MESA, Ariz. — The Boss made sure Mariano Duncan got the message. The New York Yankees needed someone to look after the 21-year-old shortstop out of Kalamazoo Central High School.
Tony Fernandez had broken his right elbow diving for a groundball in a spring-training game in Tampa, Fla. Joe Torre had given Duncan an off-day, which he enjoyed with his family at Walt Disney World. No one viewed Torre as the future Hall of Famer on the ground floor of a dynasty in 1996.
The Daily News called him “CLUELESS JOE” on the back page after the Yankees introduced their new manager. Duncan remembered the conversation with Torre: “Mariano, for now, you’re my starting second baseman. You know Derek Jeter is our shortstop and I want you to go ahead and take care of that guy.”
Duncan said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner also sent Mr. October: “And then Reggie Jackson comes to me one day in spring training and says, ‘Mariano, I talked to George and he wanted me to tell you: If you go to dinner, you got to take Jeter with you. If you go out, take him with you. I want you to take care of that guy for us, because we want that guy to follow the right people.’”
Duncan lit up telling Jeter stories on Monday morning at Cubs Park. While Jeter heads into his final season before retirement, Duncan is still a guardian, working with the organization’s top prospects as Daytona’s hitting coach. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant rolled through at different points last year, and Albert Almora will likely begin this season at the advanced Class-A affiliate.
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Duncan called the Baez four-homer game one of the best shows he’s ever seen. This is someone who earned World Series rings with the 1996 Yankees and Lou Piniella’s Cincinnati Reds in 1990, and played on that wild Philadelphia Phillies team that won the 1993 National League pennant.
Duncan recalled that night last June and pictured the four bombs Baez hit all over Jackie Robinson Ballpark: Right-center. Dead center. Left-center. Left-field line.
That only happened once before in the Florida State League’s 94 years of existence. After putting up 37 homers and 111 RBI at Daytona and Double-A Tennessee, Baez sent a message to the fans coming to the new Arizona complex this spring: Don’t park so close to Field 5.
“I’ve seen that guy do so much stuff, (when he) breaks a car window, it doesn’t surprise me,” Duncan said. “He’s got some power. (It’s) ridiculous when you see that guy taking BP. That’s something where you say: ‘Wow! What’s wrong with that guy?’”
Duncan, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, heard his name surfaced as a potential bilingual coach for Rick Renteria’s major-league staff. But right now, the Cubs might need Duncan more on the front lines of player development. Duncan restrained Soler last April after the 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound Cuban outfielder grabbed a bat during a bench-clearing incident.
“We are very emotional players,” Duncan said. “(With) Latin American players, you can see our temper (can be) short and sometimes we get mad over something so simple. (I’ve been) in the game so long and went through stuff like that. It’s a lot easier for me to explain to him and he understands.
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“After that, he felt really sorry about the whole situation. He let all the emotional stuff bother him. I just said: ‘You know what, you’re a $30 million guy and everywhere you go you’re going to see some people that try to yell at you and say a lot of things. (It’s) like Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols – every time those guys go to another place, people want to cheer for them and people want to boo them, because those guys are two of the highest-paid players in baseball. A lot of times, you’re going to see some selfish guys (and) some jealous guys and they’re going to want to come over and say some bad stuff to you. Don’t let that kind of stuff bother you.’”
Duncan saw Bryant near the end of a spectacular year that saw the No. 2 overall pick get a $6.7 million signing bonus and become the Arizona Fall League’s MVP. Duncan remembered Bryant homered in his first at-bat with Daytona, and then struck out three times in the second game of a doubleheader.
Bryant impressed Duncan with his ability to make quick adjustments, earning the league’s player of the week honor that week and putting up a .908 OPS in the postseason to help the team win a championship.
“That kid showed me how smart he is,” Duncan said. “He is so mature for his age (22) and his baseball instincts are so good. His mom and dad did a great job raising that kid, because he came to Daytona and he never showed he was a $6 million player. He showed up and said: ‘I’m here to try to play in the big leagues.’”
Whether or not the Cubs really have their Core Four, history shows elite young players can grow up fast. Eighteen years later, the Daytona hitting coach still thinks of the iconic shortstop as “a baby.” That summer, Duncan and Jeter came up with the slogan that defined the 1996 Yankees. Cubs officials can dream about putting this on the Wrigley Field marquee: “We play today. We win today. ‘Das it.”