By George Basile
If you’ve been involved with youth sports within the last 20 years, you’ve witnessed an unprecedented rise in the level of intensity and competition. It is an increasingly challenging environment with desire, uncertainty, and personal struggle strewn across every playing field. Every once in while within that ongoing struggle, you get a chance to work with rare individuals who capture the very reason that sports exist plus much more.
Enter Chris Duncan.
We came to know Chris Duncan—or often Dunc—as a 6-foot, 5-inch powerhouse and former Major League Baseball player when he came out to support Laguna Beach High School baseball back in 2014. The story is that he wandered on over to the team with the idea of somehow helping the guys out. Mike Bair, the LBHS Baseball head coach at the time, had created the kind of atmosphere where things like that could happen. Just like that, one day LBHS suddenly has a former MLB World-Series winning, ex-Cardinals home-run hitting first baseman, personal friend and professional peer of Albert Pujols, sports-radio hosting, new Assistant Coach helping out. Not bad.
A guy like that could have been a big, my-way-or-the-highway, let-me-show-you-my-World-Series-ring, kind of guy. He would have been justified—you should have seen him swing a bat. Controlled chaos. Booms-ville. But, he wasn’t. According to Coach Bair, “Chris Duncan was one of the funniest people I have ever met. He was a brilliant storyteller who could get an entire room filled with people laughing hysterically. Chris was also ultra-intense and passionate. The unique combination made him a highly successful player and one of the best baseball coaches I’ve ever been around. One moment we are cracking up laughing, and in the next we are engaged in a serious talk about either baseball or life. This temperament created an amazing culture for our Laguna Beach Baseball program for the three years he coached 2014-2016.”
Parents watched from behind the fence as Dunc worked with different players. He injected confidence into the guys, not about being potential MLB prospects, but about believing in themselves and putting in hard work. Persisting. Performing. He had the ability to transfer his professional-level knowledge in a simple way for the players to grasp and apply. He always asked whether it made sense and let the guys know that it needed to work for them. As one former LBHS player, Anthony Norelli, put it, “Dunc had so much knowledge about the game and how to be in the right mindset. He would always have the right balance of pushing you to play better while still being your friend on and off the field.” When another player began playing first base for the first time and needed a first-baseman’s glove, Dunc simply said “Here, use this” and handed over his own from the World Series. He treated everyone like peers in the pursuit of excellence.
To all, it became clear that Dunc had a level of empathy, compassion and enjoyment that you only see in the best educators. Those folks where great education is all about the students’ needs. Where a student’s growth is the big reward.
And, it paid off. Some of you may have heard that LBHS won their CIF division for the first and only time so far in 2016 (CIF is the California Interscholastic Federation and the Southern Section that LBHS is part of is the largest sports region in the state). That’s 78 years in from the founding of baseball at the high school. And, it was a challenging championship year. A whole-team effort with many ups and downs. What Dunc brought to that championship team can’t really be quantified. It was enormous. I saw it reflected in my own son, that first-baseman using the World Series glove. I saw it in his hard work, his belief, his persistence, his performance. And, I saw it in his smiles.
Through all of this, Dunc was battling a terrible disease, an aggressive inherited form of brain cancer. From the outside, you might only know because, one can surmise, it gave him that greater appreciation for every small moment and the things in life that really matter. One quiet morning sitting in a hotel lobby during an overnight tournament, Dunc shared stories and thoughts about the pursuit of excellence, of championships. He discussed the singular effort and personal bravery it takes to hang it all out there and put forth everything you have in the face of possible, even likely, failure. Dunc described a pinnacle point in his own life when he recognized that it was it not all about individual achievement. It is about succeeding by leaning into what the team needs to succeed—getting the timely hit that’s needed, not just the one that makes a big splash. That’s the ability you need to hone in life to be a leader. The players sensed it and learned from it. We all benefited from it.
Chris “Dunc” Duncan passed away on Sept. 6, at 38. He left behind his wonderful wife, Amy, and MLB players-coaches brother, Shelley, and dad, Dave. As you would expect, there’s been a lot of tributes to Dunc. Here’s one more from Laguna Beach and an LBHS team that appreciates Dunc’s vision and championship effort on our behalf: Chris Duncan was one amazing human being who should always bring a smile to your face and the determination to help everyone succeed, wherever you find yourself. Hopefully, his efforts will bring these to you, too.