Rookie Of The Year

A National League pennant on the line. The phone rings; you’re warm. The wall swings open, and with 41,000 fans watching in person and millions more on TV, you jog out, alone, to the pitcher’s mound.

The only thing more nervewracking that than? Being 8+ months pregnant, in the stands, and that pitcher is your HUSBAND.

***

By the time Brian Duensing reached his 26th birthday, he had quite the resume: College World Series Athlete, 3rd Round MLB Draft Pick, World Cup Gold Medalist, Olympic Bronze Medalist. He and his wife, Lisa, balanced their time between their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and …. wherever Brian’s baseball career sent them. Rochester, where Brian played for the Triple-A Red Wings; Beijing, where he represented Team USA; maybe Fort Myers, Florida for Spring Training?

The one place the Duensings hadn’t set up shop was Minneapolis, the home of the Minnesota Twins and the team that had drafted Brian a few years prior. Even though Brian had assignments with all four of the club’s farm teams, he and Lisa knew that many players spend their entire careers in Minor League baseball, never making it to the Majors.

Photo courtesy Charles Krupa for Twin Cities Pioneer Press

The Twins prepared for the 2009 season, led by their All Stars and Silver Sluggers, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.

“We’re still learning,” Mauer told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reporter Phil Miller. “We still always talk about pitchers, about different approaches, how the ball is moving, things like that. We’re left-handed, so pitchers tend to have the same plan against us.”

They say Three’s Company… and it just so happens, Brian Duensing is a leftie, too.

***

“I had the best Spring Training of my career,” remembers Brian, looking back on the weeks he spent in Fort Myers, Florida early in 2009. “I didn’t give up a run. I had like, a week of Spring Training left and the running joke between me and Phil Humber was ‘they tell you anything yet?’ ‘No… they tell you anything yet?’ ‘No..’ No one was saying anything to us. We had no idea what was going on.”

Just a few years prior, Brian told Lisa he wanted to quit baseball. It was too much; the constant travel and unknowns of minor league ball, the sleeping on couches and in kitchens with roommates, and the lingering fear of not staying in Triple A to make enough money for rent. (Need a recap? Click here!)

Lisa, Brian’s parents, and a well-timed Nebraska blizzard all helped convince Brian to keep trying.

“I always told myself four years,” says Brian. “I’ll give it four years and if I don’t make it to the Big Leagues, I’m done. I gave it a shot.”

Two years after that decision, Brian was out to dinner with teammates Nick Blackburn and Rob Delaney the night before the last day of Spring Training.

“I get a phone call from <Twins pitcher> Glen Perkins and he’s like, ‘hey man, congrats!'” said Brian. “I was like, ‘what? What’s going on?’ ‘Numbers-wise, you’re in, you made the team.’ I don’t know how it works, I’m just here to play baseball! I start calling everybody: parents are screaming, Lisa is screaming. On the way home, I realize, ‘holy crap. No one has actually physically told me I’m on the team. So now I’m panicked. I just called everybody, told them I was, this could be really bad.”

Lisa, Brian’s best friend and constant source of optimism, stayed positive – and BUSY.

“At this point, I had gone home to pack up our stuff because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” remembers Lisa. “That next morning, I had to start driving with an Expedition full of stuff, starting my way to Minnesota, not knowing if he had actually made it. We thought, worst case scenario I’ll turn around and come back home. But if I hadn’t gone right away, he wouldn’t have had anyone to pick him up, he wouldn’t have anywhere to live, no clothes, nothing.”

Alone, nervous, and a little hungover, Brian arrived at his last day of Spring Training.

“I walk in, sweating, and I sit down by my locker trying to keep it together,” remembers Brian. “Two seconds later, pitching coach pops his head in, ‘Duens, need you in the office now.'” They sit me down. ‘Listen, you had a great Spring Training. Couldn’t ask for anything more. Unfortunately, we can’t take everyone with us.'”

“I’m pretty sure I blacked out,” remembers Brian. “I’m like… oh my gosh. How am I going to make this phone call? Then they said, ‘good thing is though, you’re not one of them. You’re going to Minnesota with us.”

“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you.” 1 Thessalonians 1:4

***

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, Thomas Ian Nicholas, 1993. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Remember Rookie of the Year? The awesome baseball movie from the 90’s you say you’ve never seen but secretly watched a dozen times? No shame – I love this movie. BUT… I must have missed that part in the movie when Henry Rowengartner gets the standard rookie treatment from his new teammates.

