I did something I haven’t done in years Tuesday night. I watched a ball game as a fan at Camden Yards with my father. It reminded me of being a little girl. It reminded me of why I fell in love with baseball. I’m glad I did. My dad is getting older and I try to soak in those moments, the few I have where it’s just him and I.
During the rain delay we strolled down the club level hall way examining the Orioles rosters and team pictures. My dad pointed out 1976. “That’s the year we bought the house you were born in,” he said, “It’s the year Reggie Jackson played for the Birds.”
It’s amazing how baseball fans use seasons as mental index cards to recall important memories. My dad saw Reggie Jackson in one photo and immediately knew the year it was taken and what was happening in his life then.
We stared at 1976 for a while. The pitching staff stood out; Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Wayne Garland. Down at the bottom of the roster was the man who caught them Dave Duncan. The same man who, as we spoke, sat right below us on the St. Louis Cardinals bench. Duncan is now in his 16th season as the Cardinals pitching coach.
I made it a point to find him the next day.
The Orioles catcher from 1975-1976 had a fairly forgettable offensive baseball career, but behind the plate he observed pitchers and latched onto pitching coaches like former Oriole George Bamberger.
“Because that part of the game has always been interesting to me and probably more rewarding than the offensive part of the game, I would pick these guys brains as much as I could,” Duncan said. “I think that helped me develop a lot of the philosophies that I have.”
Those philosophies led Duncan to a rare move - from major league catcher to major league pitching coach. Now, 32 years into his career, Duncan is the longest tenured pitching coach in the major leagues. He’s been alongside manager Tony LaRussa since 1983. The 65-year-old has followed LaRussa from the White Sox, to the Athletics, to the Cardinals.
All along the way he’s carried the knowledge learned from catching three 20-game winners while with the O’s.
“I’ve always looked at it as an advantage for me, at the major league level, having the opportunity to catch a lot of different guys that were very successful pitchers, and they have a number of different styles of pitching,” he said. “A lot of them got it done different ways, you know. So you have the opportunity to be exposed to great pitchers with different ways of going about pitching,”
While using Palmer and Cuellar’s pitching styles as teaching tools, Duncan avoids comparing his most talented pupils to his former teammates.
“I don’t even really think that way,” Duncan said. “I think more of; I know what Cuellar did to be successful. I mean this is a guy that wasn’t a blazing fastball guy. But he’s a change of speeds, control, slight movement on the ball, you know, and he was a successful pitcher. Jim Palmer, I know what he did to be successful with what he had to work with, so if I were to have a pitcher with a similar trait, you know, you can relate back to; well Jim Palmer did it this way and try to apply those to that particular guy.”
Duncan is the kind of coach you’d love to have a drink with and pick his brain. Over his playing and coaching career he’s been associated with eight Cy Young Award winners. He coached Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley, LaMarr Hoyt and Chris Carpenter and caught Vida Blue, Jim (Catfish) Hunter, Palmer and Cuellar.