Nats Get Their Man in Dukes. So Now What?

elijah dukes - tampa bay devil rays - washington nationals
"If we can help him turn his life around, he might be our cleanup hitter for the next 10 years," one Nats executive said of Elijah Dukes, above. (Doug Benc - Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

For seven months, since Elijah Dukes's reputation hit rock bottom after his infamous "You dead, dawg. . . . Your kids, too" message on his estranged wife's voice mail, the Washington Nationals' front office has been fascinated, almost obsessed, with acquiring the 6-foot-2, 250-pound, 23-year-old prodigy from Tampa Bay at a bargain price -- preferably next to nothing.

"If we can help him turn his life around, he might be our cleanup hitter for the next 10 years," one Nats executive said.

Talent is the forbidden apple in baseball's garden. How much of your franchise's soul will you sacrifice for a bite? How much clubhouse chemistry, how much fan repugnance, how many protesters outside your park, will you tolerate for a chance to steal a franchise-changing player who, since high school, has been compared to Bo Jackson for his two-sport ability -- NFL linebacker or slugging outfielder, which would it be?

Now, with Dukes, the Nats have taken a huge bite and gulped. They've gotten the most notorious player in the minor leagues for an expendable pitching prospect. Have a care. Nobody else in baseball wanted Dukes at any price.

Why? For all his nightmare problems, Dukes has explanations, rationalizations or apologies. Google for details. But his body of work is impressive for any era: suspended at least once in all five pro seasons; fights or altercations with teammates, coaches and managers; arrested at least three times for battery and once for assault; banned from two minor league teams; at least five children by four women; and two women with protective orders against him. That's all before his estranged wife received his terrifying voice mail, followed by a photo of a gun sent to her cellphone. After that, the Devil Rays kicked him off the team for the season, despite homers in his first two big league games and 10 homers before June 1.

Since then, the Nationals have circled, fretted and researched but never taken their eyes off that tempting apple -- especially team president Stan Kasten. On a wall in his office, he keeps a list of stars who have been acquired in unorthodox ways, including four on one Boston Celtics dynasty: Larry Bird (drafted a year early), Dennis Johnson ("called a cancer on two teams"), Kevin McHale (traded for a No. 1 overall pick) and Danny Ainge (inter-sport lawsuits needed to get him). Kasten includes others with damaged reps, such as Rasheed Wallace and Gary Sheffield ("letter perfect for us in Atlanta").

"This season, I added a name to my list -- Dmitri Young. He's beyond a grand slam. Who would have dreamed that he'd end up an all-star, our team leader and our most popular player?" Kasten said of the first baseman who was comeback player of the year after battles with diabetes, substance abuse, obesity and marital/legal problems that seemed to have ended his career.

"We think we should be aggressive, but not reckless in acquiring talent in out-of-the-box ways. We've done an awful lot of work studying Dukes for months. This isn't a player with a $100 million contract. If it doesn't work out, we move on. But we very much want it to work," Kasten said. "This is a bet on our manager and coaches, on the character in our clubhouse, on Dmitri's influence. We have been completely frank with Elijah. He understands."

No tolerance whatsoever, just as was the case with Young last spring. The Nationals also will establish various "support systems" for Dukes and have been in contact with women's groups, though they won't specify to what end.

"I can serve as a big brother," said Young, whose younger brother Delmon was a friend of Dukes with Tampa Bay. "He assured everyone there [at a meeting with Nats officials] that he could be a better person."

Does Dukes grasp the difference between a second chance, of which he has had many, and a last chance, like this one? Does he understand the public relations grief the Nats and the Lerner family will, and should, absorb for going so far out on the long-shot salvation trail? Or has Dukes been forgiven, counseled, tolerated, recruited and fawned over so long that he doesn't recognize The End of the Road when it is finally staring him in the face? The NFL door closed long ago. Baseball's is barely ajar.

Here is the truth about Dukes that both he and the Nats themselves need to swallow, though it will be bitter: Maybe it will sober them both up. It is simple and scary. Dukes has been a pro ballplayer for five years. Despite the occasional tape-measure homer or outfield assist, Dukes hasn't been very good. He's just been pretty good.

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