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."
"Because I've overcome stuff, now I have that as my backbone," Young said. "I can say, 'Hey, man, I ain't squeaky clean.' That makes it easier for him to go, 'Okay, I get it.' If there was some do-gooder that had never been in any kind of trouble talking to him, he might not listen."
The next step to building Dukes's support structure was to get him out of Tampa. Former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, now a special assistant to Bowden, owns a piece of Champions Sports Complex, a baseball workout center in Orlando. It became Dukes's offseason haven, a place where he could work on his game away from the demons that seemed to find him back home.
"He listened," Larkin said. "He worked hard. He just acted like a nice young man."
Other Nationals officials have described this side of Dukes, a polite, quiet guy who plays with one of his children, 3-year-old Elijah Jr., after workouts. Larkin's staff, Dukes said, made him feel welcome, and it didn't hurt that, as he said, "I knew who [Larkin] was from jump street."
"There's a lot of people there [who are] real nice and friendly, and that kind of helped me get out of my shell a little bit," Dukes said. "I didn't really talk to people. [At Larkin's complex,] I could talk a little bit more, smile more. That kind of helped me out. You know Barry. He smiles all day."
Relocating, at least temporarily, to Orlando also allowed Manager Manny Acta to drive from his home in nearby St. Cloud to throw Dukes batting practice. And it allowed Harris, who just completed his first stint as a hitting coach, to travel from his home in Miami. Harris came not so much to work with Dukes on his mechanics or his approach, and not because he played 17 seasons in the majors himself. He came because a major league season is a six-month grind, and the club figured it wouldn't hurt to have as many people Dukes trusted at the park, on the road, wherever he was. He came, too, because he knows something of Dukes's background in one of Tampa's toughest neighborhoods.
"I grew up in an area where there's a hundred Elijah Dukes," said Harris, who spent his childhood in the Overton section of Miami. "Tough guys, guys who mean all business, so don't get in their way and stuff like that. . . . I seen it. I been in it. It's a different way of being raised."
To understand Dukes, those who know the situation say, people must understand how he was raised. With his father in prison -- he was sentenced to 20 years for shooting a man who sold his wife, Dukes's mother, what she considered substandard crack cocaine -- Dukes was left to his mother, his siblings, an aunt.
"I remember there just being sand in the front yard, a dog tied to a tree," said Pat Russo, Dukes's coach his senior year at Tampa's Hillsborough High. "It was mayhem. There were like nine kids living in a house. Crazy."
That, then, leads to the final piece of Dukes's hope for stability with the Nationals. The club wanted to hire someone who could work with him one-on-one. Dana Brown, the team's scouting director, asked one of his brothers, who had worked in security, if he knew of anybody that might fit. Brown's brother came up with Williams.
"James, [he's] like that second . . . " Dukes said, and then hesitated over the significance of what he was about to say. "You know what I mean? He's like that second father that everybody needs in your life."
The Nationals' policies regarding Dukes state that Kasten, Bowden, Acta or one of two media relations officials be present for any interviews, even after games. Williams -- who has a background in the military as well as in security detail, but also has served as a youth minister and worked with the Boys & Girls Club -- doesn't speak publicly, though he has been an unmistakable presence at spring training. That might not have been the case, however, had he not approached Dukes in the right manner.
"It takes time with me," Dukes said. "I don't just let people come in like that, but he earned it relatively fast because he went to the source, and that's my family -- my mom and my sister and stuff like that. When you have guys reach out to the family first before he comes to you, then he wants to get to know you. That's somebody that has a plan. When he have a plan, that's my type of guy."
Brown and Williams spent hours at the home of Dukes's mother, Phyllis, sifting through old photos, reliving Dukes's youth. Williams traveled with Dukes between Tampa and Orlando, trying to understand him, to get to know him. Eventually, as the relationship developed, the Nationals hired him, gave him a title: special assistant/player concerns.
Kasten said Williams is entrusted to work with other players as well. "James has been very helpful, not just with Elijah but in other respects," Kasten said. But he has spent the majority of his time at spring training with Dukes, to the point where Dukes referred to him as "super-nanny," picking up Elijah Jr. if need be, talking whenever he needs a lecture, guiding as is appropriate. When Dukes strained a hamstring in a game last week, it was Williams who breezed through the stands, relaying word to Dukes's family members.
"A lot of teams don't do that, offer a guy as good as James to come along and say, 'All right, I'm going to make sure he don't have to worry about the off-field stuff,' " Dukes said. "I can recommend him to anybody. He could probably take a lot of stress off a lot of people."
Taking the stress off could mean finding some comfort here and, eventually, in Washington. "It's going to work out," Young said. "He wants it. He really wants it." Yet some club officials are still wary of the potential explosiveness of the situation, for former coaches said Dukes has a short temper, and he has been suspended at least once in each of his professional seasons.
"We just have to keep his eye on the prize," Young said.
That, then, is the focus -- for Young, for Harris, for Williams, for Dukes. Sitting in front of his locker, casually assessing the structure around him, Dukes called himself happy. He was asked when was the last time he could say that. He thought about it.
"This time," Dukes said. "This was the first. This is it right here, where I can say, 'All right, I'm relaxed and happy here. I was moreso quiet and in a shell [before]. But I got a second chance. I can say that now. Start over."