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03/17/09 3:15 PM ET

Duncan back in action after rare surgery

Cardinals outfielder out to prove he still can play at high level

JUPITER, Fla. -- Fewer than seven months ago, Chris Duncan was facing the unsettling possibility that his career as a professional baseball player might be over at the age of 27. It's difficult to say what hurt more, the aggravating pain in his neck or the heartbreak of facing potential career-ending surgery.

Duncan's promising career as a power hitter for the Cardinals was derailed last summer when he was diagnosed with a degenerative disk in his neck and told he would need surgery, the kind of procedure that limits mobility and has ended the careers of pro athletes such as Green Bay Packers receiver Sterling Sharpe.

Duncan's doctors, however, suggested a procedure other than cervical fusion surgery, one in which the disk in his neck would be replaced with a titanium disk.

Last August, Duncan became the first professional athlete to undergo the procedure, and today he's back in a Cardinals uniform vying for a starting spot on the 25-man roster.

"I think the doctor did a great job," Duncan said Saturday before a Spring Training game at Roger Dean Stadium. "Any time you have a problem with your back or neck, it's definitely a concern. I'm glad we figured out what was going on and it was taken care of. I know some people said it was the type of injury that could be career threatening."

Duncan gradually is showing some of the power that enabled him to hit 43 home runs in his first 1 1/2 seasons with the Cardinals before the neck problem robbed him of his powerful swing. He has a .273 batting average, a .477 slugging percentage and has hit two homers with 12 RBIs in 44 Grapefruit League at-bats despite struggling some the first week of Spring Training.

"Missing a lot of time last year with the neck injury, it was just a matter of getting my timing down and seeing pitches and taking at-bats," Duncan said. "I wanted to focus on making sure I came in healthy, and for the most part, I feel good physically."

"I feel fortunate to spend time every day with someone who's not only my father, but a great coach. It's kind of a dream come true to play in the Major Leagues and have my father there to watch."
-- Chris Duncan

Duncan, who has worked on his swing with Mark McGwire in the past but was unable to this past offseason, said he had to work extra hard to regain the strength he had before the surgery.

"You start from scratch and just work your way up, get back on the field and get after it," said Duncan, who had only one hit in his first 14 plate appearances this spring but then hit a home run, a triple and two singles in a game against the Mets on March 3. "I have good days and bad days [at the plate], but I feel like my strength is back."

Duncan said the debilitating pain in his neck dissipated within a few days of the surgery performed by Dr. Dan Riew, an orthopaedic surgeon in St. Louis. Duncan said he hasn't experienced any pain this spring, and Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae said Duncan "looks like his old self," regarding his swing.

Duncan knows, however, that he still must continue to work diligently to earn a starting job in what is a somewhat crowded Cardinals outfield.

"Knock on wood, I haven't had any problems, and hopefully I can continue to hit good and show everyone that I can still play," said Duncan, who is the son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I feel fortunate to spend time every day with someone who's not only my father, but a great coach. It's kind of a dream come true to play in the Major Leagues and have my father there to watch."

After what Duncan experienced last season, that is even truer today.

Coming up: The Cardinals will return to action on Wednesday with a set of split-squad games against the Orioles. St. Louis right-hander Chris Carpenter will start against Baltimore righty Brad Bergesen at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., while Redbirds right-hander Kyle McClellan will oppose O's righty Adam Eaton in Fort Lauderdale. Cards left-hander Dennys Reyes could be available for relief work since Mexico has been eliminated from the World Baseball Classic. Both games are scheduled for 12:05 p.m. CT.

Steve Dorsey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.