For years, Shelley was vilified in the annals of Rays history as the player who started a brawl between the Rays and Yankees in spring training of 2008 by sliding hard into Akinori Iwamura. But this offseason, any hard feelings that lingered were pushed aside as Duncan signed with the Rays on a minor league contract and is now competing for a spot on the Rays’ roster as a righty hitting first baseman and outfielder. Duncan hopes to go from an unfortunate footnote in Rays history to an actual contributor to the Rays’ success.
Time passes, and ill will disappears. But when Rays fans shift from a subjective viewpoint, skewing the facts of what happened because he victimized the Rays, to a more objective one, their entire perspective of Duncan changes. What happened? Elliot Johnson broke Francisco Cervelli‘s wrist bowling him over, and while injuries are inevitable in baseball and there’s nothing you can do, Duncan considered what Johnson and the Rays did out of line and decided to stand out for his teammate, sliding into Iwamura and starting the fight. That’s exactly the type of character the Rays look in their players. Shelley Duncan isn’t a dirty player- he’s just a player who passionately believes in maintaining the morale of his teammates and steadfastly refuses to let any opponent put them down physically or emotionally. And while the Cervelli example portrays that just fine, the point is drilled into the ground even more when you hear about what Duncan told Zack Meisel of MLB.com in an article about how the Duncan family persevered through brain tumors in both mother Jeanine Duncan and brother (and ex-big leaguer) Chris Duncan.
Shelley struggled to come to terms with the diagnosis. It wasn’t grief or shock or panic he was feeling — those emotions would eventually arrive, too. First, he worried about the thoughts funneling into his mother’s mind, the perilous worst-case scenarios she could be pondering.
When he roamed the outfield, that distress dominated his conscience. It was when he stepped into the batter’s box, however, that he found solace.
“The cool thing about baseball is how much it means to people,” Shelley said. “The importance of coming back was to give Mom something to think about besides what’s going on in her life. She got to watch me, and that gave her something to get away from her problems.”
“It wasn’t as valuable and important to me as it was to her,” Shelley said. “That’s what made me push myself to do more.”
Obviously hearing that your mother has a brain tumor is infinite times worse than watching your teammate get injured, even on a play that never should have happened, but this shows how Duncan isn’t a guy who goes looking for a fight when his teammates or him face adversity- he uses everything his teammates and family go through to drive him at the plate. Shelley Duncan isn’t the type to mope around- he wants to go out, take action, and lead by his example. In 2008, Duncan was a 28 year old acting on impulse. Now, he’s a 33 year old veteran who knows exactly how to channel his energy, and the Rays couldn’t appreciate that any more. Duncan has to first find a way to crack the Rays’ roster before he can make his clubhouse presence felt. But as they signed Duncan, the Rays looked beyond the 2008 altercation and realized that he embodies exactly the type of character they want in their dugout. Some Rays fans still consider Duncan an enemy- but as they see his passion and intensity in addition to his home run power, he could quickly become a fan favorite.