Brian didn’t dream of stadiums with 30,000 fans, pitching in the playoffs with a World Series berth on the line. He wanted to marry his best friend, teach with her at their hometown high school, and coach baseball with his friend and mentor. That was the dream, and the plan.
“God has a plan. Trust it, live it, enjoy it.” – unk
I think I’ve mentioned a time or two.. I am fascinated with stories. A good story kindles something inside my heart, and I can’t help myself but share it with someone else to see if they feel the same kind of reaction I did.
Everytime my husband and I hang out with our friends Brian, Lisa, Greg and Toni, there are stories. So many stories. Fascinating, hilarious, bookworthy stories. When I decided to kickstart this blog again, I knew that if they were willing, I wanted to write about these. I soon realized that there was no way I would be able to fit everything into one blog and do these memories any justice… so I PRESENT TO YOU: MAJOR LEAGUE.
No, not that Major League. Although hats for bats DO keep bats warm.
For most of the last two decades, baseball has been constant in Brian and Lisa Duensing’s lives. Their journey has taken them through Lincoln, Beijing, the trials of minor league baseball, and through the euphoria and heartbreak of being a professional athlete. It is an incredible life, seeing and experiencing things that only a handful of people ever have the resources and opportunity for. It’s also so much more than most people realize: skirting the poverty line, packing up a van and changing homes in 12 hours, living life as an object owned by a corporation. In a world where timing is everything and sometimes, nothing makes sense (for the good or bad), the Duensings have turned to faith and each other to celebrate and survive every step of their journey.
Chapter one starts on the little league fields of Omaha, Nebraska.
Like how many millions of American kids before him and after, Brian Duensing started playing baseball when he was 9 years old.
“I played baseball because I was somewhat good, and because my friends played it and I enjoyed it,” said Brian. “Back then, I played select baseball for the Omaha Patriots. After my 13-year old season, I wanted to quit. Told my friends at the end of season banquet, ‘hey, I’m done.’ All I wanted to do was go on vacation. I was missing out on so much summer stuff that I thought was important – which is important. I just wanted to go camping with my family.”
He told his teammates, who physically sat on him in the parking lot after their final game of the season until Brian called mercy and said he would keep playing.
At 14, he moved up to Millard South High School and met Coach Greg Geary.
“Anyone can find the dirt in someone. Be the one who finds the gold.” – Prov 1. 11:27
For nearly two decades, Millard South Varsity Baseball Coach Greg Geary has been one of the most respected coaches in the Omaha metro and Nebraska. Yes, he’s had big wins, but he has also consistently molded and mentored successful young men both on and off the field. In Brian Duensing, Greg found talent, promise, and exceptional character.
“Brian was a special young man,” said Greg. “I had a hunch he was going to be something special at the next level. I think the reason I thought he would do big things was that he just had that “IT” factor. He had a great work ethic (coming from his parents Kent and Shari!) and respected the game. He was also the kid that came over to our house when <our daughter> Madi was born (his senior year) to visit. He cares about people and I always appreciated that about him, probably more than he will ever know. We had a great Coach/Player relationship. He knew how to have fun, but also knew when it was time to get after it.”
Under Coach Geary’s leadership, Brian dominated on the mound and at the plate. He led the state with a 0.74 ERA and a .522 batting average. Nebraska made him an offer to play baseball, followed by Creighton. Brian decided to become a Husker.
“What alway impressed me with Brian was he was the guy who was the first one at the field, and would always carry gear or put out bases without anyone having to tell him to do it!” said Greg. “Sounds like a small thing, but for a guy who was going to NU, he never, ever acted like he was better than anyone, and that still holds true to this day.”
“He was majoring in baseball, whether he knew it or not,” says Lisa.
“OK, whoa, hold on, let’s back the Truth Truck up for a second,” interrupts Brian.
At this point in our interview, I am giggling while typing, listening to this perfect pair share memories from each perspective about their journey through college. Note: journey, singular, because this time was, from the start, an adventure of highs and lows Brian and Lisa shared together.
Brian, a year older, started at Nebraska first in Spring of 2002. Big XII All Freshman Team. Lincoln All-Regional Team. When Nebraska made it to the College World Series, Brian got the start for Game Two. In one year, he had gained 13 pounds of muscle, and increased his pitching velocity from around 83 to 91 miles per hour. What could be bigger in a young man’s life?
”We were best friends in high school,” said Lisa. “I was dating someone else and I told my parents that; they asked, ‘shouldn’t your boyfriend be your best friend?’ It was always Brian.”
The Duensings’ good friend and fellow Husker Mike Sillman remembers the team’s time working to recruit Brian, and relaying to the Nebraska coaching staff, “we shouldn’t be recruiting Brian. We should be recruiting Lisa. He’ll go wherever she goes.”
“The best thing was being his friend first,” said Lisa. “We knew everything about each other already.”
Within the first month of Lisa joining Brian at UNL, the two were dating. Lisa had also been a high school athlete at Millard South, and studied athletic training and science while working as a trainer with the Nebraska Gymnastics team. She understood college athletics better than most, and was part of Brian’s seemingly unstoppable journey from the beginning.
