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Mariano's Mission : In Minors, Duncan Still Bitter About Demotion

April 27, 1988|MARTY ESQUIVEL | Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spring has sprung its share of heartache and bitterness for Mariano Duncan.

For the last three seasons, one could find Duncan playing shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, either awing people with his speed or perplexing them with his propensity to bobble grounders. Regardless, he was young, talented and loaded with potential.

Now, Duncan is back in the minor leagues, struggling with several questions, and if there is such a thing as a bad bounce in life, Duncan will be the first to tell you that he has fielded one squarely on the chin.

"This has been one of the worst springs of my life," said Duncan, now playing with the triple-A Albuquerque Dukes. "I'm talking about everything."

Charges of Dodger deception still flow from his mouth. In one breath, he suggests that he is willing to put things behind him. In the next, he breathes fire.

He still insists, as he did when he was sent down, that Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda misled him about making the team as a utility infielder.

"It disappoints me," Duncan said. "I like for people to be honest with me, to tell me the truth and not to lie to me. It's very hard to take something like that."

Lasorda maintains that he never made any promises. He said he asked Duncan if he'd be willing to accept a role as utility infielder. Besides, said Lasorda, a manager does have a right to change his mind.

"You know, when I played, I was sent down from Brooklyn to Montreal many times," Lasorda said. "But I never called my manager a liar."

Duncan said that Lasorda does have a right to change his mind, as long as he is informed. The 25-year-old Dominican said he knew something was going on, but that the Dodgers weren't straightforward with him.

His despair at the announcement that he was going back to Albuquerque resulted in accusations, a demand to be traded, and some resentment that time has hardly tempered.

"I said that and I still say it," Duncan said. "I don't want to trust my career with someone like (Lasorda)."

Then, there is the question of which position to call home.

Expecting Steve Sax to play third base this season, Duncan went to the Arizona Instructional League last fall to play second base. He then played winter ball in the Dominican Republic at that position. Finally, he went to spring training with the same idea.

"But now I'm playing shortstop in the minor leagues," Duncan said. "It just doesn't make sense to me."

Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president in charge of player personnel, said the move makes a lot of sense. Duncan, he said, can play both positions, and can best serve Albuquerque's interests by playing shortstop.

"Shortstop is certainly a more demanding position than second base," Claire said. "If we were to have a need here, it would be to fill the position at shortstop. It's probably the most difficult to replace.

"There's no question Mariano can play either position. But he's probably better off spending time with the tougher task."

Two injuries sent Duncan to the disabled list twice last season, and he played in only 76 games with the Dodgers. Even so, he committed 25 errors. Of 18 shortstops in the National League who played 50 or more games, he was 17th in fielding percentage at .930. His batting average slipped to .215, and he stole only 11 bases. In 1985, when he finished third in the balloting for National League rookie of the year, he hit .244 and stole 78 bases.

His rookie year was a pleasant surprise. He had been slated to play second base that season in Albuquerque when he got an emergency call from the Dodgers on the eve of opening day. Sax and Bob Bailor were injured, so Duncan flew to Los Angeles and started at second base the next day.

Two weeks later, Sax came back, but the Dodgers thought so much of Duncan that they moved him to shortstop. Duncan said he'd had little experience at the position but wanted to give it a try rather than going back to Albuquerque and playing second base.

But in 1986, injuries stunted his growth at the position. He played in only 109 games.

"I know I didn't do too much for the Dodger organization in '86 and '87," Duncan said. "But part of the reason was because of my injuries. When you're injured, there's nothing you can do."

He also said that there was too much pressure put on him by the Dodgers, that they expected too much too soon.

Still, when Duncan finished spring training with a batting average of .100, and it had been determined that Pedro Guerrero would be playing third, and that Sax would be going back to second, Claire and Lasorda decided it was best to send Duncan to Albuquerque.

"It wasn't easy," Claire said. "But it came down to what we felt was best for the Dodger organization and what's best for Mariano Duncan. In terms of opportunity, he wasn't going to replace Alfredo Griffin at short, and Sax was having a good spring offensively.

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