Duncan insists slide wasn't 'dirty'
Rays accuse Yankees first baseman of premeditated act
ST. PETERSBURG -- Drawing an imaginary second base into the clubhouse carpet with his toe for one reporter, Shelley Duncan was emphatic. His only real choice, he said, was to try to kick the baseball out of Aki Iwamura's glove.
Take a short walk across the tunnels of Progress Energy Park, and it's safe to say the Rays had a much different viewpoint. Duncan's hard slide drew the ire of multiple Tampa Bay voices, who termed it a "dirty play" and called for an immediate suspension.
Wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and a baffled expression, Duncan said he couldn't understand what all of the fuss was about. He said this was the game he had learned in clubhouses growing up, part of the Duncan baseball family that includes pitching coach and father Dave, and outfielder and brother Chris, both with the Cardinals.
"There's nothing dirty about it in my eyes," Duncan said. "There were no spikes up in my eyes. Nothing at all intended to hurt [Iwamura]."
When Rays infielder Elliot Johnson lowered his shoulder and hit Yankees catching prospect Francisco Cervelli on Saturday at Legends Field, manager Joe Girardi called it an "unnecessary" play, saying that those actions should be reserved for the regular season.
With Duncan on New York's roster, though, Girardi is exposed to something of a double standard. Lauded repeatedly for his energy and enthusiasm, Duncan is also quickly earning a reputation as one of the more all-out players in the league.
"I assume it's over, but you move on," Girardi said. "Shelley's an aggressive player. Some players won't play that aggressive during Spring Training. That's who he is. He grew up around the game and in the clubhouse every day."
When Johnson met with reporters in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Duncan was the first example he produced of a player who might carry out a similar play to the Cervelli hit.
And in a strange twist of hindsight, Duncan was actually responsible for Johnson reaching base in the ninth inning of that game -- his overzealous pursuit of Johnson's ground ball to second base gave him too little time to return to the bag for the throw, allowing Johnson to reach on an infield single.
"I go as hard as I can. I'd be cheating my team if I didn't," Duncan said.
Duncan's words following the Cervelli collision made for message-board fodder in the Rays' clubhouse, worthy of print in multiple Florida newspapers. On Sunday, Duncan told reporters that the Johnson play "opens another chapter of intensity in the Spring Training ballgames."
"They showed what is acceptable to them and how they're going to play the game, so we're going to go out there to match their intensity -- or even exceed it," Duncan said. "There's going to be no malicious evil intent in terms of carryover, but it just adds a different type of fire to your gut when you play that team, because you understand how they're playing the game and what their mind-set is."
That didn't play particularly well in St. Petersburg, particularly with Rays right fielder Jonny Gomes, who absorbed the quotes with interest. When Gomes, charging in to back up second base on the hit to left field, saw Duncan raise his spikes toward Iwamura, he was convinced it was retaliation for Johnson's play on Saturday.
"Shelley Duncan went in the paper and said he was going to do this," Gomes said. "So basically, it was premeditated on his part. He said if he has the opportunity to go in hard, I'm going to do it. And to me, that makes it a little bit worse. That was uncalled for on his part. ... He did what he said he was going to do."
Gomes said that, given Duncan's comments, he should not have even been allowed on the Yankees' bus Wednesday. Duncan clarified his position during Wednesday's game, rejecting claims that he planned out his actions.
"It's Spring Training," Duncan said. "You see their intensity level and you try to match it. When they play as hard as they do -- which I like, I like seeing teams play hard -- that steps up your game. You say, 'We need to be focused.' This isn't going through the motions."
It may be of little consolation in the Rays' clubhouse, where Duncan said he does not feel the need to send a message of any kind. But as fate would have it, Duncan also said he's grown quite fond of Gomes, whom he actually does not personally know.
"He plays the game the right way," Duncan said. "I admire him."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.