There are some things that are bigger than any one of us. Experiences we all relate to as parents, as Americans, as human beings. We share historic moments or milestones and remember ‘where were you when this happened?’
Summer of 2005… Hurricane Katrina would decimate Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Lance Armstrong retired after winning his 7th Tour De France. Lisa Duensing and her bff’s were strutting around UNL’s campus singing to the #1 song in America: ”Cause I ain’t no Hollaback girl.’
Ok, that might not have been happening, but Lisa and her girls had a lot to sing about.. her fiance, Brian, had just played in the College World Series and was picked by the Minnesota Twins in the third round of the 2005 MLB draft.
And they lived happily ever after. The end.
“You? You are WRONG. That is not what happened.”
This photo was taken in 2015 by the Minnesota Twins, 10 years after Brian was initially drafted by the club. To anyone who thinks that POOF: when a player is drafted they swim in millions dollars and live the life of celebrity royalty.. you. are. wrong. Brian and Lisa Duensing will be the first to humbly tell you they are blessed, grateful, and so very happy, but the journey from Omaha to Target Field was a long and winding road with tests and trials pushing them to the edge of quitting altogether.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
If you ever needed proof that everything happens for a reason, I present to you: American League. This chapter two starts with a packed bag in a bachelor’s apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“They gave me two weeks after that to be at home and recover,” remembers Brian, who had just played with his Huskers in the 2005 College World Series. “Then I had to go to short season, which was in Elizabethton, Tennessee.”
Brian and Lisa had been planning their wedding, which was supposed to take place that summer. All plans were postponed so Brian could pursue an exciting – and unexpected – adventure to play Major League Baseball. But being drafted doesn’t mean you punch your ticket for a big paycheck or the games everyone sees on TV.
“People would ask, ‘oh, when are you moving to Minnesota?” remembers Lisa. “And we’d say, hopefully in 5-8 years, if we even ever make it.”
They were 20 and 22 years old. While Lisa remained in Lincoln to earn her degree at the University of Nebraska, Brian started his professional career in Low-A Baseball in Beloit, Wisconsin.
“You get signed. You then average several years before, and if, you make it to the bigs,” said Brian. “You make $600 a month, trying to rent an apartment and maybe buy furniture.”
Brian notes he was fortunate in being drafted early to earn a signing bonus. But as he quickly learned in ‘Being An Adult 101’, more than 40% of that check was deducted for taxes. With wise advice from their parents, Brian and Lisa stowed away what was left, not knowing if/when they might need it in the future. Ironically, countless baseball families across the country are facing that very unknown right now, with the 2020 Minor League season in doubt.
“Some guys without that bonus, you flirt with the poverty line in the minor leagues. It’s a gamble,” said Brian. “There’s so many guys that are good that physically could not play anymore because they couldn’t afford it. They had a family, they had kids, they were split from their significant other, wife is trying to make money for him to play, it’s insane.”
In Beloit, Brian shared a 2-bedroom apartment with five guys. His bedroom was the kitchen.
“I had two air mattresses on top of each other in the corner of the kitchen and the pantry was my closet,” said Brian.
“Literally, people would be playing video games in the living room,” said Lisa. “They’d say, ‘hey, throw me a Diet Pepsi’ and Brian would be on his double air mattress and just toss it.’
And that, Brian says, was way better than his next stop: High-A in Ft. Myers, Florida, where he lived on someone’s couch.
“I was there a month,” said Brian. “I gave up seven earned runs in three innings. I bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and listened to ‘I Had A Bad Day’ for like, six hours. Just depressed. I go to the field the next day carrying it with me, ready to fight somebody I was so mad and half embarrassed. It was hot, I was miserable. My manager pulled me aside and said ‘listen, I need you in my office after the game. We need to talk.’ That straightened me up. He told me, ‘look, you’re going to have outings like that. You can’t let it eat away at you.’ I told him, ‘yeah, you’re right, I’m better than that.’ He said ‘yeah, you’re right. You’re going to Double-A.’
