your mentors and influences on the diamond in high school and what memories did you have of those years?
Eric Duncan: “Mentor wise it would definitely be my high school head coach Mike Sheppard. I am still very close to him. He is still winning a lot of games at the high school level. “
BBE: In 2003, the Yankees drafted you at the end of the first round. Moving to New Jersey as a youngster from Southern California, you became a Yankees fan. What was the draft like back then and what do you remember about your first visit to Yankee Stadium?
Duncan: “The draft was on internet radio. Now obviously it is a much bigger deal. It is televised and is a great experience for the kids who are drafted. I was 11 or 12 years old the first time I visited Yankee Stadium. I remember David Cone was pitching. It was a neat place, the old Yankee Stadium.”
BBE: In addition to being drafted by the Yankees you committed to LSU. Given the way your playing career ended, do you have any regrets about turning pro so quickly?
Duncan: “I wish I would have taken a couple of classes (in college) when I was playing, but other than that, no regrets. I had an opportunity to play professional baseball like these kids do now. It is something that is tough to pass up”.
BBE: Your first professional season took place at these facilities in Staten Island, batting to a .373/.413/.695 slash line. Which players were on that club with you that season and what changes have you seen with the team itself as you return a decade later?
Duncan: “Melky Cabrera is one of the guys that jumps out. [Also] Enrique Cruz, the brother of Jose Cruz Jr. Andy Stankiewicz was my manager. He made a big impression on me. Things have changed at the stadium. The batting cage area is improved. The clubhouse is top of the line. The guys here have it pretty special here. It’s a very good setup for rookie ball. This is a first class organization that does things the right way. Not only the Staten Island Yankees, but the Yankees organization as a whole.”
BBE: By 2004 the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez and moved you across the diamond from third base to first base two years later. What was going through your mind when the Yankees decided to make the transition and do you think the shift in your position perhaps affected your future?
Duncan: “I don’t know. I know the first thing on my mind was that I had to buy a first baseman’s glove. I had to learn a new position. It’s stuff everybody experiences. Rarely does a player experience smooth sailing throughout their career. You have to adapt and work with whatever comes in front of you.”
BBE: In 2006 you were the MVP of the Arizona Fall League and ultimately advanced to Triple-A Scranton before finishing out your playing career in 2012. When did you come to the realization that playing professional baseball was no longer feasible and decide to make a career in coaching?
Duncan: “The last day in 2012. You always envision yourself playing forever, but that day comes for everybody. You realize it. You can’t always play, but getting the opportunity to stay around the game on the coaching side has been a blessing”.
BBE: After your playing days ended you went back to school to attend Seton Hall. What did you study there and how important was it for you to get your degree?
Duncan: “I have one more year left. Cross my fingers I can get through it, but it’s been an interesting grind. I have a different perspective than other people, but it’s been enjoyable”.
BBE: This season you will be the defensive coach for the Staten Island Yankees. What are some of your responsibilities in that role and do you think your experiences as a top prospect can benefit the players who are now in a similar situation?
Duncan: “This summer I am going to be the hitting coach. I’ll be working with the guys on the hitting side, but absolutely, as you said. Everybody is going to fail in this game. It is inevitable that it is going to happen. You have to learn how to push through it. Make adjustments, develop routines and figure out ways to get through stuff because failure is a part of it.”
Often times in baseball, a label or title becomes the identity of a player, coach, or executive. An MVP, injury risk, underachiever, and bust become the barometers of individual value. Forgotten and overlooked are the efforts made to be in a position to perhaps one day catch a break or live out the expectations of others. Unfortunately for some, outside circumstances pervade achievement and glory from being universally realized. In Eric Duncan’s case it was not injury, legal trouble, or a lack of character. It was simply a case of a player not living up to a projection based on performance. The game of baseball takes years of arduous labor and preparation to master, along with failure and disappointment. As a member of the Staten Island Yankees coaching staff and in his brief time at Seton Hall University, Duncan is passing on the lessons of a long professional career filled with peaks, stumbles, and longevity, reminding us that eventual success results from learning through the obstacles of the past and opening with a clean slate ready to be written from growth and development.