“I was not nervous about baseball. I wasn’t nervous about pitching. I wasn’t nervous about facing big league hitters,” says Brian, the ONLY rookie on the Minnesota roster in 2009. “I was nervous about sitting in someone’s seat. Or making the wrong person mad. Or not following road trip protocol.”

Brian’s first test came early: his first flight to Minnesota, just hours after finding out he’d made the team.

“Mike Redmond asks, ‘what kind of carry-on do you have?’ I was like, I have a laptop bag?” says Brian. “Redmond’s like ‘that’s not gonna do. Find a way. There’s two cases of beer back there and they need to go on the plane.'”

At that point, Redmond, sharing catcher duty for the Twins with Mauer, was an 11-year league veteran and 2003 World Series champion, known for skillfully guiding pitchers and for his leadership within the team. Mike spoke; players listened.

“The thing is, everyone liked Brian from the beginning because he appreciated those rules,” says Lisa. “He respected the unwritten rules.”

Back to that first plane ride; Brian found two trash bags, loaded up what he could, and boarded the Twins team bus in a suit, carrying a laptop bag and 36 pounds of beer.

“‘See so and so? Go sit next to him’,” remembers Brian. “I am sweating profusely because I’m carrying 48 beers, I’m hot, I’m nervous, my suit fit terribly and I was pitting out like you wouldn’t believe. We pull up on the tarmac, and all of the sudden it occurs to me, ‘are these guys messing with me? Am I going to get cavity searched because I have all this beer?’ We get to security and the guy rips open the trash bags – not just unties the bags, he shreds them. He says ‘you’re joking, right? These aren’t three ounces or less!’ I’m like, ‘ummm, ummm, ummm…’ and he says ‘I’m messing with you, get on the plane.’”

“I walked onto that plane with 48 beers. I walked off the plane with 45 beers. I’m like, are you kidding me!?!” Remembers Brian. “Mike Redmond’s like, ‘I don’t care if you bring 15 beers or if you bring 100 beers. We run out of beers, and it is the end of you.’ I’m like, ‘Cool. Got it.’ I bought a new suitcase for it. Redmond, one of the greatest guys ever, but he was like ‘Duens, there better be two Bud Lights in my locker at the end of each game. Every single game.’ I’m like ‘alright, great.’ 90 percent of the time I remembered. A few times, where the bullpen was, I couldn’t get there in time and he would just air me out. Later, he was a Manager for the Marlins, then coaching for Colorado, and every time we played against them I had two Bud Lights ready.”

Brian Duensing made his Major League Baseball debut on April 10, 2009 against the Chicago White Sox. Temperature at game time: 46-degrees.

“It was freezing,” remembers Brian. “AJ Pierzynski was the first hitter I faced. I broke his bat, jam job to first base, he dog-cussed me the whole way, out loud. Every name in the book. Morneau fielded the ball, tossed it to me, 3-1 put out. I whipped my head around like ‘what is this guy’s problem??’ Morneau was laughing and said, ‘relax. You’ll understand someday.’ That was just how AJ played.”

Brian’s family was all in Chicago to see his big league debut in person. Brian’s parents drove from Minneapolis to Kansas to drop off grandparents, and then turned around and drove to Chicago for the White Sox series. Somehow they knew their son was going to throw. Lisa had also driven cross country just days before from Florida to Minnesota, only to leave Minnesota immediately to watch her husband’s new team.

“I remember driving into town with my parents,” remembers Lisa. “My Dad could not handle Chicago traffic, we didn’t know how to get anywhere, hurrying to get to the game.”

Brian threw almost four innings in relief that day; he gave up his first home run to Carlos Quentin, struck out his first batter, Brian Anderson, and picked off a runner at second.

“It hit me on the run in because I couldn’t feel my legs,” remembers Brian. “That’s when I knew; I was like, ‘oh my God, what is happening. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. I felt like Rookie of the Year; ‘oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!’ I was freaking out.”

The Twins won that day 12-5; it was Easter weekend. As they prepared for their next series against the Toronto Blue Jays, Brian was sent back to Triple-A.

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” — Isaiah 41:10

After so much excitement and hope, the Duensings were back in Rochester.

“I’m trying to set up an apartment, wondering, ‘should I even be setting up an apartment?’ Remembers Lisa. “Just like Brian, if he would have one bad game, he would call his Academic Advisor back at Nebraska and say there was no way he was going to make it, he needed to finish his degree. That happened for a few years, and she stopped responding to him.”

July 2009: Rochester had a road trip to Buffalo, so Lisa went along and the two used an off day to visit a casino at Niagara Falls. The next day, Brian was called into the team office – he was being called back up to Minnesota.

