Dukes letting talent, not anger, take over
Anger can be maddening, blinding and empowering. It can arrive as quickly as a tsunami, can recede in the flick of a light switch. The anger that looms inside Elijah Dukes is a fierce emotion, one that has caused him problems off the field, and has delayed his stardom on it.
"The anger would just take over," the rookie Devil Rays outfielder says. "Now when something happens, I can kind of switch sides and think about how the other person is thinking and how I can make it different."
At just 22 years old, Dukes has a rap sheet, one -- it seems -- he cannot escape. Of course, three suspensions and an arrest for marijuana in the past year have only served as fuel for his detractors, who believe Dukes is a thug (according to reports, he has been arrested six times since 1998, including for assault, battery and resisting an officer). Altercations with coaches, teammates and umpires have drawn suspensions over the years. His chances are running out. And he knows it.
"A lot of people make these assumptions based on what they read in newspapers or what they hear," catcher Shawn Riggans says, "and it's just totally, totally unfair to do that. I love Elijah. He's a great guy. I'd take a bullet for him."
To understand where Dukes came from, and where some of his anger is rooted, an appropriate place to begin would be a Tampa, Fla., courtroom in 1996.
The crying of families could be heard from both sides of the courtroom aisle, according to an account in the St. Petersburg Times. Elijah Dukes Sr. had just pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for shooting a man who sold his wife $100 worth of fake crack cocaine.
A 20-year prison sentence meant Elijah Sr. had to leave his wife and six children behind. Elijah Jr., then 12, was one of them, sitting in the courtroom that day when he lost his daddy, the one who coached his Little League teams, who brought neighborhood children to church, and who -- Elijah Jr. remembers -- would pick his crying son up off the ground when the rain would end baseball for the day.
That left Dukes to fend for himself in an East Tampa neighborhood where disputes often were settled through violence. He found an escape in sports, and his athleticism and drive helped make him among the best in baseball, football and basketball.
Dukes could have gone to NC State on a football scholarship, but instead he signed with Tampa Bay for $500,000 as a third-round draft pick in 2002. His five-tool skill set easily would have placed him in the first round were it not for questions about his makeup.
Dukes' path through the minors included incredible on-field success coupled with suspensions, confrontations and alienation, but at no other time was it quite as toxic as it was last year at Triple-A Durham.
Last April already had been a miserable month for the Durham Bulls when another young, talented outfielder, Delmon Young, threw a bat at an umpire in a game. A day later, with Durham playing in Pawtucket, R.I., Dukes got into a confrontation with a pitcher who squandered a lead and retreated to the clubhouse instead of remaining on the bench with his Durham teammates.
The situation escalated after the game when coaches began berating Dukes in front of the entire team. When some of the coaches resorted to using profanity, according to sources, Dukes saw that as a challenge.
"There's only so much that a grown human being can take," Riggans says. "If I sit here and calls you names, repeatedly, one after the next, you're probably going to get to the point where you're going to want to hit me."
Enraged at what he felt was a room full of coaches and players ganging up on him, Dukes lunged for hitting coach Richie Hebner. Teammates intervened before a physical altercation occurred.
Hebner says he told Dukes to "smarten up" and insisted that he wanted -- and tried -- to help the young outfielder. Dukes disagrees. The entire Durham coaching staff was fired after the season.
"He will snap in a minute," says Hebner, an 18-year major league veteran. "He couldn't keep his mouth quiet and his ears open. Tampa's given this kid how many mulligans?"
Dukes was so distraught about the incident that he was sobbing, the anger and frustration overwhelming him.
"It upset me big-time," pitcher James Shields says. "You could tell he wasn't trying to piss off the pitcher. He was just trying to be a good team player. I think he cried more for the team than for himself."
The next day, Mitch Lukevics, director of minor league operations for Tampa, traveled to Pawtucket for a closed-door meeting with the entire team -- minus Young and Dukes -- and the coaching staff.
"I wanted [the players] to focus on why they were there; that was my message," Lukevics says. "They needed to focus on what they did best, and that was play baseball."
Players went around the room and shared their feelings about Dukes. It quickly became a bashing session, two people who were in the room say. The lines were drawn, and it was clear who disliked Dukes and who had no intention of giving him a chance.
Dukes returned 10 games later and continued to play. And throughout all the drama, he still hit .293 with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs in 80 games. He continued to clash with coaches and teammates (a confrontation with Ryan Knox in a hotel elevator cost him 15 games) and ended the year sitting at home after an argument with an umpire drew an indefinite suspension.
