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Will Duncan end up like Rolen?

Let me say right up front that I have the utmost respect for Dave Duncan as a coach and a person.

The long-time St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach has been all over the news this summer, not only for the right reason – due to the considerable successes of his 2009 mound charges – but also because of controversy over his son, former Cardinals outfielder Chris Duncan.

As trenches are dug deeper and deeper, the St. Louis future of Dave Duncan seems to be getting cloudier, perhaps to the point the coach will or has already decided not to return for 2010.

I could not help but think about another prominent Cardinals story from recent years in which off-field disputes became bigger than the team, leading to an important cog in the club’s machine to leave town.

The story of the trade of Scott Rolen almost two years ago resurfaced earlier in the month when the third baseman returned to St. Louis, wearing the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds. Rolen went out of his way to visit Tony La Russa in the manager’s office on August 10th in an attempt to clear the air between the two.

Duncan’s circumstances are very different in that his dissatisfaction seems to have stemmed from his son’s treatment by segments of the fans and media and the club’s front office while Rolen had conflicts with his manager and the team’s medical staff.

I don’t know Duncan well, but I do know that he is a straight-shooter and a very principled man. That may not have served him well when his comments critical of the Chris Duncan trade itself, the club’s front office and the players in their farm system received widespread attention and put the coach in an unfavorable light.

Just a few days earlier, Duncan’s longtime friend and boss La Russa had lashed out at those critical of Chris Duncan, saying the negative treatment of the slumping slugger made him “want to vomit”.

Earlier this month, Duncan instituted a blackout policy against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, apparently over articles written about the younger Duncan. In reference to Chris, Dave also noted the “talk-show guys will have to find a new whipping boy.”

Based on Chris Duncan’s struggles and subsequent release after one month with Boston’s Triple-A club in Pawtucket, it is clear he is not right. Whether a winter of rest and recovery will fix what ails him remains to be seen, but only the coldest of the cold would not wish a return to past success for Chris.

Looking at the Chris Duncan trade from a baseball perspective, most unbiased observers can see its merit from the Cardinals side. Not Dave Duncan, however.

It may be far more difficult, if not impossible for Dave Duncan’s situation to be repaired. The depth of his feelings are illustrated in his comments at the time of the trade. Those remarks may have been amplified by surprise since he reportedly was not informed of the impending trade other than by La Russa. Still, they seemed the words of a disappointed father, rather than coming from the professional coach that he is.

“The way I look at it is he was traded for a player who had very little (leverage) … he (Julio Lugo) was designated for assignment,” Duncan said. “It’s highly unusual for a major-league roster player to be traded for somebody like that. So somebody wanted to get him out of the organization, and they’ve accomplished what they wanted to accomplish.

“Either that or we don’t have anybody in the minor leagues that they wanted for (Lugo). One or the other.”

Duncan was back in the headlines when he asked for a personal day off this past week but declined to explain why. Frankly, it is none of our collective business, but it just added fuel to the “Duncan is leaving” fire.

The Post-Dispatch’s Cardinals beat writer Joe Strauss has his finger on the pulse of the club as much or more than any non-team employee. Strauss states flatly that “Many close to Duncan do not expect him to return (in 2010).”

It would be a shame if that happens, just as it was when Rolen and La Russa decided they could no longer work together.

Yet, Dave Duncan is just one month from his 64th birthday, a time when many Americans are considering retirement. He has been in a professional uniform for over 45 years, with the last 30 years as a major league pitching coach, the longest such stint in MLB history.

Strauss reports that Duncan’s contract option for 2010 is a joint one. In other words, for him to return, both the coach and the front office would have to agree.

If Duncan can’t satisfactorily salve that which is causing his itch, whether it was due to the fans of St. Louis, the media, his own bosses or all of them collectively, then as difficult as it would be for everyone, perhaps he should leave after the season. Having to remain in a job that you no longer enjoy is no place to be.

If that is what transpires, we can only hope that the passing of time will not lead to the principals to look back with regret over how they handed themselves in the heat of the moment.

As Rolen himself observed earlier this month:

“They say time heals all wounds, but at the same time things happen and you don’t rewrite those things. You either accept the way it went down and you accept the changes that were made for the better. Or you harbor negative feelings and have a tough time putting your head down at night.”

After all Dave Duncan has done for the Cardinals, he deserves to be able to put his head down at night. Here’s hoping he can and will continue to be able to do so.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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