By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 20 -- Elijah Dukes sat nervously on one side of the table, with a Washington Nationals banner behind him and a collection of microphones in front of him, while on the other side sat a curious and equally nervous media pack. For a few awkward moments, as the cameras rolled, they regarded each other quietly and warily from across the red-linen tablecloth, until finally Dukes smiled and said, "How y'all doin'?"
Everyone exhaled, and with that began a 20-minute news conference Wednesday at Space Coast Stadium that introduced Elijah David Dukes, outfielder, to the Nationals' faithful 11 weeks after the team acquired him. Given how well he came off, it turns out the team had nothing to worry about in keeping him hidden from view for so long.
Wearing gold earrings in both ears, designer jeans and T-shirt, Dukes, the 23-year-old phenom with the dazzling skills and the lengthy rap sheet, spoke about the changes he has made in his life and expressed gratitude for the opportunity and the extraordinary support the Nationals have given him.
"I've been working on myself a long time," said Dukes, whom the Nationals acquired for a minor league pitcher from the Tampa Bay Rays in December. "I finally found that breakthrough, and from now on everybody gets a chance to see the real Elijah Dukes."
Along a wall in the interview room, Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden, Manager Manny Acta, President Stan Kasten and two public relations officials looked on anxiously as Dukes spoke. It was believed to be Dukes's first public statement since last June.
The Nationals already have invested a staggering amount of man-hours and effort into easing Dukes's transition into Nationals' camp, from sending Dukes to Orlando to train with special assistant Barry Larkin this winter, to hiring a full-time support person to shadow Dukes, to assigning veteran first baseman Dmitri Young the role of clubhouse mentor.
As Acta said, "If it doesn't work, it's not going to be because of Jim and the Nationals."
The support person, an ex-cop named James Williams, has the inspired title of "special assistant/player concerns" -- reporting directly to Bowden. According to Bowden, because of Williams's presence the team knows "when [Dukes] goes to the bathroom . . . when he eats . . . when he works out . . . when he goes back to Tampa." Williams, though, is off-limits to the media.
Asked whether Williams has served as a second father to him, Dukes said yes and added: "He gives me that tough love. He just shoots it to me straight. And we do things together that would kind of reflect a father-and-son thing."
Dukes's real father has been in prison for second-degree murder since 1996, and Dukes's own arrest history goes back nearly as far. Since 1997, he has been arrested at least three times for battery and once for assault, records show. He fathered at least five children with four women between 2003 and 2006, court records show -- two of which were born within eight days of each other -- and last summer admitted frequent marijuana use.
Last May, he threatened his estranged ex-wife and her children in a voice mail in which he said, "Hey, dawg. It's on, dawg. You dead, dawg. . . . Your kids, too." In June, the Rays placed him on the temporary inactive list, ending his season. He has also been suspended several times from his minor and major league teams for various confrontations with coaches, umpires and teammates.
Dukes did not address specific incidents in his background, but speaking generally, he said: "Being young and being at home is just not a good thing for someone who probably is not mature enough to handle those situations. . . . I was just a real hard-headed guy. I needed to be able to admit that I do things wrong, and it's okay to do things wrong, but just make good after that."
Asked whether he has been tested this winter by the same tempting situations that might have caused trouble in the past, he said: "I have tests in my life every day, trying to raise my son and stuff like that. I have my issues. But I overcame them, and I'm here without being on the front page [or] behind bars or something."
Dukes, whom the Nationals currently envision as their fourth outfielder, described himself as "an easygoing guy, a fun-loving guy." When Washington fans get a chance to know him, he said, "it'll definitely put a smile on their face."
"It might seem I live in a cage," he said. "But I don't. I get out and meet people all the time."
Last spring, when the Nationals signed Young, himself a player loaded with off-field baggage, Bowden made it clear a "zero tolerance" policy applied to him -- one misstep, and he would be gone. Asked Wednesday whether the same applied to Dukes, Bowden deflected the question.
"Elijah's situation is completely different than Dmitri's, and completely different than . . . everybody else," Bowden said. "So we have a specific plan in place and we're going to do everything to help Elijah on and off the field."
Dukes arrived in Viera shortly after 1:30 Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by his 3-year-old son, Elijah Jr. He was immediately met by a handful of front-office personnel and shuttled to a meeting at the team's minor league complex with Kasten, Bowden, Acta, Williams and assistant general manager Bob Boone -- a meeting that lasted 50 minutes.
Asked later whether he hoped to reach a point where the intense support is no longer necessary, Dukes said: "I will get to that point in my life where I don't need it, whether it's [when I'm] out of baseball or whatever. I will find it. It's gonna happen, sooner rather than later, where you're going to wake up and say, 'I finally found it.'
"[But] right now, I think I need it. [After] the things I've been through . . . I wouldn't want to take it away from me. I wouldn't want to sell myself short like that."