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

Special to the Times

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.

"For Mariano to come up here and sit on the bench and not get a chance to play was not in his best interests. Maybe it was the convenient thing to do for him, but it wasn't in his best interests."

Said Lasorda: "All he has to do down there is work hard, play hard and show us he is capable of playing."

The "show us" tag is one that Duncan despises. Duncan said he didn't have a chance to prove anything this spring.

"If they want me to fight for a job, I'll fight for it because I like the competition," Duncan said. "But they don't give me a chance to fight for the job."

Duncan complains that he played in only 1 or 2 of the first 14 exhibition games and had only 30 at-bats. He said Lasorda had told him that he and Sax would fight for the job.

"But I don't see nothing," Duncan said. "Sax played every day. If they don't want to give me a chance to play, they can send me somewhere else because I don't want to be up and down, up and down for my whole career."

Lasorda denies making any such statement. He also denies an allegation Duncan made about the Philadelphia Phillies' alleged interest in Duncan during spring training.

Duncan said he had heard that Philadelphia was interested in getting him but that the Dodgers had knowingly kept him out of three spring games against the Phillies--except for one inning--because they didn't want the Phillies to see him.

"They put everyone in, and I'm the only one not playing," Duncan said. "It's because they didn't want nobody to see me."

Claire dismisses many of Duncan's allegations as statements made out of frustration, saying that despite them, the Dodgers have plans for Duncan, that he still has the makings of a star.

"He has a future because of his talents," Claire said. "There aren't many players as talented as Mariano. But that doesn't answer all the questions. He has to express that talent on a consistent basis."

Duncan has his own answer to that.

"There's nothing I can do about everything that's happened to me," he said. "All I can do is have a great season here, so I can sit down at the table and tell them what I want. I know my time will come."

Duncan is hitting .367, with 3 triples and 10 strikeouts, through 13 games for the Dukes. He has also made 9 errors, one which might have cost the Dukes a game. In any event, he's getting plenty of playing time.

A strained right knee, which was initially feared to be a torn cartilage, kept him out of a few games last week, but he is now back in the lineup and, he says, willing to give all he has to give.

"I don't think I'm the same guy I was before," he said. "Before, I used to listen to everybody and leave everything in my mind. Now, I'll listen to everyone, but I'll do whatever Mariano wants to do.

"I think it's time to show people I can play this game."

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