“It was out of the blue to us,” says Lisa.” We were living in a hotel. I drove Brian to Rochester to get all of his stuff, then back to Buffalo to make his flight, all in just a few hours. Then I packed up our entire life so I could drive through the night to Minneapolis. I drove by myself for 16 hours, thinking, ‘ok, we were here for 9 days and he threw once or twice, whatever.’ First game, pitcher got pulled it the third inning and here comes Brian, bases load, no outs, Yankees.”

Photo courtesy John Autey for Twin Cities Pioneer Press

“I come in and the first guy I face is Mark Texiera,” says Brian. “He popped it up infield. In my head, I’m thinking, I’m one pitch away from getting out of this jam, and I’m gonna freaking fist bump everyone. Then… Alex Rodriguez. I’m like, holy shit, I completely forgot he is on deck. He hits a freaking missile to center and Carlos Gomez robs him of a grand slam, over the fence.”

“No, we’re not joking,” adds Lisa. “The opening of Sportscenter featured Gomez catching that ball.”

Brian ended the inning and solidified his spot on the Minnesota Twins’ roster in 2009.

“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.” — Proverbs 3:3

After five years of constant moving and uncertainty, living in kitchens and hotel rooms, hoping and praying together and apart.. the Duensing finally found home in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Brian’s first starting outing: in Minneapolis at the Metrodome, the only year Brian played there. “I remember him throwing very well,” says Lisa. “They were so good that year.”

His first winning start: Twins vs. Royals in Kansas City, where Brian got to play against his good friend and former teammate Alex Gordon. “Whole family was there,” says Brian. “We had the entire third base left field side bleachers because back then, Kansas City sucked. Got my first win, went 5 1/3 innings. And it just kind of kept going.”

Two months later, just three months after being recalled from Triple-A, the Twins called upon Brian to start Game 1 of the 2009 ALDS against CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium.

Source:Bruce Kluckhohn/Minnesota Twins/MLB via Getty Images

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” — Philippians 4:8

Brian was officially named part of Minnesota’s starting rotation in 2010, the same season he threw his first of TWO complete game shut outs, agains the Oakland Athletics in August. He did it again versus the Tampa Bay Rays in July 2011.

https://youtu.be/0-CUFSicWNc

The first person to congratulate Brian after his final out… his catcher and friend, Joe Mauer. THAT is what Brian and Lisa both talk about when you ask them about their favorite memories in Minnesota; yes, the baseball, but also, the people.

Those two All Stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, became Brian’s closest friends in Minneapolis, along with teammates like Matt Guerrier and Josh Willingham. Maddie Mauer, Ginger Willingham and others, became confidantes and constant companions for Lisa. Friendships extended to Twins staff, club employees, and Twins’ beat reporters. They raised their families together. They suffered losses and celebrated memories together. They understood each other in a way others outside the game cannot. For two Omaha ‘Nebraska Nice’ natives like Brian and Lisa, Minnesota was an extension of Midwest hospitality and family connectivity.

“I am ridiculously proud of his accomplishments on the field, but when I think of Minnesota my first hundred memories would be with people or things off the field,” says Lisa. “That’s the thing about baseball people miss is you do life with those people. You spend more time with them than you do anyone else in your entire life. Even your best friend, you don’t talk to that person for four hours straight every, single day for eight months like you do the girls with the team. Some days, I would come to the game and not even go to the field. I would just sit and talk to the security guard. Or the same person who had our tickets every game; for years and years. When I found out I was pregnant, our chaplain went with me to my ultrasound because Brian was on the road. I had two miscarriages there. You do life with those people, and when you leave, you are leaving so much more than the game.”

For Brian and Lisa.. that day came in February 2016. Brian, who had spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins organization, seven of those years in Minneapolis, became a free agent and signed with the Kansas City Royals. The Duensings left Minnesota as a family of almost-5… no longer rookies to life in the Majors, but preparing to start all over again just as they had in 2009.

“The day we left, I was hysterically bawling,” says Lisa. “I was saying goodbye to the ticket people, the security guards, the people who ran the playroom. I always tell people it was a revolving door for so many years; someone gets traded and boom, they’re gone, within the day sometimes. Brian and I were always on one side of the door, which was a huge blessing. Not many people play that long, or play in one place. It was really hard to say goodbye to all of those people.”

“It felt very much like home,” says Brian. “We had a great group of people.”

“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.” — Numbers 6:24–26

On to Kansas City.. with a new mission and outlook looming on the horizon.

***

Catch up on the first two installments of the Duensings’ story!

CLICK HERE to read Part 1: Major League

CLICK HERE to read Part 2: American League

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