“I watched his baseball highest high and the lowest low,” said Lisa. “My freshman year, he went from being the National Pitcher of the Week, to tearing his arm the next week.”
By his sophomore year in Spring 2003, Brian had increased his velocity to the 93-96 mph range, and college sportswriters were calling him and Aaron Marsden ‘the best 1-2 combo in all of college baseball.’ He had also been hurting, but each time he started to get warm and find his rhythm, the pain would subside. His trainers and coaches thought Brian had tendonitis. He started his sophomore season at Louisiana Tech, and headed back to Lincoln for the season home opener. Cue Nebraska: it snowed, and the team spent the day clearing the field to prepare for a doubleheader the next day. By gametime at 3pm, the temperature was 28-degrees; so cold, metal bats were breaking during at bats. Brian threw a fastball in the third inning that went 45 feet… and sparked a burning sensation through his elbow. He had torn his arm.
The surgical option was a then-uncommon and frequently unsuccessful procedure now dubbed ‘Tommy John surgery.’ Trainers and coaches advised rehab instead, which took Brian out of rotation for the entire 2003 season. Spring of 2004 was supposed to be his return to the mound and to college baseball.
“I drove down to New Mexico with his parents to watch his first outing the next year,” said Lisa. “We drove through the night, 20 hours, pull up, get to the field. We were watching him play catch in the outfield: boom. Tears it. Done.”
‘But you must remain strong and not become discouraged. Your actions will be rewarded.’ – 2 Chronicles 15:7
Surgery. Rehab. Hearing ‘you’ll never throw as hard again.’ Brian had two teammates who had faced the same surgery and never threw again. But instead of being distraught or depressed, Brian reflected on his plan for the future: become a teacher, and coach high school baseball. Lisa rightfully refers to this time as life-changing.. but not for the reasons you might expect.
“Tommy John was the best thing that ever happened to him” said says. “Everything just got focused.”
Brian had been struggling with his Economics major, and despite tutors and perfect attendance, he had been one course grade away from being academically ineligible for the 2002 College World Series. During his time recovering, Brian switched majors and his grades shot up. He also returned to his alma mater, Millard South, to reunite with his mentor and good friend, Greg Geary.
“He coached a couple summers with Coach <Trevor> Longe and I,” said Greg. “We had a heck of good time and I think he would tell you it was cool to see the other side, the coaching side. We have remained close since then and he means more to me than he will ever know.”
Brian also deepened his relationship with Lisa, a time where both learned a lot about each other. By 2005, Brian was ready to play, and ready to make a lifelong commitment to the person who never left his side. One year to the day of his muscle tear, Brian was set to start his first game in Hawaii. His Nebraska teammates knew it would be a day to remember.
“Everybody knew that we were supposed to get engaged and literally no one told me,” said Lisa. “Over Christmas break, I had to stay for athletic training and Alex <Gordon> was from Lincoln, so he had stayed, too. We were talking to him and I mentioned ‘I can’t go to Hawaii,’ and he was like ‘you have to go. You HAVE to go.’ And I was like, ‘what, am I going to get engaged there?’ And he just looked shocked. Later I was like, ‘dude! You almost blew it!’ and he said ‘I know!! I panicked!'”
I have been a Nebraska Baseball uber fan for as long as I can remember. So when Brian and Lisa say ‘Alex’ or ‘Daniel’ or ‘Jeff’ without saying ‘Alex Gordon’ or ‘Daniel Bruce’ or ‘Jeff Liese’ – full names required because hello, they’re celebrities – I still have a ‘woah’ moment. But when you ask Brian and Lisa about the success of the Nebraska Baseball teams they were a part of… it is clear they did and continue to view those teammates as family.
“Camaraderie was a lot of it,” said Brian. “We would get together every weekend. And it wasn’t like three or four guys, no, the whole team showed up. We all took care of each other. When I was a senior, they brought in all of the Nebraska recruits and there were like 18 of us. We were all homegrown. We felt like we knew where everyone was coming from. Even the guys who came from out of state fit right in.”
From 2002-2005: this was the team that Van Horn built. A perennial powerhouse with multiple prospects, future MLB stars, and coaching icons. Alex Gordon, Joba Chamberlain, Shane Komine, Tony Watson, Zach Kroenke, Dave Van Horn, Rob Childress, Curtis Ledbetter, Will Bolt.
“We didn’t even recognize Brian’s talent because everyone on the team was so ridiculously good,” said Lisa.
“There was a stretch when I got moved out of rotation, to the bullpen, and I felt like the worst pitcher ever. My ERA was a 2,” said Brian. “We played textbook, selfless baseball. Bruce had a cannon. Leise would run any guy down. Simokaitis was a magnet at short. I tell a lot of people, especially in ’05, every time we took the field, we honestly thought we were going to win. And for the most part we did. Sheer talent, we all wanted to win and we cared about each other.”
