By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
NASHVILLE, Dec. 3 -- The Washington Nationals began baseball's winter meetings Monday with a dramatic and potentially controversial move, trading for troubled Tampa Bay outfielder Elijah Dukes, a 23-year-old whose skills are undisputed but whose long and varied list of legal issues sent his standing in the game tumbling.
Dukes joins 22-year-old Lastings Milledge -- whom the Nationals acquired in a trade with the New York Mets last week -- as a potential star in a Washington outfield that has been radically overhauled. But the decision to exchange 20-year-old Class A pitcher Glenn Gibson for Dukes went well beyond baseball, club officials said.
An exceptional athlete with rare gifts, Dukes has been dogged by legal problems. Since 1997, he has been arrested at least three times for battery and once for assault, records show. He also admitted marijuana use this past summer and, in the course of a bitter divorce, left a chilling voicemail on the cellphone of his former wife, threatening her and her children.
Nationals President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden said they considered all of those circumstances -- as well as how to help Dukes -- before making a deal they first considered in May. They acknowledged the move was a risk, but said Dukes's potential on the field -- Bowden believes he should produce 25 to 40 homers a year, and he has the reputation as an excellent defender -- was too great to pass up.
"At the end of the day, I came to be convinced that this risk is now well worth the potential rewards," Kasten said. "I would feel really good if we could make this a success story."
Kasten, Bowden, Manager Manny Acta and Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young -- who had his own bouts with personal, legal and substance abuse problems but became baseball's 2007 comeback player of the year -- met with Dukes on Monday morning at a hotel near the Nashville airport shortly after the trade had been completed. The message to Dukes, those involved said, was clear: He is being given another chance, and the club will not allow any slip-ups.
"I know people make a lot of mistakes," Young said in a telephone interview. "With him, he's had more problems than some. But I can actually try to say to him that this organization helped me put my problems behind. I can serve as a big brother, someone who can show you can learn from those problems. He assured everyone there that he could be a better person."
Dukes was not available to comment. The Nationals issued a statement in which Dukes said the trade is "an important move for my career and gives me the chance to prove myself both on and off the field. I appreciate this opportunity."
Dukes was a third-round draft choice of the Rays in 2002, but his athletic ability -- he was a two-sport star who could have played football at North Carolina State -- stood out. Yet he has been suspended at least once in each of his five professional seasons. That culminated this June, when an onslaught of controversy centering on his divorce led the Rays to place him on the temporary inactive list, ending his season.
Though Dukes's temper and erratic behavior had long been an issue within the Tampa Bay system, his problems took on a different tenor last spring, when the St. Petersburg Times first reported that his estranged wife, NiShea Gilbert, had sought a protective order against him. Gilbert had also received such an order in 2005, as had an ex-girlfriend of Dukes's. He has at least five children by at least four women, two with Gilbert, and has been involved in several legal cases in which women have pursued child support.
His interactions with Gilbert played out publicly when Gilbert played a voicemail to the St. Petersburg Times she said was left by Dukes.
"You dead, dawg," the message said. "I ain't even [kidding]. Your kids, too." She later said he sent a picture of a gun to her cellphone, which she took as a threat.
Though records show Dukes has a court date in January regarding an August domestic violence incident, Dukes's agent, Scott Pucino, said all Dukes's legal problems have been resolved. He now has contact with Gilbert and is allowed to see his children. The trade, Pucino said, could help in that it gets him away from his home town of Tampa.
"As he knows, he's made some mistakes in the past," Pucino said. "He's trying to correct them and move forward, and this is going to be a fresh start."
Even with the problems this spring, Dukes hit 10 homers by the end of May, though his average was just .190. He went to winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he was on a team managed by Tim Tolman, the Nationals' third base coach. Dukes was ejected from a game last week and had to be restrained while arguing with the umpire. He has since left the team.
"The whole time I've had him, he handled the situation as good as -- or better than -- a lot of guys do down here," Tolman said by phone.
Now, he will have a new major league team. Bowden and Kasten said the Nationals have set up an off-field support system for Dukes that would include counseling.
"We're well aware of all the issues," Bowden said. "We have a plan in place on and off the field for him. It's very clear. Elijah's on board 100 percent. . . . This was a decision we took a lot of time on. We feel we made the right decision. We feel that it is better than an educated guess."
Nationals Note: A source with knowledge of the situation said the Nationals traded reliever Jonathan Albaladejo to the New York Yankees in exchange for right-hander Tyler Clippard, pending physical examinations of both players. The 22-year-old, who went 3-1 with a 6.33 ERA filling in for the Yankees this year, has a 3.52 ERA over five minor league seasons. He should immediately be a contender for Washington's rotation. Bowden did not return messages seeking comment on the deal.
Staff writer Dave Sheinin and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.