“What?!? I could have given up seven earned runs like three weeks ago!” he joked. “Timing is everything. I was left handed, one, I threw strikes. They kept making moves ahead of me, guys would get hurt, and I was the next in line. If I’m in a different organization, I might never had made it to the big leagues, who knows.”
‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5
“Things are going super well in Double-A,” remembers Lisa. “He lived in a Super 8 at this point.” It was the Summer of 2006, and the couple was once again planning for their wedding, already rescheduled once, with Brian now playing with the New Britain Rock Cats in Connecticut. Towards the end of the season, Brian was approached by the Minor League Coordinator about playing in fall league, more of an order than a request.
“I was like… ‘uhhh, ok, when does it end?’ Not like thank you or anything,” remembers Brian. “He said, ‘November 16. Why? You got plans?'”
Brian and Lisa’s second wedding date was scheduled for November 18. This time, their plans came first.
The following Spring, with Lisa nearing the end of her college career in Lincoln, Brian prepared to leave her once again for another grueling season of Minor League baseball. The night before Spring Training, Brian decided he’d had enough.
“He’s packing, because he always waits until the last day to pack,” remembers Lisa. “He just sat down on the bed in our room and was like, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Once I realized he was serious, I thought ‘this is my first test as a wife. I need to support my husband, but in my head I’m thinking this is not a good plan.’ We got in the car and drove over to his parents house. We walked in and Brian goes ‘I’m quitting baseball.’ Brian’s sisters were still young enough they lived at home. His dad turned to his sisters and said ‘GO TO YOUR ROOMS.’
Kent and Shari Duensing are Brian’s biggest supporters (along with Lisa), credited by many for instilling his solid work ethic, respect for others, and easygoing personality. In many ways then (and today) they were the guides and role models for their then 23 year old physically and emotionally exhausted son, and they remember that night well.
“I asked him why,” remembers Kent. “He said, ‘I just don’t want to go’. I reminded him, ‘Brian, you’ve put a lot of work into this. A lot of people believe you can do this. Don’t throw this away because you’re not sure. It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to the people who think you can do it. It’s not fair to the people who supported you. You’ve got to give it another try, for the how many thousands of kids who never get this opportunity.'”
Shari flashed back to another time Brian wanted to quit.. as a young teenager. She thought of everything he might have missed; lifelong friendships, Jim Carrey impersonations on the field, teammates who constantly inspired and encouraged each other. These two proud parents wanted what every parent wants for their child; a life lived without regret.
“I didn’t want him to look back at the rest of his life thinking what might have been?” said Kent. “Sometimes, you’ve got to take that chance.”
The next morning, Nebraska was paralyzed by a huge snowstorm, and Brian’s flight to Florida was cancelled. Brian and Lisa spent the day thinking about what Kent and Shari had said.. they enjoyed time together.. they found their calm. Brian flew out the following day, giving himself a silent deadline of four years to make something big happen.
“God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.” – 1 John 3:20
Brian threw great in the first half of the 2007 season with New Britain. That May, Lisa graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and drove with her parents to Connecticut to finally join her husband… for one weekend. After watching Brian play in a weekend series, he left for a road trip, Lisa’s parents went home, and she was alone in a new apartment in Farmington, CT.
“It was scary, definitely a rough part of town,” said Lisa. “To go for jogs, I would literally run back and forth in front of our apartment building because I was so scared. For 30 minutes, I would just run one block of sidewalk.”
Lisa cleaned their apartment top to bottom (for both Brian and their roommate… yes, the newly married couple had a roommate) to welcome Brian home at midnight after his roadtrip. The next morning, Kent, Shari and about 10 relatives and friends were flying in to Connecticut to visit and watch him play.
“The next day at Noon, he gets called up,” remembers Lisa. “At 11:30, his parents, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles had all just landed in Connecticut. Brian calls them in the airport and says ‘I’m going to New York!'”
As the Duensing clan rented a conversion van for their impromptu 350-mile road trip, Brian and Lisa packed up their bed and clothes, so Brian could start the next day’s game in a brand new city.
