When Nationals Outfielder Elijah Dukes Faces a Challenge, Amazing Things Can Happen

Elijah Dukes's season includes a .259 average, eight home runs, 55 RBI -- and a one-month banishment to the minors.
Elijah Dukes's season includes a .259 average, eight home runs, 55 RBI -- and a one-month banishment to the minors. (By Nam Y Huh -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

One recent afternoon, hours before yet another baseball game, Elijah Dukes out of nowhere got really excited about something he did long ago that was kind of amazing -- "even amazing to me," Dukes said. The feat was so amazing, it required a reenactment. Dukes rose from a leather chair in the subdued Washington Nationals clubhouse, and all of a sudden, the carpeted clubhouse was a high school football field, and the chair was a 6-foot-7, 330-pound offensive guard, and Dukes's only goal in the world was to leap above that huge, chubby lineman and block a field goal with the state playoffs on the line.

See, Dukes didn't normally play special teams. Wasn't his job. But with the game close and late, he'd rushed up to his coach and said: 'I've got it! I've got it!' He just knew. So there he went, thrown into the linebacker's spot, a final chance to save his team from defeat, and it was crazy.

"Boom!" Dukes said, reenacting his block. "I just jumped over, like I was doing an alley oop. The place just lit up. I was just airborne, with all my pads on. I just wanted it. I was like: 'No, we ain't going out like that. We just ain't going out like that.' "

What's the big deal about a blocked field goal? Nothing, really, because Dukes's team still ended up losing -- "a heartbreaker," Dukes said -- and Dukes has since played in front of greater crowds with greater stakes. But the story had a purpose.

Dukes has a much-publicized history of legal problems and misbehavior, but he also has a concurrent history of doing what he describes as "amazing [stuff]." More important, he has a knack for the amazing when he needs it most. When his team's season hangs in the balance, for instance. Or when his career hangs in the balance.

About an hour before Dukes told the football story, he was talking about his present challenge, the curveball. Right now, he can't hit it. In a pivotal season for his development -- Is he an everyday right fielder with all-star ability? Is he a gifted but flawed talent who's not worth the trouble? -- Dukes so far has provided no clear answer. Though he's hitting .364 since Aug. 25, his season totals -- a .259 average, eight home runs, 55 RBI, all hindered by a one-month banishment to the minors -- don't match the breakout year for which Washington had hoped.

As a result, those who watch Dukes hesitate to hype his future. Is he a long-term fit as a starting right fielder?

"Probably," General Manager Mike Rizzo said.

"We're trying to get a read [on that]," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

"It's awful nice to work with talent like that, because you have no idea what the ceiling can be," said Tim Foli, who managed Dukes this year at Class AAA Syracuse. "If he ever figures it out on a day-to-day basis, you've got a star."

Dukes must solve the curveball. Compared with 2008, he is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, and pitchers have learned to pick on his impatience. Dukes calls the curveball his "weakness," adding, "I'm really, really eager to attack that."

Before every game, he drags Washington bullpen pitcher Jose Martinez to the batting cage and Martinez throws 30 to 50 curveballs, just to help with the timing. ("I just want to keep doing it to get the remembrance of it," Dukes said.) Dukes watches video of another low-crouching hitter, Albert Pujols, a master on breaking balls. ("All great hitters can hit the curveball," Dukes said. "He makes it look so easy, you almost have to slow-motion it.") And this winter, Dukes will play winter ball with the Tigres del Licey, a Dominican team.

"I don't really want no time off," Dukes said. "I just want to keep seeing it, keep seeing it, until spring training of next year. I just haven't figured it out yet. . . . The curveball is the last piece."

When he's in the right mood, Dukes is open about his problems. He admits that time missed because of suspensions -- he has had several minor league punishments for arguments with coaches and umpires -- has hindered his development. He admits that a messy, prolonged divorce case has sometimes hurt his concentration on baseball -- though for now it's not an issue. But Dukes is equally open about his confidence, offering story after story, all variations on a single theme. Six times in a one-hour interview, Dukes used the word "hunger."

Though he grew up playing football and basketball in Homestead, Fla., he developed a love for baseball the same day he learned to appreciate its difficulty. His father, who played in an adult league, thought Dukes looked like a catcher, and so he took Dukes to a ballfield -- an initiation. When on one pitch Dukes dislocated his thumb, his father said: "That's gonna happen. Get the mitt back on and keep catching."

By his teenage years, Dukes was baseball-obsessed. The Yankees spent their spring trainings at Legends Field in Tampa, and Dukes showed up so often, he knew the security guards by name. He wore pinstriped Adidas gear almost every day -- "straight down to the socks," Dukes said, and he'd pay homage to his idols.

"I would ride up -- this was high school, when I had my car -- and I would ride up and watch them," Dukes said. "Just watch. I was invited to the clubhouse. I was in there with Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez. [Alfonso] Soriano, Derek Jeter, [Jorge] Posada, they still remember me as a little kid. And I was pretty big at the time. They'd ask me how old I was, and they'd be like, 'Damn, we're in trouble when you grow up.' "

Football came more easily to Dukes than baseball, but that influenced him to like baseball all the more; it presented the challenge. But even his raw baseball talent astonished those who saw it. At 14, Dukes could throw more than 90 mph, he said. At one high school showcase camp, with an Atlanta Braves scout in attendance, Dukes was throwing 95, excited by the idea that a big league career was within reach.

"I was feeling so hyped, because I wanted to make the big leagues and I wanted to help my family," Dukes said. "That's all it was. I wanted to get here."

Even now, Dukes collects memorabilia from his favorite players. In Philadelphia during Washington's latest road trip, Dukes asked Jimmy Rollins for a pair of game-worn cleats and Ryan Howard for a bat. Dukes wants to do what they do. Dukes wants to dominate -- because, heck, as a high school running back, he said, he used to get 200 yards "on, like, 11 carries. And I'd be on the sideline by the second quarter."

"A lot of the stuff I did, it was off-the-wall type stuff," Dukes said. "Like, damn, did this guy really do that at, like, 220 pounds!?"

Dukes was asked if he's still able to amaze himself, playing baseball.

He paused for a half-beat and said: "Sometimes. Just sometimes."

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