Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Oakland A's/Seibu Lions Series: Taylor Duncan



Japan was often used as nothing more than a pit stop for American ballplayers, especially in the 70s and 80s. Taylor Duncan is no exception.

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Tenures: 1978 with the Oakland A's and 1980 with the Seibu Lions

Statistics with the Oakland A's: 104 games, 348 PAs, .257/.296/.335, 2 HRs, 37 RBIs, -0.1 bWAR

Statistics with the Seibu Lions: 64 games, 247 PAs, .235/.271/.452, 14 HRs, 36 RBIs

Among ballplayers who came out of Sacramento, very few had the potential that Taylor Duncan had. He graduated out of Grant Union High School, the same school that Carolina Panthers LB Shaq Thompson came out of as a baseball and football star (though Shaq chose football and not baseball, as he was drafted in both). Duncan was affectionately referred to as "Dunc" by all who knew him, and he caught the eye of scouts who saw him lead Grant Union to the No. 1 ranking in the entire state of California.

It was the Atlanta Braves who selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 1971 Amateur Draft. Scouts saw him as a good comparison to Joe Morgan, which warranted the high draft pick.

In his first minor league season, Duncan would break his ankle sliding into second. This injury has been called the reason why he never lived up to his full potential.

The Braves traded him early on in his minor league career to the Baltimore Orioles in a franchise turning trade that saw Duncan and Earl Williams sent to Baltimore, while Davey Johnson, Pat Dobson, Roric Harrison, and Johnny Oates were sent to Atlanta. Atlanta hit a home run on this deal, and Duncan was left to find himself in the Orioles organization.

He'd prove to be a solid gap hitter in his first couple of seasons in the Baltimore Orioles organization, and he'd reach AAA Rochester at the age of 22, but ended up spending the next three seasons in Rochester. He didn't do enough to make it to Baltimore. He would finally make it to the Major Leagues during the end of the 1977 season, as the St. Louis Cardinals claimed him off waivers from the Orioles and played him in 8 games, which saw him hit one home run.

His time in the Cardinals organization would prove brief, as the Oakland A's would select Duncan in the Rule 5 Draft following that season. The A's gave him an extended shot to succeed in 1978, playing mostly third base. This Oakland team was a dark time in the A's history, as they started the year with Jack McKeon managing the team before Charlie Finley fired him and replaced him with Bobby Winkles. The A's would finish a 69-93 record.

Though Duncan held his own at times in the big leagues, he was released by the A's following that season. He'd then bounce around the minor leagues with the Detroit Tigers, Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays organizations from 1979-1980.

Then he talked to his friend Leon Lee, who was already a few years into a tremendous career in Japan. His high school friend told him about the great amounts of money he was making and how much success he was having. Leon, the father of Derrek Lee, had revitalized his baseball career and he felt the same could be done with Duncan.

After hitting .290 in AA Knoxville while in the Blue Jays organization in 1980, he signed with the Seibu Lions for 12 million yen in the middle of the year. Upon arrival, in his first intrasquad game, he hit a home run.

Then-Lions manager Rikuo Nemoto was excited about Duncan's talent and knew that he was a gap hitter, but he expected a lot out of this former major leaguer. Duncan was concerned that bats were so much more expensive in Japan. As a result, he was worried about breaking them in practice.

Duncan seemed to enjoy his time in Japan as he loved the food and wanted to build a house there. He even tied the team record in home runs when the season began, but it was his poor fielding that forced the Lions to part ways with their Gaijin. Lions coaches cited a knee injury that forced him into poor reaction times.

The 1980 season was the second in Lions' history as Seibu Lions, as they moved in 1979 from Fukuoka to Tokorozawa in what was then known as Seibu Stadium. (The dome roof wasn't installed until the 1990s). This Lions team was almost an expansion team, coming off multiple team sales and name changes after a Black Mist scandal and they were starting over.

With the Lions having so much trouble with errors from their previous season of 1979, they signed Steve Ontiveros from the Chicago Cubs to replace him at third base.

To add insult to injury, Duncan received his release right when his family arrived in Japan. He'd then head to Mexico to finish his career.

How he did in Mexico is not clear as no statistics have been recorded. He ended up playing for four teams between 1981-1983. And at the age of 30, his baseball career was presumably over.

There's not much information about what Duncan did after his career. Sadly, in 2004, he died of a stroke at the age of 50 in Asheville, North Carolina. Leon Lee stayed friends with Duncan until his death and said that, "A lot of people in Sacramento cared about Taylor... It's a shocker, I wish I had gotten there in time... I don't think Duncan ever realized how good he really was. Duncan made coming to the ballpark fun and the players around him better."

Taylor McDowell Duncan's final resting place is in Asheville, North Carolina which is a beautiful part of the country in the Appalachian Mountains. Sadly, Duncan's career will always be remembered for what could've been.

Special thanks to the Sacramento Bee, sponichi.co.jp, and baseball-reference. Special thanks also goes out to Mizuho Miyazaki for translation help.  

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Others in the series: 





Roger Repoz

Jim Tyrone

Esteban German 

Bert Campaneris  

Hiram Bocachica

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