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EVERYONE is watching Elijah Dukes. From the stands at the Washington Nationals' spring home, in Viera, Fla., he looks giant waiting for his turn in the cage. He's tall (6'2") but also has mass (250 pounds), his jersey stretched thin over his shoulders and chest. Even now, as he quietly watches the pitches come in, there's a feeling he's about to burst.
This time last season, Dukes was a 22-year-old rookie outfielder for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
In his first official major league at-bat, he hit a home run to centerfield against the Yankees. The following day, he hit another. Not long after, in early May, he called his estranged wife, NiShea Gilbert, and left her a message. "You dead, dawg," he said. "I ain't even bulls—in'. Your kids, too." Then he texted her a picture of a gun.
Gilbert's kids are Dukes' kids—a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy—and although Gilbert filed for a restraining order and a divorce, Dukes is still allowed to see them. Sometimes he even brings his other son (by a different mother) to the park and sits him on his knee: Three-year-old Elijah Jr. looks very small in his father's tattooed arms.
The cage empties and Dukes digs in, an inch deep into the dirt, his feet planted far apart. Inside white gloves, his inked-up hands squeeze the handle of his bat. He is a model of conservation. Only the fingers of his left hand move, opening and closing, rhythmically.
Last June, a few weeks after he made the death threats, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Dukes had impregnated a 17-year-old girl living in foster care with his step-grandmother. The girl says that when she told Dukes she was pregnant, he threw a bottle of Gatorade at her. (Dukes has five children by four women; two of his kids were born eight days apart.) When that bottle hit the wall, it marked the latest episode in a run of violence that defies the usual adjectives.
The first of Dukes' seven arrests in the state of Florida came when he was 13, for misdemeanor battery. And while some of his many charges have been dropped, he's received probation and community service for the others. Dukes has always left damage in his wake. It's been that way since 1992's Hurricane Andrew drove an 8-year-old Elijah and his family from drug-infested Homestead to a run-down part of Tampa.
"You and I would not do well there," says Shawn Riggans, a catcher for the Rays who came up through their system with Dukes. "Nobody knows what it was like for him." As a teenager, Dukes was a two-sport star, highly recruited in football and baseball. But between tackles and home runs, there were altercations with referees, teachers and coaches. He attended four Tampa high schools in as many years, his anger punching holes in his talent.
Back in the cage, everything goes quiet. Dukes claims not to see that other players stop what they're doing when he steps to the plate. "I don't notice that really," he'll say later. "I just try to keep my hands ready, stay ready, that's all." Then the first pitch comes in, and Dukes begins to uncoil, his shoulders rolling, his teeth set tight.
In 2002, Dukes signed a letter of intent to play linebacker at NC State, but he ended up choosing a contract with the Rays for $505,000. Football might have been the better outlet for his temper.
Dukes has been suspended at least once during each of his five professional seasons. In 2006, he was placed on indefinite suspension by Tampa Bay's Triple-A farm team, the Durham Bulls, after two violent confrontations: one with hitting coach Richie Hebner and another with teammate Ryan Knox, whom Dukes choked in a hotel lobby. "I was scared," Knox recalls. "It was either kill or be killed. That's how it is with him."
Dukes also happens to be one of the best raw talents baseball people have seen on a diamond. In 2006, Baseball America ranked him the top pure athlete in the talent-rich Tampa Bay organization. "He's a freak, he's so good," even Knox admits. But when fans and reporters and opposing players talk about what's possible for Dukes, the conversation often turns to what crime he will commit to join his father in prison. When Dukes was 11, Elijah Sr. murdered a man who had sold fake crack to his wife, Elijah's mother. Dukes' dad put a gun to the dealer's chest and shot a bullet into his heart.
Now there's the loud crack of a bat in the cage. Old baseball men like to say that it sounds different when special hitters make contact—and Dukes connects sweetly, with no softness, none of the imperfection that plagues lesser hitters. "That sounds like Bo Jackson," a Nats staffer says. Nobody else is talking. Everybody's listening. Everybody's watching.
Dukes was invited to camp by the Rays last spring, and he made the starting lineup. The death threats to Gilbert weren't enough for him to be exiled—he was hitting all those home runs, 10 by early June—but the incident with the foster girl was. On June 22, nine days after the story broke, the Rays buried Dukes on their temporary inactive list. He made more news in August: Gilbert alleged that he had violated a restraining order by calling her at home and asking to speak to his kids. In the Dominican winter league a few months later, he got ejected for bumping an umpire. But he was kept mostly invisible until Dec. 3, when the Nationals traded pitching prospect Glenn Gibson for him.
