Gophers pay tribute to their No. 1 fan, Cowboy Bob

Tim Klobuchar

Sunday was a special day for many people. Mother’s Day was observed, and the Gophers baseball team held it’s annual senior day, which Minnesota senior Rob Smith celebrated by hitting three home runs in the doubleheader.
Yet Bob Duncan still had a better day than anyone. Duncan, known as “Cowboy Bob” because of the cowboy boots he used to wear, has been the Gophers’ most vocal, durable and appreciative fan for the last 10 years. On Sunday, the Gophers did their part to show they appreciated him.
The Gophers players approached coach John Anderson on Friday about having Duncan throw out the first pitch for Sunday’s first game. Anderson agreed, so there was Cowboy Bob ambling out to the mound Sunday afternoon.
Duncan doffed his Minnesota cap after being introduced, revealing his thinning dark hair. Public address announcer Dick Jonckowski promptly ribbed him.
“He spent 20 minutes combing his hair, then he forgot to bring it,” Jonckowski said.
After laughing off the barb, the big right hander launched into an exaggerated wind-up and fired a pitch to Minnesota catcher Bryan Guse that, according to Jonckowski, “would have been a strike to Ralph Sampson.”
Duncan also took part in a home run contest after the first game. He said he hadn’t swung a bat since high school, and it showed, as four of his five left-handed swings hit nothing but air.
“This is the greatest day of my life,” said the 37-year-old Duncan. “It’s just an awesome honor.”
The results of his day in the sun didn’t deter Duncan, just as the Gophers’ fortunes don’t dictate when he comes to the games. He’s been at virtually every home game since 1986, sitting in the same spot — the first row of bleachers above the Gophers’ first-base dugout. One of the main reasons for his faithfulness is his admiration of the athletes.
“The Gophers are a class act, and they have classy players,” Duncan said. “They play so hard for no pay, and I’ve never seen them refuse an autograph request. A lot of the pro players are so stuffy, you have to beg and plead with them for an autograph.”
The players also genuinely enjoy his company, shaking hands with him when they walk back to the dugout after home runs and talking to him regularly. Also, Guse began a tradition at the start of the Big Ten season of giving Duncan the game ball after every game.
For many years, however, his consistency at the ballpark masked turmoil in his own life. Duncan is a recovering alcoholic and gambling addict. He bottomed out two years ago this month when police discovered the insurance on his car, which he had been living in for two weeks, had run out.
“I was a mess,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to kill myself, but I was in bad shape.”
Fortunately, Duncan was on his way that day to the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul in search of help.
In his words, he has “turned his life over to Christ” and is now sober and free of his gambling problem. Duncan is also now a senior staff member at the mission. He said he hopes to get his driver’s license back and save up enough money to get his own apartment and car.
As Duncan has maneuvered his way through the trails of his own life, he has remained — and always will remain — a fixture at Siebert Field. He will still constantly yell encouragement at the Gophers, still get the crowd going by clapping.
“I try to get everybody up and cheering, and sometimes it works,” Duncan said. “But sometimes they look at me like I’m crazy.”
As the Gophers were about to close out Iowa in Sunday’s second game, Duncan, on his first try, succeeded in getting nearly the entire crowd at Siebert to stand and clap with him for the third out.
For Cowboy Bob, it was definitely a great day.