Eric Duncan doesn't take anything for granted. Widely regarded as the No. 1 power-hitting prospect in the Yankees organization, Duncan earned that reputation through a lot of hard work and planning.
Born on December 7, 1984 in Southern California, Duncan fell in love with baseball at an early age. "I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid," he recalled. "I started playing T-Ball when I was five years old and quickly made baseball a big part of my life. Even when our family moved to New Jersey and I spent a lot more time indoors, I found different ways to hone my baseball skills. I think it actually made me tougher."
"Toughness" runs in the family. Duncan's father Hal went to the University of California-Santa Barbara on a Division I football scholarship. But there were also educational expectations for Eric and his brother, Aaron.
Duncan attended Seton Hall Prep, the oldest Catholic college preparatory school in New Jersey, founded in 1856. He excelled both in the classroom and on the baseball diamond at a school that is distinguished by an academically demanding environment and highly successful athletic program.
"You have to do well in school if you hope to be eligible to play sports and to showcase your athletic ability," he said. "The academics are even more important if you hope to play at the college level. I realized early on that if I wanted the opportunity to play baseball that I had to do well in the classroom."
Playing third base for Seton Hall's nationally ranked squad, Duncan, in his senior year, hit .535 with 10 home runs and 52 RBI. He attributes a lot of his success to his coach, Mike Sheppard, Jr. "He was a wonderful influence," said Duncan. "Not only did he prepare me extremely well to play the game, but more important, he taught me how to conduct myself, both on and off the field."
The 6' 3", 205-pound power-hitter did not expect to be a high pick in the June 2003 amateur draft. Instead, he decided to matriculate to Louisiana State University to continue his education and refine his baseball skills. Only after the Yankees made him their No. 1 selection did he change his plans. "It was a difficult decision for me," he admitted. "I wanted to go on to college and definitely plan to earn my degree after my pro career ends, but I couldn't very well turn down the opportunity to sign with the Yankees, my boyhood team."
Since signing in 2003, Duncan has moved through the farm system at an unprecedented pace. His most successful season thus far was 2005 when he hit 19 homers and collected 61 RBI. A third baseman during his first three seasons in the organization, Duncan has moved across the diamond to first base where he is still learning the nuances of positioning himself in the field and how to handle certain situations defensively.
Duncan struggled offensively last season playing a brand new position and dealing with an ailing back. But he maintains a healthy perspective. "I'm always going to have my bumps in the road," he explains. "Obviously I'm looking to have a huge breakout season this year. But I'm not going to hit the panic button and start changing things to soon. You've got to trust yourself and trust you're abilities and you'll come out of it."
One of Duncan's big supporters is Yankee Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who mentored him in spring training. "Working on hitting with Reggie Jackson was pretty special," said the first baseman. "He genuinely wants the players to succeed. We sat down and talked about hitting, watched a few of the current Yankees take BP, and discussed what works for them. He pointed out a few things that clicked with me and now I try to work on them every day in batting practice."
Once he starts tapping into his true potential, Duncan is projected to be a solid #5 hitter in the mold of a Jason Giambi, the current Yankee first-baseman and designated hitter. The more immediate goal is to realize his true potential.
"When you begin to climb up the ladder in the minor leagues, you see that there are guys who have tons of athletic ability, but they don't invest the work necessary to be the very best they can be," said Duncan. "When you get to Triple-A, the talent levels off and the guys who work the hardest separate themselves from the rest. Potential will just get you so far. It's the hard work that puts you over the top."
If "hard work" and "planning" are the keys to success, Eric Duncan has a bright future with the New York Yankees.
Bill Kashatus is a baseball historian who has authored 10 books, including a biography of Lou Gehrig. He can be contacted at bill@historylive
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.