“I said hello to the manager and he thought I was a young guy trying to get a bullpen catching job. He had no idea who I was,” said Brian. “He goes, ‘hello? Can I help you?’ ‘Ummm, I starting today.'”
Brian won that first game, despite a hard hit and a surprising ‘pep talk’ from his new boss.
“I was dealing my first outing and I got a line drive hit right off my ass,” describes Brian. “The manager and pitching coach come out, asking if I’m alright. ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ The manager literally looks at me and goes, ‘welcome to Triple-A’, and walked off. I looked at the catcher and I’m like, ‘did our manager just talk shit to me?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah. He did. Let’s go.'”
And Brian did. By the end of his 2007 season, he was leading the organization in the minors for innings pitched, and was among the top pitchers in all of Triple-A baseball for the same. In less than two years, Brian and Lisa had gotten married, had slept in a kitchen, considered giving up baseball, and had jumped three levels (and three cities) of the minor leagues in an unheard of two years. They hoped that their journey up and down the East Coast might someday lead to Minneapolis.
Instead, the Duensings were headed for Beijing.
“We get home, and I get a call from USA Baseball,” said Brian. “They asked if I would play with them in the World Cup in Taiwan. Of course, I said yes.”
November 18, 2007, on his and Lisa’s first wedding anniversary, Brian started Team USA’s Gold Medal championship game against Cuba, going 4 2/3 innings. A few months later, while still playing Triple-A ball in Rochester, the head of USA Baseball called Brian again.
“We want you to be on the Olympic Team,” recalls Brian. “I didn’t even know what to say. Um, awesome, yeah, ok. They had already talked to Minnesota, the Twins gave me the OK. I’m going to Beijing to be in the Olympics. What’s going on?!?”
Brian’s Rochester teammate Kevin Mulvey (now Head Coach for Villanova), worked with the Red Wings General Manager and the Twins to raise enough money for Lisa to cheer Brian on at the Olympic Games. 22 family members flew to North Carolina to watch Brian play in a pre-Olympics exhibition game with Team USA versus Canada. America’s roster included Brian, Jake Arrieta, Stephen Strasburg, Taylor Teagarden, and Dexter Fowler among others; seven players were Major League Baseball players 10 years after the Games. Together, they were part of the mere 588 people representing our country at the 2008 Summer Games. 588 – out of 304 million Americans. Brian kept a blog while he was in Beijing.
“It was just insane, the amount of countries that I didn’t know existed,” said Brian. “The athletes, so many people in such good shape. We go to the gym to get a workout in, and the first thing I see is this 6’3″ chick from Slovakia, repping like 300 pounds. I’m like, ‘uhh, no, I’m out.'”
Everyday in Beijing was a new adventure. Maneuvering thousands of security guards and translators (“I learned about three words in Chinese”), exploring the world’s biggest buffet with cuisine from around the globe, and having more than a few starstruck moments. His fellow Olympians included Lebron James, Shawn Johnson, Jennie Finch, and Kerri Walsh to name just a few.
“I sat down to eat lunch with some of the baseball guys,” says Brian. “Someone sits down with us, I look up and it’s Michael Phelps. I didn’t talk to him at all, I didn’t even say hello.”
One of Brian’s most memorable moments was being part of Opening Ceremonies, viewed by an estimated 1.5 billion people around the globe.
“The whole baseball team couldn’t sit together, so I look up and there’s a seat by our coaches,” remembers Brian. “There are two girls next to me. I asked them what sport? The blonde girl said judo. I started talking to them a little bit, asking them how the team looked, and she said America had never medalled in judo but they were hoping to change that. I told her hey, I’ll definitely keep an eye on that! Sure enough, this blonde girl wins the bronze medal, first female to ever medal in judo for the US. Fast forward like 8 years, I come to find out that was Ronda Rousey, one of the best UFC fighters of all time.”
Team USA was also ready to represent on the baseball field. Brian took the mound August 16, 2008 as the United States faced Canada.
“We have a runner on first with two outs, bottom of the ninth,” remembers Brian. “We’re up by one. Somehow I completely had a brain fart, got on the mound, didn’t know what foot to step off with, I’m panicking. I tried to call time out.”
