Elijah Dukes' Difficult Past Makes Future With Nationals Very Uncertain

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Elijah Dukes' Difficult Past Makes Future With Nationals Very Uncertain
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The Washington Nationals have been working very hard to answer some of their many lingering questions this offseason.

Get rid of a closer who walked more batters than he struck out? Check.

Bring in at least one, and possibly two, relievers to take his place? Check.

Cover the team’s posterior, in case Jesus Flores is not 100 percent healthy, by signing a former all-star catcher willing to take on a reduced role? Check.

Chase veteran free-agent pitchers down the street, contract in one hand, pen in the other? Check.

While most Nationals’ fans aren’t entirely sure what the team will look like when General Manager Mike Rizzo ceases his tinkering and trading, one thing is for sure: they are going to be a better team.

But one change that is not being considered, at least publicly, is in right field. 2010 seems to be the year that Elijah Dukes will reach his potential as a player and mature as a man, or he’ll be long, long gone by the end of the year. The Nationals are too close to respectability to be able to coddle Dukes for much longer.

Will he succeed and survive in Washington? As Dr. Phil likes to say, “The best predictors of future actions are past actions.”

Without question, Dukes has the potential to hit .290-25-90 with 25 steals and play flawless defense, but can he keep his dark side in check long enough to be able to have that kind of a breakthrough season?

There is no question that Elijah Dukes has done some very stupid things. The question, though, is why did he do them?

Dukes was eight years old, and living in the poorest part of Homestead Florida, when Hurricane Andrew leveled his city. The family salvaged just two family photographs and a small radio.

The radio was stolen the next day.

The family moved to Tampa but found it difficult to find good housing, in part because of limited resources and in part because of the influx of displaced Floridians due to the hurricane.

The home was in the worst part of town, surrounded by drug dealers and prostitutes.

Young Elijah was nine years old.

Mother Phyllis began buying and selling crack cocaine—she says she never actually used it—for her friends and neighbors to enjoy.

One night, she accused a drug dealer of selling her counterfeit crack.

Elijah Dukes Sr. took a gun and pushed the muzzle deep into the man's chest.

He pulled the trigger and became a murderer.

On his way out of the courtroom and into prison, a crying Elijah tried to touch his father as he walked past him, but was kept away by a police officer.

And his grief turned to anger.

It was just a few months later that Dukes was first arrested, at the age of 13, for assault and battery.

All too often, Elijah, now a teenager, would come home to find the power turned off and the refrigerator empty.

"I'm going to become a professional athlete," Elijah said. The family needed money.

He excelled in both football and baseball. He was named the finest athlete in Florida and USA Today called him "the best two-way athlete in the country."

That didn't stop him from attending four Tampa high schools in four years, as he continued to wear out his welcome wherever he went.

He was offered many football scholarships and signed a national letter of intent with Chuck D'Amato and North Carolina State University.

In the end, though, he chose baseball and the quicker payday, receiving a $505,000 bonus as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' third round selection in the 2002 draft.

In each of his first six professional seasons, Dukes was suspended at least once.

After receiving a harsh critique from Durham Bulls' hitting coach Richie Hebner, Dukes laced his fingers around his neck and choked him with both hands, raising him a good two inches off the ground.

Devil Rays' catcher Shawn Riggans saw Elijah's temper flare over and over during their time in the minors. He was one of the few who didn't blame Dukes for his actions.

"You and I would not do well there," Riggans said, referring to Dukes’ early years. "Nobody knows what it was like for him." When asked his opinion about Dukes the baseball player, Riggans searched for a moment and said, "If he can focus himself on the field, there aren't many other players like him."

Hebner wasn't as kind. "He'll snap in a minute," the former Pirate told ESPN.com, adding, "a new team or a new stadium won't change that."

Another Rays' farmhand, Ryan Knox, saw Dukes' temper up close and personal. In 2004, Knox was Elijah's third roommate in three months. At first, they got along fine as Knox began to consider Dukes a friend.

Then one day, the bright-eyed and affable Dukes suddenly turned dour and cold. Things got so bad that a maid in the hallway hid for her life and fellow teammates scurried for cover.

Knox didn't move fast enough. Like Hebner before him, Knox felt the full strength of Dukes' hands begin to choke off his air supply.

"Knox, I'm done with you!" was all Dukes said before throwing him to the ground. "With him, it was kill or be killed," said Knox softly, truly saddened by Dukes’ difficulties.

