On a picturesque June night in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are getting ready to take the field for a game against the Buffalo Bisons at PNC Field. The sun is out, and the scattered clouds fill the blue sky above Montage Mountain.
From the third-base dugout, the view not only includes the field, but also a small forest of pine trees that sits behind the outfield wall and leads to several hotels, restaurants and even a well-known ski destination.
As game time rapidly approaches, the blue seats that ring the infield quickly fill with fans, some enjoying that first cold beer of the night from local Wallenpaupack Brewing Company, and others indulging in Chickie’s & Pete’s chicken strips and crab fries. In the outfield lawn seating areas, there are almost as many dogs as people — it’s “Waggin’ Wednesday,” and fans are encouraged to bring their canines to the game.
For RailRiders manager Shelley Duncan, this atmosphere represents his current stage in life, as well as a significant piece of his past. The skipper’s career included nine years in the Yankees organization as a player, during which he dominated the competition on this very field.
Nearly a decade and a half after playing his last game in pinstripes — and following stops with six other teams as a player, Minor League manager, coach and analytics coordinator — Duncan was hired by the Yankees earlier this year to manage the organization’s Triple-A team.
“It was just a big nostalgic feeling to come back,” Duncan says from the third-base dugout. “I have spent more years in this organization than I did in any other one in baseball. My roots were established wearing the pinstripes from the very bottom all the way to the top, and this is where I really learned how to play the game. No other place in the world allows you to learn what it takes to be a champion, the pressure you have to deal with, the fundamentals of the game and so many other aspects of the sport, like the Yankees organization.”
The 43-year-old son of Dave Duncan — a Major League catcher turned pitching coach for several championship teams in Oakland and St. Louis — has a rare combination of baseball acumen and ability to relate to players, if for no other reason than because he experienced just about all of the highs and lows that the sport has to offer.
After a standout career at the University of Arizona, the Tucson native was selected by the Yankees in the second round of the 2001 Draft. Even though he reached double digits in home runs three times in his first five professional seasons — hitting as many as 34 long balls with Double-A Trenton in 2005 — Duncan didn’t get to Triple-A until 2006, his sixth season in the organization.
Duncan ingratiated himself with a new fanbase at the start of 2007. With the Yankees having just relocated their Triple-A team from Columbus, Ohio, to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the 6-foot-5-inch outfielder and first baseman began to put it all together. In 91 games, Duncan batted .295 — almost 30 points higher than his previous career high — with 25 home runs.
That July, Duncan earned his first promotion to the big leagues, and he made an unforgettable impression at the plate. With the Yankees surging in the standings, Duncan hit a home run in his second game, then hit two more in his fourth game. He hit his fifth career homer in only his eighth game.
“Where the team was in the standings when I got called up and then where we finished stands out the most,” Duncan says. “When I came up, we were 6 1/2 games back, and then the whole team just got hot. Making the playoffs was the most fun part of that season. But during that run, I tried my hardest not to get caught up in the moment. I realized the most important thing isn’t getting to the big leagues, it’s doing something to stay there. I didn’t even look at the ‘NY’ logo on my jersey that whole time because I didn’t want to get too caught up in the nerves. I wanted to just be focused in the moment and relax.”
Like his powerful swing, Duncan’s energy also resonated with fellow Yankees players. Whether he was bashing elbows with a teammate after a home run or sticking up for a teammate — he started a benches-clearing incident in a 2008 Spring Training game against Tampa Bay with an aggressive slide into second base after Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli was injured in a home-plate collision — Duncan was larger than life.
But pitchers caught up to Duncan a few months into his first season. He finished the 2007 campaign with a .257 average and seven home runs in 34 games, but played well enough in September to make the postseason roster. In the Yankees’ four-game American League Division Series loss to Cleveland, Duncan collected two hits.