Two weeks after acquiring Dukes, the Nats assigned an ex-cop named James Williams to the full-time job of monitoring their newest player. The two men shared an apartment during spring training. "Supernanny," Dukes calls Williams. "He's that second father everybody needs in their life." (On Feb. 1, Dukes still managed to get charged for driving with a suspended license.) Williams is here at the park today because Dukes is here at the park. Earlier this morning, Williams went through the pockets of the pants hanging in Dukes' locker, and through the cubbies and drawers, too.
Everybody is watching Elijah Dukes. Ball after ball leaves his bat and lands beyond the fence, mostly in leftfield, sometimes in right, occasionally in dead center, 404 feet away. When he's hitting like that—or throwing one-hoppers from the warning track, or charging like a bull between bases—everyone forgets about the picture of the gun. They forget about Ryan Knox, fighting for breath, and a pregnant 17-year-old foster girl ducking a bottle of Gatorade. As long as he's in the cage, Dukes becomes everything the woefully inept Nationals need to see come true.
Jim Bowden, Washington's GM, stands outside the cage, watching along with Stan Kasten, the club's president. Together, these two men have built a team of castoffs, ancients and bad seeds on whom other teams have given up: Dmitri Young, Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena, Johnny Estrada, Paul Lo Duca, Aaron Boone. "There are people you try to help," Bowden says, watching his biggest gamble pull a ball over the leftfield fence. "But if they still go in the wrong direction and don't help you win, you cut your losses and move on."
The Nats began watching Dukes last season, when he was hitting home runs for the Rays. They'd heard about him long before, like most people had, through whispers and rumors. People who liked him called him Elijah; those who didn't called him Dukes. He was either the flawed hero or the blessed villain, born with a duality so rare in its extremes—not a moderate talent with a moderate temper, but a five-tool player with a white-hot fuse—that no matter who told his story, it sounded too good or too bad to be true. That was before he showed up in the Bronx on Opening Day, in front of 55,035 fans, and hit Carl Pavano's 1-1 pitch more than 400 feet. And that was before he threatened to kill his wife and kids. Maybe the stories, good and bad, were true after all.
Bowden and Kasten believed. They tried to make a trade for Dukes last summer, but the Rays asked for too much, a guarantee in return for the longest shot. Then summer turned into winter, and Dukes was the trophy gathering dust. "That's when the price became highly affordable," Kasten says, "with a potentially high reward."
That's an optimist's arithmetic. It fails to factor in the cost of potential disaster, the damage an unhinged Dukes could do to a clubhouse or a franchise with a new stadium to fill. "He'll snap in a minute," Richie Hebner told ESPN.com last season. And Rays manager Joe Maddon says that a weight has been lifted with Dukes gone: "It feels a whole lot better here." But even with Dukes in his rearview mirror, Rays executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman will not speak about him. Nor will John Tamargo, the former manager of the Durham Bulls. Although just about everybody who has encountered Dukes can't help but remember him, they are rarely keen to share their memories. "That wasn't a fun year, and that's all I have to say about that," says Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash, who played for the Bulls in 2006.
"I feel like I'm breaking baseball's code, talking about him," says Knox, now an assistant coach at an Illinois community college. "But I want to see Elijah get healthy. Why is he so angry? That's the million-dollar question. You answer that, you start to fix Elijah Dukes."
Part of the answer could be found in a Charlotte hotel lobby two summers ago. Already that season, Dukes had gone through two roommates; Knox was his third. "We got along fine, no problem at all," Knox says. Although he doesn't know for sure, Knox thinks Dukes was about to get reassigned to yet another room and that he may have assumed Knox had complained about him. Whatever the slight, real or imagined, Dukes was in such a frenzy that Knox remembers a terrified maid cowering behind the furniture and teammates ducking around a corner.
"Just calm down," Knox said, approaching Dukes. Dukes turned, his milky eyes shining. "Knox, I'm done with you," he shouted, and that's when he put his hands around Knox's throat.
Durham's pitching coach, Joe Coleman, stepped in, but Dukes' teammates were too scared to intervene. The incident played out like a set piece, choreographed by a rage that had grown routine: Dukes felt wronged, then cornered, and he lashed out at the nearest target. The Hebner incident followed the same pattern; witnesses say Dukes attacked the hitting coach after Hebner laced him with a verbal assault that left the hitter in tears. "Elijah's surprisingly sensitive," Knox says. "He takes criticism very personally."