"Obviously, he's had a childhood that's impossible for me to comprehend or fathom," says Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president and general manager. "I can't relate to that part of it. Taking the game away from him is a good way to quickly get him to focus on what he needs to focus on."
On a sunny, 80-degree day in early March, Dukes' intensity drips off him -- literally. He runs off the Devil Rays' spring training field a sweaty, sloppy mess of perspiration, out of breath. It has been a spring filled with hard work and hope for one of the organization's prized outfielders.
During batting practice, what separates him from the others is that he exerts as much effort shagging fly balls as he does during a game, when he's using his imposing 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame to break up double plays aggressively, a la Don Baylor.
"He's got one speed," says Joe Maddon, the Rays' second-year manager, "and it's hard."
"[Dukes] can be the proverbial five-tool player," Maddon says. "He runs great routes; he's got an above-average throwing arm. He's got the ability to be patient at the plate, swing at strikes and take balls. And furthermore, his swing is so flat, I daresay kind of like [Albert] Pujols, where he can backspin a baseball."
"I think he understands now that he's on a major league stage where everything is scrutinized even more," he says. "I really believe he believes he belongs here. And he wants to stay here, and he understands that it takes a certain decorum in order to do that."
Teammates acknowledge that Dukes has to improve the way he communicates with people. Walking away from confrontation was always the hardest part for Dukes. Now, through anger management classes and hard work, Dukes is getting better at that.
"I'm like, OK, what made me get to that point?" Dukes says. "I used to not care how it got to that point; I just wanted to solve it."
B.J. Upton urges people to remember their youth, to know they are all going through a maturation process. Upton is 22, Young 21 and Dukes 22. Upton has had his share of frustrations and negative press in his career.
He adds, "I think sometimes, 'cause we're both young and we're both still kids, sometimes we don't know how to handle things that are thrown at us. I think [Dukes] is starting to figure out how to go about things and how to handle things and how to learn to brush things off."
Watch Dukes before the game, watch how he interacts with fans and socializes with them. There's a reason.
"You don't get paid unless people watch," says Dukes, who will spend hours signing every last autograph. "I respect them sitting out there in the sun with me. It will be real hot out there, and you see them with their fans and umbrellas just sweating. That's loyalty right there. If they're going to be loyal to you, you at least have to be loyal to them.
"There are no VIPs; you don't just get to walk onto a baseball field. We all were on the other side of the fence looking in at one point."
Dukes relates to the people who are on the outside. One of his strongest supporters, former Double-A hitting coach Mako Oliveras, says Dukes tended to get along with the Latino ballplayers because most of them were coming from a foreign environment.
"I think the world of Elijah; he's not a bad person at all," says Oliveras, who first started working with Dukes in 2002. "The secret of Elijah improving his behavior is that the people around him need to spend the time to get to know him and bring the good out of him."
Four players, in particular, did just that. Of his closest friends in Durham last year, two are black, Young and Upton, and two are white, Riggans and Shields. This year, he made an extra effort to get to know some of Tampa's Asian players.
"I like to take the people that feel out of place and try to make them feel in place," Dukes says. "That's how I was. I grew up feeling out of place in a lot of places I went."
One place that made him feel welcome was Legends Field in Tampa, where as a teenager he played catch with Roger Clemens and Willie Randolph at the Yankees' spring training complex. A friendship with Eddie Robinson, a Yankees front-office official, gave him hope and stability.
"It made me [think] I do have a chance," Dukes says.
Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, gave Dukes T-shirts, bats and balls, plus an open invitation to the complex.
"We were trying to be a positive influence in almost a peripheral way," Newman says. "He was always respectful to us. We wanted to let him know he had a place to come."
On Monday afternoon, Dukes was standing in center field at Yankee Stadium, making his first major league start. And leading off the fifth inning, he launched a 1-1 pitch from Carl Pavano over the center-field fence for his first major league home run.
As the ball disappeared behind Yankee Stadium's blue wall, Dukes let out an enormous yell and pumped his first.
His fear used to be that this day would never come. Now, his fear is slightly different.
"My biggest fear right now is making a way for my family and my kids," the married father of three says. "I just want to pave that way and make sure they never have to go through what I did growing up."
As he speaks, his words seem genuine and without a hint of anger. That anger will always hold a place inside, but for Dukes, harnessing it is what will separate his past from his future.
Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine.
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