Duncan spent more time in Triple-A during the 2008 season than he did in the Bronx, but he walked away with his first of two great accomplishments from his Minor League playing days, powering the team to an International League title. The next season, before playing in 11 games down the stretch for the World Series-champion Yankees, Duncan put together his finest season in the Minors, batting .277 with 30 home runs and 99 RBIs in 123 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His lofty statistics earned him International League MVP honors.
Now that he’s back in Scranton, Duncan appreciates what he accomplished there even more.
“It gives some validity to my beliefs,” he says. “The way I did things and the way I went about the game produced positive results. It allows me to be more confident with my message, and hopefully on the receiving end, it’s met with a stronger belief in what I’m saying. Just to make it to Triple-A is a huge accomplishment. Every single thing that I’ve done or been part of, whether it was in the Minors or Majors, I feel extremely grateful for and proud of.”
Although Duncan didn’t find sustained success in the Bronx, he did as a 30-year-old in Cleveland, beginning a three-year run during which he played in at least 76 games and hit 11 homers in each season.
“I don’t think it was ever satisfying,” he says. “I was always afraid of losing my job. You’re doing everything you possibly can to succeed. Sometimes you look back and wish you just enjoyed yourself a little more. But ultimately, it’s about relationships, and I was able to stay in one place for a little bit and develop some great friendships.”
After playing for Tampa Bay in 2013 and in Cincinnati’s Minor League system in 2014, it was time for Duncan to call it quits. But with 330 Major League games over seven seasons on his register, he was well prepared for the second half of his baseball journey.
“I knew that I wanted to coach since I was 12 years old,” he says. “When I was playing, I did everything that I could possibly do to study every little facet of the game and to prepare myself for that next step in life, whenever it was.”
That next chapter started in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, where, in his mid-30s, Duncan got valuable experience right away. Just months after playing his final game, he was hired as manager of the Hillsboro Hops, and in his first season at the helm, he led the Short-Season A affiliate to a Northwest League title.
Over the next few seasons, Duncan managed Arizona’s High-A and Double-A affiliates, winning a second championship with the latter. Suddenly, the most difficult parts of his playing career had become assets.
“The biggest thing for me was having relatability with those players,” says Duncan, who led the Jackson Generals to the 2018 Southern League title. “Understanding what it’s like to be in that locker room and struggle to move upward in the organization was really important. Knowing what type of player you need to be in order to have success and knowing how to deal with those ups and downs was so helpful.
“I was using the experiences that I had to help my players. I had already developed an understanding of what these guys were going through mentally, and I had empathy and was able to create a good environment.”
In an effort to diversify his baseball resume, Duncan left the Diamondbacks organization prior to the 2019 season for a Major League field coordinator position with the Toronto Blue Jays. In that role, Duncan was in uniform, assisting the coaching staff in game planning and execution, and serving as a liaison between the team’s analytics department and its coaches. For Duncan, returning to the big league level without the same pressure he had been accustomed to allowed him to learn things that weren’t previously on his radar.
“When I was a manager, one of the things I never really understood was what it’s like to be a coach,” Duncan says. “I don’t think I really knew all of the things coaches need from the manager. To be able to be a coach and work hands-on with the other coaches, I learned a lot about what they need from the manager. Also, being able to be in the big leagues as a coach without everything on my shoulders allowed me to see things a little differently. I could spend more time with the players and understand their needs and their personalities. They are really under the microscope, and that pressure extends to their families. Being in a big league dugout for the amount of time I was helped me talk to players in a more relatable way about what to expect.”
Duncan’s final stop before returning to the organization that drafted him came with the Chicago White Sox, where he served as an analytics coordinator. That experience — which began in November 2020 and included copious time spent learning the analytical and strategic process geared to benefit managers and coaches — only strengthened Duncan’s already diverse skill set.
“Being exposed to all these different organizations, you get to see how other people do things,” Duncan says. “You get to see what’s important in other places, what little things they might do to get the best out of players. You start developing a lot of different relationships, and your knowledge starts to expand. Your point of view and the way you look at things changes and evolves. I’m taking all the tools and resources I’ve learned everywhere else and coming up with a good plan for the guys I’m managing now.”
