For Dukes, Joining Nats Is a Move Toward Stability

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 17

More than four hours before an exhibition game last week, sweat poured off Elijah Dukes's face, soaked through his red shirt. He worked alone with one of the Washington Nationals' batting practice pitchers, drilling baseballs to what would have been the opposite field had he not been encased in black netting that absorbed the line drives.

It was, for Dukes, a rare moment without a teammate or coach nearby. Yet within 10 minutes, Lenny Harris, the club's hitting coach, arrived on the scene, jumped into the cage, and watched Dukes intently. "Get low to the ball," Harris said. As they worked, James Williams -- a youth minister with a military background who, four months ago, had never worked in baseball, never met Dukes -- showed up alongside the cage, extended an index finger and curled it inward. Come here, Elijah.

If this spring is about Dukes finding comfort -- with the Nationals, with his life, with himself -- then here was a bit of it, in a deserted batting cage with only those who have proven trustworthy within earshot. No player in the brief history of the Nationals has been monitored as closely as the 23-year-old outfielder who finds himself with a chance to remake his career. The club's hope is that it can help foster relationships in which Dukes feels comfortable, be they with a personal mentor, a teammate, a legendary player or a hitting coach. That, Dukes said, is reviving him even before he revives his career.

"I can communicate now without feeling like I'm afraid to say the wrong thing," Dukes said. "These guys here, they're willing to listen here. That's it. When you have those ears, you feel much more relaxed. In the past, I don't have people [who wanted] to hear. They hear what they want to hear."

Since they acquired him in a December trade with his hometown team, Tampa Bay, the Nationals have simultaneously protected and built a support structure for Dukes. Both he and the club are sensitive about a past marked by a litany of transgressions -- arrests, drug use, an ugly divorce. All that is cast against a childhood shaped by a father imprisoned for murder when Dukes was 11.

Though they are unwilling to publicly discuss much of how they say they are helping Dukes, it is clear the Nationals began to assemble a team of potential advisers from the day Dukes was acquired. Members of that team hang with Dukes in the clubhouse, help him with his hitting, talk to him about his life. They have met his family and, in some cases, gained his trust.

"There's no one way to attack any problem," team president Stan Kasten said. "The same goes for this."

To the extent that they were acquiring a potential problem -- and the Nationals openly discussed the risk/reward nature of the trade when they made it -- club officials began mulling solutions before they agreed to a deal with Tampa Bay, which deactivated Dukes during a turbulent 2007.

When the Nationals decided to give up a Class A pitcher for Dukes, the club flew him to Nashville, site of baseball's winter meetings. But instead of offering a splashy introduction at the Opryland Resort, which hosted the meetings, Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden met him quietly at the Nashville Airport Marriott. There, Dukes sat down with first baseman Dmitri Young.

"I'm there for you," Young recalled telling Dukes. "I'm your support. You come to me when you need anything, when there's anything on your mind."

Young came with his own baggage, a past that included struggles with substance abuse, enough legal and personal issues that he was cast aside by the Detroit Tigers in 2006 much like the Rays banished Dukes last season. Young, 34, doesn't have his locker next to Dukes at spring training. But Dukes recently referred to him as "my brother." The two talk, Young said, "just sit there and talk -- about life."

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