The team went 57-15, and Brian was a crucial part of the Huskers’ success. He posted an 8-0 record with a 2.6 ERA, and set records in the 2005 Big XII Tournament for number of innings pitched and number of consecutive scoreless innings. That season alone, Brian was named to the Big XII All-Tournament Team, a Collegiate Baseball National Pitcher of the Week, and named to the First-Team Academic All-Big XII. The team, touted as arguably the best in Nebraska history, won their Super-Regional against Miami to earn a trip to Omaha and the College World Series. The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Christopherson wrote: “Joba Chamberlain and Brian Duensing looked like mischievous grade-schoolers as they ran to get a bucket of water from the dugout. Soon, in predictable fashion, the water was flooding down on Mike Anderson. The third-year head coach just smiled and the crowd cheered louder.”
Nebraska didn’t win the College World Series, but they were one of the last teams to play in the iconic championship at Rosenblatt Stadium. A plaque marks Infield at the Zoo today, listing the names of the homegrown heroes who grew up on Nebraska diamonds and played in the Omaha classic, Brian Duensing among them.
“He happens to be standing exactly where his dad did when he pitched for the Huskers in the CWS,” shared Erin Palladino, Brian’s sister. “Boston found that to be incredibly cool!”
Us, too, Boston. Us, too.
“Don’t worry about anything. Instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.” – Philippians 4:6-7
As if the once-in-a-lifetime College World Series experience wasn’t enough, Brian and several of his teammates were also in the midst of a little something called ‘The MLB Draft’. Six Huskers were drafted in 2005; 16 more were selected over the next two years.
Brian had been contacted by every major league club except for his childhood favorite, the Chicago Cubs. He still had one, possibly two years of college eligibility with Nebraska on the table.
“He said to me, if I don’t go in the top 10 rounds, I’m going to come back,” remembers Lisa. “Then the White Sox called his dad, saying they knew he was engaged and wanted to know if I was on board. They told Brian’s dad they planned to take him in the fifth round.”
Lisa didn’t tell Brian, not wanting to jinx anything or raise hope for a deal that might not happen.
“I was just so nervous for him because I wanted him to be happy so badly,” said Lisa. “I just had no idea what to expect.”
A few days later, the 2005 MLB draft began as the Huskers were practicing for the College World Series.
“We were practicing, had music playing, but we all knew the draft was starting. Alex’s brother was sitting in the stands,” remembers Brian. “We’re looking at the clock, we’re taking BP. In between swings we look up at Alex’s brother and he holds up the number two with his fingers. We all freaked out, stopped practice, congratulated him, stuff like that. It was the coolest thing ever.”
Then the questions between teammates began… who would be next? Brian, are you going to be drafted?!?
“I wasn’t really expecting much,” said Brian. “Then practice is over and we have a team meeting like we do after every practice. I look up and I see our PR guy, Shamus McKnight, coming down the stairs as fast as he can. I thought Zach Kroenke got drafted. Shamus pulls Coach A off to the side. We were all kind of dispersing, and Coach A’s like ‘woah, bring it back up. We all took the time to congratulate Gordo. We have another guy to congratulate. Mr. Duensing just got drafted in the third round.’ My exact quote, I looked at him and said ‘holy shit.’ I was so dumbfounded. I did a bunch of media stuff, they were asking me questions like ‘was I excited to sign?’ and I had to stop and look at one of the reporters to say… I don’t even know who drafted me.”
The Minnesota Twins had selected Brian Duensing in the 3rd Round of the 2005 MLB Draft.
“The day before the draft, Brian said to me ‘oh my goodness, can you imagine if I went in the top 3 rounds? That would be the most amazing thing, like a dream come true’,” said Lisa. “And remember, this is when I thought I knew he was going in the fifth round. I remember just thinking ‘you’re so cute.'”
Day of, Lisa had been with a friend, monitoring the draft but still thinking an announcement was aways off. Her phone rang, and a very excited Mama Duensing was on the other end with the news.
“We literally went that day to the mall and bought Twins gear, including a hat for Brian, because he wore a Cardinals hat every single day,” said Lisa. “It got shelved that day, never to be worn again.”
“I only liked it because it was a Lids Throwback Hat!” chimed in Brian. “I had a White Sox one, too, and an Indians hat! I had hats to go with different colored shirts and stuff..”
“Ok, well we went and bought Twins stuff,” said Lisa.
New hats, new plans, a new journey.
Within the next 6 months, Brian and Lisa would officially become part of the Minnesota Twins farm club family, indoctrinated into a much misunderstood world known as Minor League Baseball. The next chapter of their lives would be challenging, trying, and exhausting. Tears, temptations to quit, and that beautiful big league carrot always dangling just out of reach. But for these two American kids in the heartland in the summer of 2005.. life was pretty damn good.
“I’ll never forget where I was when BD called me to tell me he had gotten drafted,” said Greg Geary, now Brian’s good friend as well as high school coach. “I was about to hit my second shot on hole one on Hammerhead at Tiburon Golf Club. I was so pumped for him.”
Brian and Lisa got married the following year. Madi Geary was their flower girl, and Brian’s teammates Andy Holz, Ben Bails, Darren Hoffart and Alex Gordon were all in the wedding party.
In sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. For better or for worse, until death parts us.
Part Two: coming soon!