- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Two loud booms shook Space Coast Stadium just before the Washington Nationals took the field for practice yesterday.

No, Elijah Dukes had not arrived at the complex. The sonic booms came from the space shuttle Atlantis as it approached nearby Cape Canaveral.

Dukes arrived six hours later and, like the shuttle, enjoyed a smooth landing. He met with reporters — they had been barred from talking to him since he was traded to the club in December — and answered questions about his troubled past.

The entire Nationals organization, it seemed, was dreading this moment. There was much intrigue about whether a press conference would be held yesterday and whether Dukes would show (one club official called the situation “fluid”).

Dukes did show, and one public relations official asked the assembled reporters to “just be mindful to make a nice impression on Elijah, and hopefully we can keep things positive about his time with the Nationals.”

The 23-year-old Dukes walked into the building holding one of his children by the hand (he reportedly has fathered five by four different women). He then turned in a solid performance, answering all questions put to him calmly and thoughtfully in a 20-minute session.

Nothing bad happened. The Nationals now must hope nothing bad happens today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.

It is always day to day with a young man this troubled and volatile.

Dukes has a long history of arrests that started at age 13 and a history of suspensions connected to frightening displays of temper and questionable behavior.

Club officials assigned an employee to be with Dukes each day, and they say that so far the days have been good.

“Since the time we acquired Elijah, he has been cooperative and diligent in the things that we have insisted on,” said team president Stan Kasten, who attended the press conference. “We are confident that will continue.”

Dukes yesterday didn’t seem like the man who sent a photo of a handgun to his wife’s cell phone and threatened to kill her in May, as she charged.

There were no sonic booms, just controlled responses. Dukes credited the change to the help he has received and to his own self-evaluation.

“I was a real hard-headed guy,” he said. “It was kind of hard for me to listen. I needed to be able to admit that I do things wrong and that when I do things wrong, make good after that. Those are all the things I learned in the self-evaluation.”

Dukes, a high school sports star in Tampa, Fla., said it was difficult for him to mature in his hometown while learning to be major league ballplayer.

“I think being young and being at home was not a good thing for somebody who is not mature enough to handle those type of situations,” he said. “You have to know how to cope with the issues that go along with being at home and playing baseball. [Those who have helped] taught me how to grow and deal with those type of things differently if they were to happen again.”

To his credit, Dukes didn’t blame his former organization. In fact, he said the Rays did what they could to help him.

“I had good support,” he said. “I have been trying to find myself for a long time. It is a shame that it happened after the trade rather than before the trade. They gave me a lot of support. They gave me my chances. They had people who could help me get better, but it was just finding myself.”

Now he says the Nationals have helped him find himself.

“I have been working on myself for a long time,” he said. “I finally found a breakthrough, and from now on everybody will finally get a chance to see the real Elijah Dukes. I have always been working on it, and I think now that I finally tuned it up a little bit I can probably stay on the field the whole year.”

If that happens, the Nationals could set up a side business as a rehab center for last-chance baseball players. They picked veteran Dmitri Young, out of baseball because of his own personal problems, off the street last year. He turned out to be their best hitter, the National League Comeback Player of the Year and now Dukes’ mentor.

A successful Elijah Dukes could pay off much bigger.

“He has tremendous potential,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “There is no reason why he can’t be a 35 to 40 home run guy and a 100-RBI guy.”

There has been a litany of reasons so far — his rap sheet, for one.

Those who saw Dukes in Tampa have seen this before, the good Elijah. It clearly has been a battle for the good Elijah to be in control. He said yesterday it is a battle he is determined to win.

“I have 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 trouble,” Dukes said.

But what happens when the support isn’t there when he needs it? What happens when he is tested in that moment?

“I have tests in my life every day, trying to raise my son and stuff like that,” Dukes said. “I have my issues, but I overcame them, and I am here without being on the front page behind bars or something. I kind of dealt with my things the right way this year.”

No, he wasn’t behind bars. But Dukes was in a cocoon weaved by the Nationals, one they hope will be strong enough to keep any sonic booms silent.

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