With pitchers and catchers already reporting for spring training, I think it’s time for a baseball story. I didn’t have to look far. Our next door neighbor here in Tucson (and the co-owner of our rental with his fiancee Ami) has a pretty amazing story.
HIs name is Jeff Dean and he is a mountain of a man at 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds. “Yeah, I was about that same size when I graduated from high school,” he says, “and the biggest kid in my class.”
He wasn’t the biggest name, though.
Jeff grew up playing Little League baseball with three future Major Leaguers — brothers Chris and Shelley Duncan and Ian Kinsler. Then when they went to Canyon del Oro High School in the Tucson suburb of Oro Valley, two more future major leaguers — Scott Hairston and Brian Anderson — joined them.
“I know that’s a pretty amazing story,” he says. “Five Major Leaguers in the same high school program at the same time. We won three state championships (over a five-year period).”
That’s worth repeating. Not two … not three … not four … but five big leaguers played high school ball together.
Here’s a little background on the five:
— Chris Duncan played five seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, the same team that his father Dave served as the longtime pitching coach. He hit .257 and had 55 home runs.
— Shelley Duncan, Chris’s older brother, played for three teams over seven years in the big leagues, hitting 43 homers and batting .226.
— Ian Kinsler was a four time All-Star, two time Gold Glover and a member of the 2018 World Series champion Boston Red Sox. He was one hit shy of 2,000 and hit 257 home runs , stole 243 bases and batted .269.
— Scott Hairston, son of major leaguer Jerry Hairston, played for six teams over 11 years and homered 106 times while batting .242.
— Brian Anderson played five of his six seasons with the Chicago White Sox and was known for his outfield defense, once going 110 straight games without an error.
So was there something in the water (pretty scarce now in Arizona) back in the late 1990s in the neighborhoods where these guys grew up?
“It was just a case of having great youth programs and good coaching and a supportive community,” Jeff says. “When we were young kids, we were playing ball all the time and sports kept us out of trouble.”
Well, most of the time anyway.
Jeff was more of a football player even though he loved baseball. He spent a great deal of time at the Duncan home. Chris Duncan was Jeff’s age and they graduated from Canyon del Rio together in 1999. Shelley Duncan was a year ahead of them.
“We had a lot of fun at their house, partly because their dad was gone a lot while he was coaching,” Jeff laughs. “We used to love to box and I remember Shelley decking me in their backyard.”
Jeff first met the Duncans and Ian Kinsler when he was in third grade. “We were all big dudes except Ian,” Jeff adds. “He was a little feller back then but, boy, he could run. Like greased lightning. And his dad, Howard, was my coach when I was younger — the best coach I ever had.”
And after a stellar 14-year major league career as a second baseman, the younger Kinsler has an outside chance at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jeff said it was a privilege growing up with the Duncans and Kinsler and then getting to know Anderson and Hairston in high school, too.
A sad note is that Chris Duncan died of brain cancer in 2019 at the age of 38. It was a tough blow for the Oro Valley community as well as his St. Louis Cardinal family. He and his brother Shelley had returned to the Tucson area after their baseball careers and were well known for their community work.
One has to wonder if any other high school team has ever had five future major leaguers. How could you see that coming?
“I know Chris, Shelly and Ian all wanted to be in the big leagues when they were growing up,” Jeff says. “What they (along with Hairston and Anderson) did was a special thing.
“Of course, baseball has always been special around here.”
Only 45 days until Opening Day.