But his talent cast a giant shadow on his personality flaws, and he was soon in the major leagues.

In his first major league at-bat, Dukes lofted a long home run into deep center field in Yankee Stadium off of Carl Pavano. He then duplicated the feat the next day.

While he was still a part of the Tampa organization, no one would say a cross word about Elijah Dukes, probably out of fear. But now that he's a Washington National, they are a little more willing to talk.

"That wasn't a fun year, and that's all I have to say about that," says Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash, who played for the Bulls in 2006.

And Rays' manager Joe Maddon said that a weight has been lifted with Dukes gone: "It feels a whole lot better here."

Dukes is not a sweet man and has a rap sheet that would make a career criminal blush.

Since 2003:

Shortly after his first child was born, he was arrested for throwing a remote control at his girlfriend. He was arrested for obstruction of a police officer. He was arrested for battery. He was arrested for battery again. He was arrested for choking one of his girlfriends. He was arrested for possession of marijuana.

There was a 17-year-old girl living with his grandmother. He got her pregnant. He threw a bottle of Gatorade at her when he found out he was going to have his fifth child with his fourth girlfriend.

You get the idea.

Since the trade to Washington, Dukes' attitude has been "good enough." Oh sure, he been in trouble while playing winter ball in 2007, and he had a stare-down with Mets' pitcher Mike Pelfrey, and he and former Nationals' manager Manny Acta had a heated discussion one summer evening.

But compared to his first six seasons, 2008 was a walk in the park. Though he had an early season injury that robbed him of his power, Dukes still had a solid offensive year, batting .264-13-44 in just 276 at-bats. Injuries and attitude problems (and a demotion to ‘AAA’ Syracuse for a time) made 2009 a big disappointment for Dukes, who hit just .250-8-58 in just over 300 at-bats.

His two-year average with Washington, based on a 550 at-bat season, looks like this:

Ave:.256 HR:16 RBI:75 SB:17 OBP:.359 SLG:430

He could have his breakthrough season in 2010, hitting .295-30-100 or he could be long-gone when September rolls around. With Elijah Dukes, you can’t predict what he’ll do until after he’s already done it.

Hopefully, the team—and the fans—give him a chance to prove exactly who Elijah Dukes is.

And heading into his make-or-break season, Dukes is again in pain. His father, who had served 16 years for murder, died of cancer just three weeks after being released from prison. Prison doctors mistakenly diagnosed him with acid reflux and relatively minor stomach disorders.

Dukes had told many of his friends that he couldn't wait for his father to watch him play this year. Will Dukes focus in 2010 and have a great year to honor his father, or will he end up coldcocking a teammate in yet another moment of blind rage?

We should have some empathy for the man. How many of us—having grown up in the same circumstances—would have done any better? Without proper role models, surrounded by people who didn't give a damn, forced into crime to survive, would we have become the person we are today?

I don't know.

I do know, though, that Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, and Carl Everett are also graduates of Dukes' Hillsborough High School.

Similar personalities. Similar attitudes. Similar problems.

Is Elijah Dukes a case of nurture vs. nature?

Coming out of that same quagmire of hopelessness, Dukes' younger brother Tyrone just graduated from Albany State University in Georgia with a degree in business.

Was Tyrone the exception? Was he the rule?

Again, I don't know.

But that's the point, none of us know.

And until we do, we should—in the words of my favorite preacher—hate the sin but love the sinner. We should hate those things that Elijah Dukes has done but love Elijah Dukes and root for him to succeed.

Hasn't he earned that by now?

Funny sidebar to this story: As I was researching newspaper articles about Dukes for this story, I came across three stories about "Elijah Dukes" that drew my attention:

From the Washington Post, July 16th 1906: "Elijah Dukes recently had his eighteenth child, all with the same mother." (the number of children fits, but not the number of moms).

From the San Antonio Light, August 15th 1949: "Elijah Dukes came off second best in an altercation with a woman over ownership of a hairbrush, police said Monday. Dukes, stabbed twice in the chest with a pair of scissors, was treated and released at Baptist Memorial Hospital." Well, it would have made more sense if it was Dukes doing the stabbing.

But wait .... there's more.

From the San Antonio Light, May 23rd, 1966: "A San Antonio woman was in fair condition Monday at the Baptist Memorial hospital after suffering multiple stab wounds Sunday night. Elijah Dukes, 42, was arrested for assault to murder in connection with the stabbing."

Maybe it's the name?

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