Mar 17, 2010, 9:51 PM EDT
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jim Bowden sat behind a conference table in his suite at the Opryland Hotel on Dec. 3, 2007, having just traded for Elijah Dukes at the winter meetings and now facing a barrage of questions about the logic behind acquiring the talented-but-troubled outfielder.
“His book hasn’t been written yet, just the first two chapters,” said Bowden, then the Nationals’ general manager. “The rest of his book is all in front of him, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make the rest of the book special.”
Twenty-seven months later, the Nationals closed the book on Dukes, and not necessarily for the reason everyone would have guessed on that December day in Nashville. Was he a model citizen during his time in Washington? Not entirely, though whatever issues he had since coming to town were miniscule compared to his infractions while playing for Tampa Bay.
No, Dukes wasn’t released today because he made mistakes off the field. He was released because he wasn’t good enough on the field to make up for the rest of the package.
The numbers, when totaled up, actually looked pretty solid: In 188 games with Washington, he hit .256 with 21 homers, 102 RBI and a robust .359 on-base percentage. But those numbers were spread out over two injury-plagued and inconsistent seasons. Try as the Nats might to throw him out there every day and give him 500 at-bats for the first time in his career, Dukes never could keep himself in the lineup.
There were nagging injuries to his knees. There were prolonged slumps that required his benching or demotion to Class AAA. And when he did play, especially last season, he just didn’t produce at such a high level. A guy who homered once every 18 at-bats during his rookie season with Tampa Bay saw that power rate plummet to once every 46 at-bats in 2009.
Sure, he struck an imposing figure at the plate, and he was capable at any given moment of hitting a baseball 450 feet to right-center field. But he also couldn’t figure out how to lay off a breaking ball outside the strike zone, was a sloppy baserunner and got twisted around in right field just as often as he’d throw a strike to the plate.
“This game is a game of adjustments,” Mike Rizzo, who took over as GM when Bowden was forced into resignation a year ago, said today. “Early on, I think the league adjusted to the player. Then it’s the player’s turn to make an adjustment to the league. I do know that he didn’t make the adjustment he needed to, to perform at the level he needed to perform at.”
With Dukes, though, it’s never strictly about baseball, and this morning’s news was immediately met with speculation from all corners of NatsTown that something else must have happened to precipitate this shocker of a roster move.
Club officials insisted, both publicly and privately, that wasn’t the case.
“There was no singular incident that caused us to release Elijah Dukes,” Rizzo said. “It was a performance-based decision. There are things that happen in the clubhouse on the periphery that are clubhouse matters.”
That statement, however, is loaded with subtle messages and speaks to the underlying reason Dukes is no longer a member of the organization. First and foremost, he wasn’t a good enough player on the field. But on top of that, he wasn’t winning over many fans inside the clubhouse.
There’s a reason a guy like Austin Kearns is kept on the roster an entire season despite his horrific production at the plate. Kearns was revered inside the Nationals’ clubhouse for his work ethic, his attitude and his refusal to grumble over lost playing time.
And there’s a reason a guy like Elijah Dukes is cut loose on March 17 even when he’s got minor-league options and would have cost the organization less than one-fifth of what Kearns made a year ago. He was an outcast within the clubhouse.
Not that Dukes ever really tussled with teammates. No, his infractions were less visible to the naked eye: reporting to the park just in time for pregame stretch, lollygagging during batting practice, carrying himself with an air of superiority not befitting a player with his lack of success.
That might have been Dukes’ biggest issue in D.C. He acted — and was treated — like a superstar when in fact he was as unproven a ballplayer as anyone in that clubhouse.
Some of that was the club’s fault. Upon his arrival before the 2008 season, team officials decreed all interview requests for Dukes would have to go through the PR department. So when he figured prominently in a ballgame — good or bad — he could simply tell a PR rep he didn’t want to talk. Every other player in that clubhouse had to face the music when he screwed up. Dukes didn’t, and that did not sit well with teammates.
The Nationals also hired a handler, ex-cop James Williams, to work alongside Dukes for his first 1 1/2 years with the club. While the sentiment may have been right, in practice it was just another example of Dukes getting different treatment than everyone else on the roster.
Some of this was also Dukes’ fault. Though he endured through a difficult offseason, losing his father to cancer only three weeks after the latter was released from prison following a 14-year term for murder, Dukes didn’t win over club officials when he didn’t return to play in the Dominican Winter League and came to camp less than 100 percent.
“I think the Major League Baseball player, at this point in his career, needs to take his own career in his own hands,” Rizzo said. “He needs to prepare for the season the way he needs to perform, so when the bell rings, he’s into spring training and the regular season. The Dominican League was a way to get him extra at-bats, so we felt we got him extra at-bats. When he left, he decided in his mind he was prepared by his own standards.”
Rizzo also didn’t hesitate to say he believes his club will be a “more cohesive, united group” now, another not-so-subtle jab at Dukes’ presence among teammates.
Will the Nationals be a better ballclub without Dukes? That’s still up for debate. While some combination of Willie Harris, Justin Maxwell and Mike Morse could collectively produce better numbers than Dukes would have on his own this season, that’s not exactly an awe-inspiring group of right fielders. Harris is a solid bench guy, someone who can be extremely valuable playing a variety of positions and starting perhaps three or four times a week. But he’s not an everyday right fielder. Neither is Morse, who can rake at the plate but isn’t defensively gifted and has no experience as a big-league regular.
Maxwell is a more interesting case, because some in the organization still believe his ceiling is high. At 26, the Maryland native may finally get his chance. But he’s batting a paltry .103 this spring and hasn’t played right field on a regular basis at any point in his career.
“There’s about three scenarios,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Put the right-handed bat of Morse, the left-handed bat and defense of Willie, or the defense of Maxwell and hope the bat keeps coming. We’ll kind of manage it game-to-game or series-to-series, based on what those guys are doing.”
Whatever the Nationals end up doing this season and beyond, Dukes won’t be a part of it. They had been contemplating this move for some time and decided today was the day to cut ties and move on.
Will we ever see Dukes on a major-league field again? Well, try as Rizzo did to drum up some trade talk, no other organization was interested. Fair or unfair, the player’s reputation precedes him.
The third chapter of Elijah Dukes’ book has now been written, and it ended just like the previous two. It’ll be up to Dukes to try to pen a fourth chapter, hoping once and for all this story has a happy ending.
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