Dukes saw the pattern, and it was almost enough to make him quit. "I'm trying to keep my nose clean and keep to myself," he told Baseball America in August 2006, after his season's abrupt end, "but things just keep getting turned around. I'm not saying I should have tried to go to the NFL, but maybe I should have done something else."
Privately, people who know Dukes have wondered whether he suffers from a chemical imbalance or even a chromosomal abnormality. Gilbert once claimed in a radio interview that Dukes had been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But maybe Dukes' story is less complicated; maybe he's just another big-time athlete who can't outrun his past. "If we beat a dead horse every day, at some point he's going to blow up," Riggans says of his friend. "That's just his nature."
Either way, considering that Tampa Bay gave up on Dukes and that no other team would trade more than a minor league pitcher for his five-tool talent, it seems the man hitting baseballs to the moon is a long way from salvation. But nobody really knows what his future holds. Nobody speaks in absolutes about Elijah Dukes. There is always some proviso, some clause: If x, then y.
"If he can put his focus on the field, there aren't many players out there like him," Riggans says.
"So long as he gets his opportunities, I think he'll be fine," says Twins outfielder Delmon Young, a former teammate. Even the Nats sound cautious. "So far, things have fallen into place," Kasten says. "But he still has a lot to prove." Which is why everybody is watching Elijah Dukes.
A bath of sweat, Dukes hits one last ball over the fence. Everybody gets back to work. He heads into the clubhouse and sits down on a red stool. His forearms, slick and covered in ink, rest on his knees. He breathes deeply at first, his chest heaving, then shallower, then seemingly not at all. He consents to talk, extending a hand, the same one that nearly choked the life out of Ryan Knox. A charge runs through his stiff grip. Standing that close to him, knowing what he's done, feels like standing under a cliff next to a sign that reads "Caution: Falling Rocks." It might be years before gravity strikes; it might be any second.
"His bad rap sheet, that's the first thing everybody hears about," says Young, "so not many people give him a chance." It's almost comical watching teammates, staffers and reporters approach Dukes. After all, he looks every bit the awful stereotype of the angry black man, the guy many people cross the street to avoid, whether they're honest enough to admit it or not. Here, though, in baseball's peculiar universe, Dukes can't be ignored. Some tiptoe across an invisible line around him. Others try too hard to act casual. Most keep their distance and stay on the balls of their feet, literally, ready to run.
The Nats cultivate that distance between Dukes and the outside world. He can be interviewed only with a PR staffer present, and questions about his past are off-limits. Though the club won't confirm details, Dukes is enrolled in counseling. And the Nats sent him to work on his attitude and hitting with former All-Star and current team exec Barry Larkin. "I was in a shell, and they forced me to get out," Dukes says. "Especially hanging around Barry. He smiles all day."
Dukes sounds disarmingly gentle now, almost hurt. But his throaty rasp provokes more fear than sympathy, as if it belongs to a man prone to coming unglued. He looks over to Dmitri Young, Delmon's older brother. "You got my big brother here," Dukes says, giving the hovering Young a gentle elbow. "He's always talking to me, keeping me calm." Dumped by the Tigers after morphing into an overweight, alcoholic diabetic in the midst of a messy divorce, Young has found a place in DC. Every time a columnist writes a scathing critique of Dukes or another fan threatens to cancel season tickets, the Nats point to Young, the smiling man with the black nail polish who's now pointing at Dukes. "Look at him right there," Young says, watching Dukes play cards with teammates. "Nice and comfortable. He just needed someone to show him the way." As if Dukes' story is only the latest in a long line of redemption stories, no big thing.
It will never be so simple for Elijah Dukes. He will never be just another ballplayer. He has too much good and too much bad in him to be ordinary. Maybe he will make good on his prodigious talent. Maybe he will follow through on his worst threats. The only consensus is that he won't do both. He will be Elijah or Dukes, the hero or the villain, and he will be that one thing forever. "This is important," he says of his lifeline with the Nats. "This is it, right here."
He heads outside into the sun to play the Marlins. It's a boundless blue-sky afternoon. Dukes is batting third. His turn comes around, and he digs in at the plate, uncaged, those fingers of his left hand opening and closing rhythmically. The pitcher won't go near him. Dukes walks and takes a lead at first. On a grounder to short, he bursts toward second. He slides hard and breaks up the double play—because who's going to stand in against Elijah Dukes?—but his right hamstring gives way too (an injury that will keep him on the disabled list for all of April). He stays down, flat on the ground, holding the back of his leg.
All eyes turn toward him, and everything goes quiet. Some people want Elijah to get up. Some people want Dukes to stay down.
This time, he gets up.