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New Nationals Embrace a New Day

Dukes and Others Find Helping Hands

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Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson talks about his offseason rehabilitation, the competition for first base with Dmitri Young, and chasing around his two-year-old daughter. Video by Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 22 -- The second phase of Elijah Dukes's assimilation into the Washington Nationals' family began in earnest Friday. There was a team meeting, with the manager addressing the full squad for the first time. There was a workout, with Dukes, in the final batting practice group of the day, taking his turn in the cage like anyone else. There was an interview with a small group of reporters at his locker, the kind that happens dozens of times a day in that room.

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On the day of the Nationals' first full-squad workout, Dukes, a 23-year-old outfielder with a troubled past, was like any other player on the team. At least most of the time. Because there also was a light moment, when a veteran crept to the edge of the small group of reporters around Dukes's locker, as if to remind the kid that every word is being heard. Dukes responded to Dmitri Young with a wink and a laugh, as if to say, "I got it under control."

And there also was a lengthy, unusual visit at Dukes's locker from rookie pitcher Garrett Mock, who simply wanted to "extend the olive branch" and offer to be a sounding board if Dukes ever needed someone to talk to.

"I told him, 'I understand things have happened [to you] that have been kind of unfortunate to deal with,' " Mock said, " 'but I don't want you to feel like you're alone here.' It's kind of like the first day of school. If you don't know anybody, [you're] kind of nervous."

Dukes said the visit from Mock and the general tone of the clubhouse so far "makes you feel good about being here."

"It's like, 'We're reaching out to you, instead of steering clear,' " he said.

The Nationals' front office and ownership went to extraordinary lengths this winter to protect Dukes -- whom they acquired in a December trade for a minor league pitcher -- owing to his extensive history of criminal and domestic issues and run-ins with his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Much of Dukes's offseason was orchestrated by the Nationals, as was his arrival at camp and his introductory news conference Wednesday.

But now that phase has ended, and a new one began Friday. "The orchestrating is over," Manager Manny Acta said. "We're not going to be able to put Elijah in a bubble. He is out there like everybody else, and we will offer our support as well as we can, but that's about it."

Although Young, who turned his own life around last year with the Nationals, has been asked to mentor Dukes, Acta said, "I don't think Dmitri is going to be taking any time away from his preparation on the field to spend it back in the outfield with Elijah."

The Nationals, in fact, are absorbing a considerable amount of baggage into their clubhouse this spring. The Dukes trade alone would have been a shock wave -- it is no secret that 28 other teams in baseball wanted nothing to do with him -- but the Nationals also added former Mets center fielder Lastings Milledge, who was practically run out of New York over an offensive rap song and a series of run-ins with veteran teammates, as well as catcher Paul Lo Duca, whose signing on Dec. 11 was followed two days later by the news he had been named in the Mitchell report as a past user of human growth hormone.

But Lo Duca, also a former Met, said nobody's past matters once they step into the Nationals' clubhouse.

"You hear a lot of things about people, and some of the guys with the worst reps end up being the best teammates," he said. "I've been here six or seven days and you can already tell this a close-knit clubhouse. . . . None of us really know what went on with anybody else. And after what I've been through the last couple of years and what people write about you and the perception that's out there, when a guy comes in with a past like that, it's like, 'Who cares?' "

It used to be said of the Atlanta Braves or the New York Yankees that their clubhouses could successfully absorb any number of baggage-laden additions, simply because of the professional atmosphere cultivated by the team's veteran stars. Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said it is a model he hopes can be emulated in Washington.

"That's what we want to do," he said. "We think there are four or five of us who make up a good core here -- we've been around here for a few years -- and people are going to have to follow [the example] or it's not going to go over well. It's to that point where that's what we think we need to do to take the next step to win, and that's what we're going to do."

As he went through batting practice Friday, Dukes tried mightily to keep up with the moon-shot homers of strapping left fielder Wily Mo Pe¿a and the combination of bat-control and power displayed by Milledge. In between his turns in the cage, Dukes got pointers from Nationals special assistant Barry Larkin, who has also worked extensively with him this winter.

"Having guys in the group like Lastings and Wily Mo -- they're hitting that ball hard, so it's like, 'I can't be looking like a wimp,' " Dukes said. "You have to come with your 'A' game."

Clubhouse bonding, of course, has other benefits than making people feel welcome. Mock appeared to be only half-joking when he described one of them.

"You never know down the road," he said, "if that little [chat] right there might make Dukes lay out for one over the wall and save me from a couple of runs."



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