Elijah Dukes: Are His Problems The Result Of a Bad Man or a Bad Childhood?

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 16, 2009

It's open season on Elijah Dukes.


Other than a couple of very minor skirmishes last season, Dukes has kept his head down and his temper in check since joining the Nationals.

Now, a Tampa judge has threatened him with jail time if he doesn't pay more than $40,000 in back alimony and child support.

Dukes' lawyer said that the outfielder will comply with the order.

Nationals' general manager Jim Bowden said the team had known about the situation prior to acquiring him from the Tampa Bay Rays last year for pitching prospect Glen Gibson, and that they were working with Dukes to resolve the situation.

In other words, there isn't a story here.

And yet, you can't visit an Internet sports site without being bombarded with stories about Elijah Dukes being in trouble again.

To be sure, Dukes has brought this feeding frenzy upon himself. As Dr. Phil would say, the best predictor of future actions are past actions.

In other words, the sports world is watching Elijah Dukes very closely, waiting for him to fail because they expect him to fail.

Perhaps they even want him to fail.

But it's easy to kick a man when he's down, and it's even easier toΒ lament past problems when context is lost in the vacuum of bias.

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, 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 9-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 best 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. He just kept wearing out his welcome.

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' 3rd 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 Duram Bulls' hitting coach Richie Hebner, Dukes choked him with both hands, raising him a good two inches off the ground.

Rays' cather 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 noted. "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 with Knox even considering Dukes a friend.

Then one day, the bright-eyed and affable Dukes suddenly turned dour and sour 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 would say. "With him, it was kill or be killed" noted Knox."

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 deep 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 isn't 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 girl friends. He was arrested for possession of marijuana.

There was a 17-year-old girl living with his grand-mother. 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 got in trouble while playing winter ball in 2007, and he had a stare-down with Mets' pitcher Mike Pelfrey, and he and Nationals' manager Manny Acta had a heated discussion one summer evening.

But compared to his first six seasons, it was a walk in the park. Though he had an early season injury that robbed him of his power, Dukes still had an solid offensive year, batting .264-13-44 in just 276 at-bats.

Are his troubles over? No.

Should he be held accountable for his actions? Yes.

But we should also 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 surive, 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.

Nuture or 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? 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.

And not to fail.

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 sufering multiple stab wounds Sunday night. Elijah Dukes, 42, was arrested for assault to murder in connection with the stabbing."

Maybe it's the name?