By Thomas Boswell
Friday, September 12, 2008
Elijah Dukes's talent is now indisputable. So is his temper. Both are huge. Which will win? The stakes: star or burnout.
Both sides of Dukes were on display Wednesday at Shea Stadium: the titanic homer, the double after a brush-back, the near-brawl, the crude gesture to fans, the mocking kiss toward the Mets, the boo-me-more waves to the Big Apple crowd and one last foolish smooch to 52,431 new enemies. Now, after a no-news-is-good-news season, the battle for Elijah is out in the open again, but on a bigger scale.
Dukes arrived as a rumor. Now, he's verified. Not based on bush league tall tales or the eyeballing of scouts, but documented in major league facts. In his last 44 games, the 24-year-old, 240-pound outfielder has hit, slugged and gotten on base at a rate surpassed by only two men in the National League: Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman. But they can't steal 30 bases or possess a cannon arm.
Can Dukes, if he puts together a couple of healthy 150-game seasons, be one of the dozen best players in the NL, along with elite young players such as Ryan Braun, David Wright, Chase Utley, Ryan Ludwick, Matt Holliday, Hanley Ramírez and, if hits like '06 again, Ryan Zimmerman?
Dukes probably can. That is, if he stops having nights such as Wednesday's when the combustible, immature traits that scarred his past, and made the Nats the only team that would touch him, come to the surface and make you fear for his future.
Last week, a Nationals executive said: "Does Elijah have Hall of Fame ability? Maybe not. Probably the next level. Will he fulfill it? Or will he blow it up? I have no idea. But everybody here likes him. So far, so good."
Then came Wednesday -- not a disaster, but a huge wake-up call for everyone, especially Dukes.
Nobody -- not Pujols now or Barry Bonds before Balco, not Mickey Mantle or even Babe Ruth at their peaks -- can get away with very much of the junk Dukes pulled in New York. Once in a blue moon, maybe.
But if such selfish, disrespectful, inflammatory behavior becomes part of your identity in baseball, it makes you a marked man to your foes and, eventually, toxic in your own clubhouse no matter how great your talent or how fierce and sincere your passion for the game.
Dukes did nothing evil in New York, just self-destructive. But in baseball, like the NFL, that can be enough. Both sports enforce their internal codes.
"We are dealing with it" internally, Nationals President Stan Kasten said yesterday. "But let me just ask -- what interim grade would we, and he, have gotten before Wednesday night? The Nationals' handling of Dukes was a great success story. This was something that worked -- so far, the best news of the year for us."
Now, like so much of this Nats season, that optimism is up in the air. The facts are simple, the implications chilling.
Dukes hit a 450-foot homer that almost cleared the Shea Stadium bleachers, a blow typical of his performance since his first Nats homer on June 5. In 177 at-bats, he's hitting .322, slugging .605 with a .415 on-base percentage and 11 homers, plus 10 steals. Could he do that for a full season? You've got to prove it. But it'd be near 200 hits, 40 doubles, 38 homers, 120 RBI and 35 steals. Total superstar.
Dukes responded to his homer by showing up the Mets, blowing a kiss toward their dugout. Basic "disrespect" isn't a new concept. In his next at-bat, the Mets brushed him back, as any team since 1869 would and should. Many pitchers would have thrown at his head. The Mets didn't.
Elijah screamed, moved toward the mound and could have started a brawl. The all-night fuss was on.
One standard doesn't fit all sports. In the NBA, trash talk and anything short of throat-slash gestures is colorful, part of the game. Fine. But just try blowing a kiss to Bill Belichick after you catch a scoring pass on the Patriots or mocking an NHL team as you skate past its bench.
Terrell Owens can taunt a Redskins crowd to boo him louder and it's considered byplay. But, in baseball, players and fans are too close to one another for too many hours on too many days for players to think they can take on a city.
Pitcher "John Rocker was Mr. Anti-New York, like a wrestling character," said Kasten, who then ran the Braves. "It worked for him for a while. But I could see what was coming. He ran off the rails" in a racist interview.
And Rocker's career quickly disintegrated into rubble.
No sport changes its nature for any player. "You have to act differently in baseball than you do in the NFL," Deion Sanders told me. "It's not wrong. It's just how it is."
Nats players are visibly inspired by Dukes's fierce style. Since he got hot on June 5, the Nats are 21-23 when he plays, but 10-31 when he's been out.
However, the Nats also know the limits of behavior in their own sport, no matter how much they crave a star like Dukes, who, if he established his long-term stability, would probably be a defensive upgrade in center field.
"He's an emotional player, but I don't know if there's really a place for that in this kind of game," Zimmerman said. "But he's a great player. He's got a lot to learn, but he showed that kind of talent he has, too."
The Nats have tried to provide Dukes with every kind of support system to overcome his copiously documented troubles in the past. He seldom even speaks to reporters and never without a team representative beside him.
In a season of boredom and disappointment, Dukes has been, by far, the best reason to watch the Nats. In their search for core pieces of their future, youngsters Lastings Milledge, Jesús Flores and John Lannan have shown promise, but hardly greatness. Others, including Collin Balester, Emilio Bonifacio and Joel Hanrahan, are on the horizon. But besides Zimmerman, Dukes stands alone.
When he smiles, or connects with a fastball, electricity hits his team and you can see the vague outline of a future.
But when he beats his chest after a walk-off walk, infuriating the pitcher, or glares at the home plate ump as his walk-off home run is still leaving the park, the Nationals' room grows darker.
The choice is clear. Soon, Dukes has to grow up. Not totally, but enough. Adults adapt. Elijah, you have to be the one to change, because the game, like the world, never will.