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Nationals Insider: Not putting up with Dukes?

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

PITTSBURGH -- Elijah Dukes arrived at PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon, saw his name in its usual spot in Manny Acta's starting lineup and went about the business of preparing for a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Anyone who didn't know any better would have assumed nothing out of the ordinary took place the previous night.

The Washington Nationals, of course, know better. Much as they tried to downplay Tuesday night's dugout tussle between Acta and Dukes, the issue isn't about to disappear.

Replays of the ninth-inning shouting match were everywhere yesterday, on national TV, on local stations, on the Internet. Everyone wanted to know the same thing: What happened?

Was Acta upset at the choreographed celebration between Dukes and Lastings Milledge after the latter hit the go-ahead homer in the Nationals' 7-6 win over the Pirates? Was Dukes peeved at what he perceived to be a slight from Acta for not offering him a high-five when he returned to the dugout? Or was there much more to this story?

The answer still isn't clear. Neither participating party shed light on the matter before Wednesday night's game.

"It's over with," Acta said. "What happens in Pittsburgh is going to stay in Pittsburgh. We talked it out after the game, and we're cool. We're fine."

That was far more than Dukes had to say. When reporters tried to approach him in the clubhouse, Dmitri Young intervened and declared the 23-year-old outfielder wouldn't be talking.

This much we do know: Whatever prompted Acta and Dukes to get into the most-heated public confrontation this club has seen since Jose Guillen was on the roster was significant enough to require a closed-door meeting between the two participants and general manager Jim Bowden.

"We met with Elijah after the game. There was a misunderstanding," Bowden said. "We dealt with the situation behind closed doors. I support Manny Acta, the manager, 100 percent. We resolved the issue. It's now behind us."

But is it? Was this truly an isolated incident and not one in a string of questionable occurrences?

Close observers of the Nationals note at least three suspect situations involved Dukes in the last month alone. On May 12 at Shea Stadium, he started up the infamous dugout chant that had Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa referring to the Nationals as "softball girls." Last week at Nationals Park, he gestured toward plate umpire Doug Eddings upon hitting a game-winning homer, a move that upset both Eddings and uniformed personnel (including Acta).

Tuesday's incident was only the latest, though certainly the highest profile, and it certainly did nothing to improve Dukes' already diminished image around the sport.

His image within the Washington clubhouse has to come into question, too. Though Dukes does have a group of supporters among his teammates and coaches, a sizeable number of uniformed personnel have soured on him and question whether the player with the checkered past really has turned his life around at all.

Complicating the matter even more has been Dukes' impressive play over the last two weeks. After opening the season in an 8-for-68 slump, he has hit .295 with a .407 on-base percentage and .907 OPS over his last 14 games. He was directly responsible for the Nationals' only two victories over a 10-game span entering Wednesday's tilt.

"When he gets between the lines, he knows how to play the game of baseball," Bowden said. "He plays the game the right way. ... He studies the game. He's been grinding at-bats. He hasn't been chasing out of the strike zone. And he's really developing as a player. We're really proud of his progress, especially over the last week."

If only Dukes could make news only for his in-game play, not his extracurricular activity.