In 2015, the defending Northwest League champion Hillsboro Hops will have a new manager: former major league outfielder Shelley Duncan. (J.R. House, who skippered the team to the title in 2014, has been elevated to the Arizona Diamondbacks' Advanced-A affiliate in Visalia, Calif.)
Duncan was a second-round draft choice of the New York Yankees from the University of Arizona in 2001. He spent parts of seven seasons in the major leagues from 2007-13 with the Yankees, Indians and Rays. And --- perhaps just as important to the task at hand --- he grew up in major league clubhouses: his father, renowned pitching coach Dave Duncan, was Tony LaRussa's right-hand man in Oakland and St. Louis.
On Tuesday, Duncan spoke via phone from his home in Tucson, Ariz., with Hops play-by-play announcer Rich Burk.
Rich Burk: What does it mean to you to come manage in Hillsboro?
Shelley Duncan: I've heard nothing but amazing things about the team, about the organization, the city, the whole atmosphere up there. I'm extremely excited about getting the opportunity to manage, and to do it up in the Northwest, in the Portland area, is great. My wife Elyse and I, one of our favorite cities is Portland. To get a chance to spend a couple of months up there in this situation is awesome.
RB: How did you discover Portland?
Duncan: The Triple-A All-Star Game, in 2009.
RB: I enjoyed meeting you then --- I was the play-by-play announcer for the Portland Beavers, and I emceed the home run derby from the field, including the finals with you and the Beavers' Chad Huffman.
Duncan: That's awesome. Me and Chad got to play together in Columbus after that, and we had some good stories about that home run derby. The last round, I had one that was right over the foul pole that they called foul, I swear it was fair, and me and Chad always bust each other's chops about that.
RB: Your wife Elyse came with you to the All-Star Game?
Duncan: She came with me, and we loved Portland. And one of my best friends from high school moved up there, so we've been back since then.
RB: Have you been to Hillsboro?
Duncan: No. I've heard it's close to the Nike headquarters, and I've been there. In college I played with Team USA, a summer team, and we did a tour of a lot of the minor-league ballparks up in the Northwest. We got to visit the Nike headquarters, and that was pretty neat.
RB: Yes, Hillsboro's only a few miles from there. So... what traits do you think you'll bring to managing?
Duncan: It's evolving. The day I was done playing [during the 2014 season], I'd give you a completely different answer than I'd give you today. I was fortunate to spend the fall being on the coaching staff of the University of Arizona baseball team, and helping out with those kids. To go from being up-and-down from Triple-A to the big leagues for many years, all I've been around is older guys. So getting a chance to go back down to hang out with 18- to 22-year-olds kind of reminded me how young and fresh these guys are, where they are in their development physically and mentally. How much they're eager to learn, how wide-open their ears are. They listen to every single word you say, sometimes too much.
But going back to your question, one of the biggest traits I'll be able to bring is getting these guys to play at the level I wanted to play, and that is the intensity, the focus, the work ethic, the preparation, teaching them what it takes to become a big-league baseball player --- not necessarily making them a big-league baseball player, but teaching them little things you need to do day-in, day-out, and a lot of it is the grind of the game.
RB: A lot it's off the field stuff, isn't it, what with bus trips, and players managing their lives along with playing, right?
Duncan: It really is. That's something I've heard a lot with other managers I've talked to. They've really stressed this to me. You're not only managing what's going on on the field, but you're managing the clubhouse, you're managing what's going on away from the field, you're helping these guys transition into not only a new phase of baseball, but of life. It takes a strong personality to help those guys develop as men.
RB: Which managers in your career will have the biggest effect on the way you lead a team?
Duncan: Four of them --- three I played for, and one of them, Tony LaRussa, I grew up around on a daily basis. I spent my whole childhood in the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouses, and I have a really close relationship with him, and I've paid attention to everything he's done as a manager since I could remember. I'm fortunate to have him as a mentor, someone I can give a call to, pick his brain and ask him questions.
The managers I played for that I learned a lot from are Joe Torre, Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon. All three of them bring different things to the game. It's a testament that there's no one right way to manage. Joe Maddon's philosophy is to keep everyone happy in the clubhouse, they're gonna play hard every single day. And then you have someone with an intense focus like Joe Girardi, it's a little different. And then there's Joe Torre, who can keep the peace and keep control of the clubhouse better than anybody, how he controls the media, how he communicates with his players, those are all things that I'm very fortunate to have been around.
RB: When you were a kid, which players took you under their wing?
Duncan: Mark McGwire was the biggest one, and we still have that relationship today. At 12, 13 years old when I was creeping into a size 13, he'd hook me up with his shoes. As I got into college, he'd help me with my swing. He got me to become the hitter I was in college and in my pro career. He was always a phone call away, my whole career. A really big influence in me getting to the major leagues. He's one of the best hitting coaches, and one of the best people, in baseball.
RB: What teammates influenced you the most?
Duncan: I have a handful of them, from my time in New York to my time in Cleveland. In New York, I'll never forget, coming to the big leagues, and Ron Villone and Andy Phillips being my big brothers there. Derek Jeter, I can't say enough good things about him. He took me in right away, and I learned how to be a championship teammate. Alex Rodriguez has a lot of heat on him now, but back in '07 and '08, watching him day in and day out, his preparation was unbelievable. And going to Cleveland, two guys I became very close with were Travis Hafner and Austin Kearns, two guys that are about as good of baseball guys as there are.
RB: This is a tough question, because it's been your entire life... but, what have you learned from your dad?
Duncan: (Laughs) That is a broad question, but I'll give you a simple answer, because that's the answer: simplicity. He makes something that's extremely tough to do very simple. He can break down the hardest thing in the world piece-by-piece, so you have something small to focus on, and when you have that, all the sudden something that seems impossible becomes a reality. He preached to me that you put the focus on the process, not the result. If you do that, good things will happen.
RB: You were a position player as a pro, but the fact that your dad is one of the greatest pitching coaches in major-league history, do you know pitching better than most position players?
Duncan: I would hope so, I really would. I'm not going to say I'd be able to sit down and break down mechanics really well. Understanding the ins and outs of what a pitcher feels on the mound, that's tough. Understanding the emotions a pitcher goes through on the mound in the heat of competition, that's something I can never understand and can never relate to, but understanding what it takes to get a hitter out, I would hope that I have a little more advantage over other position players, because I've had the luxury of talking with my dad on that on a nightly basis. From when I was little until now, I'll ask him, "What'd you talk to that pitcher on the mound about?" I'd ask him about what adjustments you'd make to certain hitters, and I tried to learn every time we talked.
RB: Would he bring the game home with him?
Duncan: He wouldn't bring it home, but I'd make him. I was always that kid that wanted to know stuff. I'd sit in bed and instead of asking for a story, I'd ask him about stuff from the game, or what's going on on the trading block, all kinds of baseball-related questions. That was me when I was a little kid.
RB: What does it mean to you to manage a defending championship team in the Hillsboro Hops?
Duncan: No pressure, right? (Laughs) It's fun. I'm hoping that momentum brings in the intensity from the fans. That's what fans like to see --- winning baseball. When a team wins a lot, fans start to have high expectations, they start coming to the ballpark a little more, and that brings a lot more energy. That's going to be a lot of fun.
RB: And being a former Yankee, you know about expectations, don't you?
Duncan: I don't care where we are, there's nothing else compared to the expectations and pressures that they put on you in New York.
Shelley Duncan's first season as manager begins June 18 in Spokane. The Hillsboro Hops' home opener is June 23 against Salem-Keizer.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.