Dukes Needs to Kiss the Antics Goodbye
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.