- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Elijah Dukes sat in front of a row of microphones, cameras and reporters and answered every question posed to him. He discussed his past problems, the help he has gotten and the second chance he’s receiving from the Washington Nationals.

By the time his introductory press conference at Space Coast Stadium ended, the talented-but-troubled outfielder’s message could best be summed with this bit of introspection.

“I’ve been working on myself a long time, and I finally found a breakthrough,” he said. “From now on, everybody gets a chance to really see [what] the real Elijah Dukes is like.”

Whether the 23-year-old on display yesterday— cordial, thoughtful, enlightened — is the real Elijah Dukes won’t be revealed for weeks or months. There are too many blemishes on Dukes’ record — arrests, suspensions, court dates and accusations — to say with confidence at this point he has changed his ways.

But the Nationals, who acquired Dukes from the Tampa Bay Rays in December, have seen enough positive signs over the last two months to continue this experiment.

“Everything we have asked him to do in his personal life, in his professional life, he has absolutely followed 100 percent,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “And our plan is for him to continue to do that. We all want to help him improve, and he wants to help himself. We all win if we can do that.”

Dukes had arguably the most anticipated arrival of any of his new teammates this spring. The Nationals had kept him out of sight from the day they acquired him for pitching prospect Glenn Gibson. They didn’t want to expose him until team officials were confident he was on the right track toward turning his life around.

But on the day position players reported to camp, Dukes made his debut, though not without creating some confusion. Originally expected to arrive today, he bumped up his appearance. Team officials announced early yesterday there would be an afternoon press conference, but by lunchtime reporters were told the situation had become “fluid” and that the session might not take place at all. Club sources confirmed Dukes was unsure how and when he wanted to meet with the media.

Finally, at about 2:30 p.m., Dukes walked through the front lobby at Space Coast Stadium with his 3-year-old son Elijah Jr. and two members of the Nationals’ public relations staff. Bowden and team president Stan Kasten followed, then showed Dukes around the facility before escorting him into an interview room.

“We had him under wraps all offseason,” Kasten said. “I’ve never done that before, so we didn’t know what would be the best way, the best time. So we chatted about it. … He was more than fine doing this, absolutely.”

Once he sat down, Dukes offered insight into his personality and the changes he has undergone in recent months.

“I’ve been working hard on being able to work with others and be able to do what the team needs me to do to stay on the field and to stay clear of all the troubles,” he said.

Dukes didn’t do that during his five seasons in the Tampa Bay organization. He was arrested at least three times for battery and once for assault. He was suspended by both the Rays and their Class AAA affiliate for various altercations with umpires, coaches and teammates. He was accused of impregnating a 17-year-old and reportedly has fathered at least five children with four different women.

In May, Dukes’ estranged wife accused him of leaving her a phone message in which he threatened to kill her and their children and sent a picture of a gun to her cell phone. The Rays removed him from their big league roster in June and placed him on the temporary inactive list. He did not play the rest of the season, finishing with a .190 average, 10 home runs and 21 RBI in 52 games.

The Nationals acquired Dukes during the winter meetings and developed a plan to help him rehabilitate himself and stay out of further trouble. That plan included constant monitoring by James Williams, hired by Washington as a “special assistant to player concerns,” according to Bowden. Williams has remained at Dukes’ side for the last two months.

“He’s kind of come in and give me that tough love,” Dukes said. “He just shoots it to me straight. We kind of do things together that would kind of reflect as kind of a father-and-a-son-type thing. That’s a good feeling to always have.”

The Nationals also have designated first baseman Dmitri Young and special assistant Barry Larkin as clubhouse mentors to Dukes. Both have accepted the challenge, though Young (who overcame his own personal battles a year ago) admitted Dukes’ ultimate transformation will have to come from within.

“He has to look at this as a chance to maybe help people that are disadvantaged and didn’t come from the best background in the world, to see and say, ‘Hey, this guy made something out of himself. I can do it, too,’ ” Young said. “He has to realize that is the message that he can pass on.”

Dukes enters camp battling for a spot on Washington’s Opening Day roster. Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns are penciled in as the club’s starting outfield, so Dukes will compete for a reserve job.

He promised yesterday to “give 110 percent” and win over skeptical fans who know only of his past problems. He said the changes he has made will prove to the world he can start over with “a clean slate.”

“I have my issues, but I overcame them, and I’m here without being on the front page behind bars or something,” Dukes said. “Obviously, I kind of dealt with my things the right way this year.”

THE HAZARDS OF DUKES

A look at Elijah Dukes’ run-ins both on and off the field:

Dec. 8, 2003: Arrested on assault charge. Formal charges were never filed.

Dec. 25, 2003: Arrested and accused of obstructing or opposing an officer without violence. He entered an intervention program.

Oct. 12, 2004: Charged with misdemeanor battery. The case was never prosecuted.

Jan. 18, 2005: Arrested on a battery charge. Dukes did not contest the charge, and the judge withheld adjudication. Dukes was sentenced to one year of probation and received a $549 fine.

Feb. 27, 2006: Married NiShea Gilbert.

May 1, 2006: Gilbert filed a petition for divorce.

June 5, 2006: Gilbert dismissed her petition for divorce.

2006 season: Sent home in April after he got into a heated argument with his Class AAA Durham Bulls hitting coach and missed 15 games. The organization also suspended Dukes after a June altercation with a teammate at the team hotel. In August, the International League suspended Dukes for five games because of his conduct toward an umpire. The Tampa Bay organization followed with a 30-game suspension that ended Dukes’ season.

Jan. 15, 2007: Charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. He pleaded not guilty.

April 30, 2007: Issued a trespass warning after showing up at Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin, Fla., where Gilbert taught.

May 17, 2007: Gilbert filed for a protective order against Dukes, which was granted May 30.

June 12, 2007: A 17-year-old under the foster care of Dukes’ stepgrandmother said Dukes got her pregnant in February.

June 13, 2007: Asked for a personal day and was given the day off.

June 19, 2007: Called Tampa sports radio station to defend himself.

June 22, 2007: Reassigned to the minor leagues, placed on the temporary inactive list.


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