By Dave Sheinin and Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
He stayed for the speeches. He stayed for the parade of Little Leaguers -- all 54 teams' worth. He stayed for the cheerleaders and the introduction of the high school team and the national anthem -- perhaps getting a little fidgety, but staying nonetheless. Finally, Elijah Dukes took the microphone, said a few words to the kids and parents about "working hard" and "having fun." Exactly the type of stuff a big-time professional athlete would say on opening day of the local Little League.
And then . . . "Boom," said Jim Mraz, president of the Great Falls Little League, "he sprints to his car and he was gone."
It wasn't until later that day that Mraz and the other organizers and parents from the league realized what had happened to their keynote speaker after he left: Dukes had arrived five minutes late to Nationals Park, earning himself a $500 fine from his employers, the Washington Nationals, for whom he plays center field.
"The next day we're reading the paper, and we're hearing he was [fined and] benched," said Leslie McClain, mother of 11-year-old Luke. "We were just really horrified by that, so our first thought was we want to raise the money in the community to pay that fine. We just think it's appalling."
And so began the story of what is surely the most unusual fundraiser in the history of the Great Falls Little League. It started with a flurry of e-mails between incredulous parents and league organizers, and will end later this week when Mraz delivers exactly $501--the extra $1 covering any "administrative expenses," he said -- to the Nationals for the purpose of paying off Dukes's fine. Every dollar they get above that mark will be donated to a Southeast D.C. Little League in Dukes's name.
"The point is, this guy gave back to our community, and now he's in a hard spot. We need to help him," said Mraz, who emphasized he was looking to support Dukes and not criticize the Nationals. "It's not a question of whether this guy can afford the 500 bucks. We're just trying to send a message to our kids: He was here for us. Now we've got to be there for him."
So, what kind of cold, heartless man fines a guy 500 bucks for spending a Saturday morning slapping high-fives with a bunch of Little Leaguers? Nationals Manager Manny Acta has heard the question plenty of times. The long answer: A man who has to answer to the 24 other players who arrived on time that day, a man who understands the importance of community outreach -- but who also understands it has a time and place.
"I think it's great [the Little League folks] feel that way," Acta said yesterday. "We let Elijah know how proud we were of what he was doing, because we encourage our players to be fan-friendly in this community. But what a lot of people are misunderstanding is, this was not a team function. If this had been [set up] through the team, I think someone would have advised him not to do something like that before a day game."
Dukes, through a team spokesman, declined to comment yesterday about the league's fundraiser.
Dukes was paid $500 for the appearance, according to Mraz, and his primary duties were to sign autographs, pose for photos and stand at home plate slapping five with the 500 or so Little Leaguers who paraded past.
"He did all 500 of those with a smile," Mraz said. "He didn't cheat anybody."
When Dukes spoke to the crowd, he began by imploring the kids to "keep working hard."
"I like what y'all are doing out here," Dukes told the kids, in a speech that lasted only about a minute. "It's not life or death or anything. It's always about having fun. And that's what I go by. I love having fun playing this game, and it's been very good to me and I know it's gonna be good to y'all coming up. Maybe one of y'all can take my job one day, or you can try."
That last line earned an honest laugh out of the crowd, and someone hollered at Dukes as he sprinted off to his truck, "Hey, get us a W today!"
When he first heard about the benching and the fine, Mraz said: "You're a little stunned. Like, 'Whoa, wait a minute.' Here's the game of baseball -- it's got steroids hanging over it, all these issues. . . . Needless to say the Nats kind of need help with what they're doing. I could see if he was out trying to do something small or private, but he just came into my community and gave us a shot in the arm."
Acta said it makes no difference to him how Dukes pays his fine, as long as it is paid.
"We don't care how the money comes to us, because we don't keep the money," he said. "We give it to the clubhouse kids who are needy, or the extra coaches to help with their housing. It's not something [where] we're going to go out for wings and beers."