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In surprising move, Washington Nationals release outfielder Elijah Dukes

Elijah Dukes in Florida with his children, from left: son Devin, 2; daughter Kaley, 4; and son Nashawn, 6.
Elijah Dukes in Florida with his children, from left: son Devin, 2; daughter Kaley, 4; and son Nashawn, 6. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

KISSIMMEE, FLA. -- Elijah Dukes's tenure with the Washington Nationals ended Wednesday when the team unconditionally released him, a decision the team said was made for reasons pertaining only to baseball. The move left Dukes stunned and the Nationals without a set right fielder with the season less than three weeks away.

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General Manager Mike Rizzo called Dukes's release "a performance-based decision" and that "no singular incident" led to the decision. But Rizzo also implied that Dukes's presence in the clubhouse adversely affected the Nationals, saying they "will be a more cohesive group" without him.

"The clubhouse will be more united," Rizzo said. "We'll have a better feel around the ballclub. We'll gain just by that alone."

In two seasons with the Nationals, Dukes delivered neither on his massive promise as a hitter nor on the ominous warnings his past legal troubles portended. On the field, he was mostly average. In his personal life, he endured tragedy and, those around him said, grew up.

Grady Irvin, Dukes's attorney, echoed the Nationals' firm assertion that Dukes had experienced no off-field problems.

"There are absolutely no off-the-field issues whatsoever," Irvin said. "Absolutely none. You can look at anything you want to. He's matured so much as a person and a responsible father. He'll be fine. He'll be just fine. He's going to be an asset to some major league team."

Last year, Dukes hit .250, with eight home runs in 364 at-bats. His defense was below average, when measured by the leading advanced metric. One major league executive said Dukes was terribly inconsistent, capable of playing well one week and awful the next.

"There's things that are performance-based that go beyond batting average and fielding percentage," Rizzo said.

The decision took the Nationals' clubhouse by surprise.

"I had no idea. I saw him this morning eating breakfast," outfielder Justin Maxwell said. "I never had any problems with Elijah. But in terms of the team standpoint, I guess there were other things being said and done and some of it was a distraction to us. I think we'll be better for it, and I just wish him luck in the future."

One Nationals player said Dukes was often louder than most teammates in the clubhouse, but not to the point of becoming burdensome. Outfielder Roger Bernadina, one of Dukes's potential replacements, said he never saw that side of Dukes.

"He was cool," Bernadina said. "I had no problems with him."

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