It’s a cool October evening at Guy Smith Park in Greenville. The defending national champion East Carolina University Club Baseball team is warming up before their intrasquad scrimmage. The star of that championship team last year, Tanner Duncan, pulls up in his pickup truck to watch practice.
“I knew I was going to miss this place when I left, but I didn’t realize I’d miss it quite this much,” said Duncan, a 2017 kinesiology graduate who’s now playing professionally in the Houston Astros organization.
Duncan is wearing his ECU Club Baseball hat and T-shirt – not his Astros gear. Following his National Club Baseball World Series MVP-winning performance last spring, Duncan was signed by the Astros and spent last summer pitching for them in the Gulf Coast League. He is the first ECU club player to play professional baseball, so one might think that he would be showing off his accomplishment by wearing navy and orange – especially since the Astros just won the World Series.
“I want to wear (ECU Club Baseball attire) with pride and I want to give club baseball a good name. I feel like there is a stereotype that’s surrounding club baseball – a stigma attached to it (that it’s not good baseball),” Duncan said. “There’s a lot of talent out here, a lot of good players that participate in this, and I hope people recognize that now.”
“It (Duncan turning pro) brings a lot more credibility to our program,” says ECU Club Baseball head coach Ben Fox. “Being able to put a guy in the league that has never played JUCO (junior college) baseball or D1 baseball, it says a lot about what we demand from guys every day.”
Duncan’s former ECU teammates see the dedication that’s required to play professional baseball.
“I knew as hard as he worked, he was going to get an opportunity to play after. He was just one of those special athletes coming out working every day,” said senior outfielder Jordan Maye. “He’d be the first one here and one of the last ones to leave. That’s just what his mentality is – he’s always working.”
Duncan’s presence at practice during his offseason is a big deal to the guys on the field.
“It brings up that ‘what-if’ factor – you could potentially be in the same position that he is,” said senior catcher Jake Merzigian, who caught for Duncan in last season’s national championship game.
“If they are looking to play at the next level, they see now that it’s possible and all it takes is hard work and dedication,” Fox said. “If you want anything out of this game, if you work for it, you can get it.”
Duncan pitched 10 scoreless innings in the championship game and was named the MVP of the tournament.
“Catching for him was unbelievable. Just seeing him work so hard and seeing him pitch in that national championship game. It was by far one of the best baseball games I’ll ever be a part of,” Merzigan said. “That’s definitely on my wall of fame.”
Duncan was hoping his performance would lead to the major league draft, but that didn’t happen. However he was invited to Virginia for a tryout with the Astros. Shortly after throwing for scouts, the team signed him, and the next day he headed to Florida to play for the Astros minor league affiliate.
“It was awesome, I think, just getting there to the facility,” he said. “You go into the locker room, and they have a locker for you with your name on it, the Astros symbol and everything. It’s surreal, man, it’s something I wanted for a long time, and so I’m very happy and very grateful for it.”
“It’s hard to put into words,” Fox said. “Tanner’s been so good for us for so long and I truly believe that he should have been playing at another level the whole time, but we were lucky enough to have him.”
After what he calls a successful season in the GCL, where he had a 2.17 ERA in 11 appearances, Duncan is resting his arm and working out. He expects to go to extended spring training with the Astros at the end of March or beginning of April. He’s hoping to get a shot with a full-season team or play for the short-season single-A affiliate in New York.
“It’s good to see him come out here and continue to be around the guys. He was one of our leaders last year, and to have him come back out here has been huge for us,” Maye said.
“I’m living the dream; couldn’t be happier,” Duncan said.
-by Rich Klindworth, ECU News Services