Brian balked – twice – but officials never called it.
“They had microphones in dugouts, only on the internet, as part of the ‘Olympic experience’, so everyone listening to the Canadian dugout heard every word in the book. The guy up to bat hit what I thought was a routine fly ball. I walk off and do this fist bump like ‘yeah, I got this huge win’, turn around, and the outfielder barely caught it at the wall. If that had been a homerun, I don’t think I ever would’ve played baseball again.”
Two days later, Team USA took the field again, this time playing host country China.
“We almost fought them, which would’ve been a disaster,” said Brian. “Couple of our dudes got drilled a few times, and one of our dudes <Nate Schierholtz> trucked their catcher because of it. He hit him so hard, he broke his own molar. Everyone jumped the fence and our security was trying to hold us back.”
Team USA won 9-1, and beat Chinese Taipei the following day. The team called on Brian again in their game against Japan, a victory that eventually helped the United States secure a Bronze Medal in the games, despite several major injuries. Most of Team USA returned to the states immediately to continue baseball season at home, but their Olympic journey wasn’t over yet.
“About two weeks later we got a call that Oprah Winfrey is having every Olympic medalist on her show,” remembers Brian. “Do you want to go? I was like umm, yes.”
“And I was like YESSS,” says Lisa. Brian was treated to a free, first class ticket to Chicago and a limo ride to Millennium Park. He met Oprah, President George W. Bush, and many of the fellow Olympians he hadn’t yet talked to in person.”
“Kobe Bryant talked to us for like two seconds, he was sitting right behind us,” says Brian. “Oprah has Jennie Finch stand up, and when she does, BAM, there’s my face!”
“Just crazy times. I mean, I have an Olympic Bronze Medal and a World Cup Gold Medal,” said Brian. “But again, in high school I never thought I’d play college baseball. Then getting drafted. Then playing in the Olympics. I didn’t plan for any of it.”
“For so many, there is still so much pressure along the way, from the player, from his parents, from their spouse, from their friends,” said Lisa. “This is not to discount Brian’s hard work or how much he wanted it, but every step was like a surprise.”
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” – Joel 2:28
Much like Lisa and Brian themselves, when Kent and Shari are asked to recount memories from the CWS, or the MLB Draft, or the Olympics, there’s no bragging, just reliving treasured memories and moments they shared as a family. Kent and Shari were there with Lisa at Wukesong Baseball Field to watch their ‘little boy’ play that game in Beijing, as they have for almost 30 years.
“I just sat with my hands gripped on the bleacher seat,” said Shari. “It was just overwhelming, like, this is really happening.”
“Who would’ve thought this little kid from Omaha is now representing the United States,” said Kent. “To see him out there in a USA uniform, playing in a foreign country, it was really pretty cool.”
Yet when you ask Lisa, Kent or Shari who Brian Duensing is… they don’t see Olympian. Or Gold Medalist. Or top draft pick. Just as some things are bigger than any one of us, so too are the things we love most about each other: humor, loyalty, kindness.
“To us, he’s just Brian,” said Kent. “If you would’ve known him in high school or college or now, he hasn’t changed at all. He still talks to his grandparents. He knows where he came from. He has the same demeanor that he had back then.”
Case in point: Shari’s favorite Olympic moment, at the USA vs Canada exhibition game in North Carolina.
“You walk in, see all of these Team USA jerseys, and it was an emotional sight for any patriot,” remembers Shari. “I walk in, my sister was with me, we’re enjoying the game and Brian pulls up his jersey and shows his nipple to us. He’s in the dugout of Team USA! We have pictures of the whole family afterwards, the boys posed like that. We all busted out laughing. That’s just Brian!”
“I’m so incredibly proud of all my kids,” says Shari. “Brian and Lisa and my girls. To know they all grew up, they all support each other, I’m blessed. My favorite times are just to be with my entire family. It’s been an amazing journey Brian and Lisa have been so gracious to let us all join in on.”
Duensing takes the mound, Part Three on deck.