Beyond all of the knowledge that Duncan has accumulated as a player and in the coaching and front-office positions he has held, some of the most important observations he made came during his youth when he had the chance to be at the ballpark with his father. Shadowing the now-retired Dave Duncan when he served as the pitching coach for Oakland teams that went to three consecutive World Series from 1988 through 1990 provided the current RailRiders manager with the type of real-life experience that most don’t get until they’ve carved out their own careers.
“The most important thing I learned from my dad was how to create an environment to get the most out of people,” Duncan says. “His biggest strength was his relationships and building trust with players and teaching guys the nuances of the game. He prepared more than anyone else, and he was outstanding at taking difficult concepts and simplifying them. He was also one of the best at making anybody feel like they could achieve anything.”
Being so close to the juggernaut teams in Oakland, especially when they won the 1989 World Series, also fueled Duncan’s passion for the game.
“Those are the years that made me,” he says. “Playing around on the field with other players’ kids during batting practice, hitting with the team and going on road trips, it was all really incredible. When you think about the players who were on that team, it was an epic group — Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley. Learning how to play the game and how to go about your business through Hall of Fame players, that’s something you never forget.”
During those times and for many years after, Duncan shared just about every experience with his mother and with his younger brother, Chris, who also played in the Majors for several seasons. Tragically, both were diagnosed with brain cancer in recent years and have since passed away. The bond that Duncan had with his brother was particularly close, and although Chris died at 38 years old, he made a lasting impact on the RailRiders manager.
“I would have never made it to the Major Leagues if it wasn’t for him,” Duncan says. “We would talk every single night. His success was driven by his belief in himself and his mental ability to achieve anything he set his mind to. When he got diagnosed with cancer, he fought it harder than I could even imagine. He would give positive affirmations every single day. He would work out every single day, and when he started losing feeling in his left side and could hardly walk, he was still hiking in Tucson just to prove that he could still do that.
“His spirit and intensity are so inspiring, but more important than anything, he was always kind. He always helped the weakest person on the team. He was always there to lift them up. He was the leader who constantly did the courageous thing that no one else wanted to do, simply because it was the right thing to do. The way that he lived his life has inspired me in more ways than managing.”
These days, Duncan is combining his life experiences with a philosophy on managing a Minor League team that mirrors the organization’s view on what constitutes a successful Triple-A program.
“The goal is for the New York Yankees to win a World Series title,” he says. “For them to do that, they need players capable of competing at a high level. Development exceeds everything, but when a player gets to the big leagues, he has to have that championship mindset. I think about development first, making sure players are healthy, in shape and fundamentally sound. Part of that formula, however, is teaching them how to win. So, there’s a huge importance on developing through winning. You need teammates in the Minors to push you, support you, celebrate with you and come together as a unit for a common goal. If you have one common goal as a team, that’s going to accelerate development. It’s going to put more pressure on each person to give the best version of themselves every day.”
Since Duncan’s previous stint in Scranton as a player, he has mellowed a little bit. Time will do that to just about anyone. But the manager is still more intense than most people in sports. Following a 34-40 first half, Duncan’s team picked up the pace, posting a 7-3 record in the first 10 games of the second half of 2023.
While his focus is on the task of developing players and fostering a winning culture, Duncan is not shy about what he hopes to achieve in the future, although he is somewhat reluctant to look past 2023.
When asked what his ultimate goal is, Duncan pauses for at least 20 seconds.
“To one day be a Major League manager,” he finally says. “You can write it in stone. But the truth is that there’s a point where you experience enough in life to understand what’s really important. To me, the people that you’re with is more important than titles or jobs. It’s more about the relationships, because if you don’t have the right support system and the job is not right for your family, it’s not going to give you happiness in life. That’s one of the reasons I’m so extremely grateful to be back in this organization.
“Being in the same dugout and looking at the same mountain, I have a really special comfort level here. I feel like I’ve come back home.”
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the August 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.