Jim Riggleman? MASNSports.com's Ben Goessling wants to know if Elijah Dukes is the Nationals' starting right fielder and whether or not the 25-year-old outfielder is due to have the sort of breakout season some are expecting in 2010? In hindsight, Mr. Riggleman's answer in that January 18th interview appears somewhat cautious as he tells Mr. Goessling as quoted in the resultant article entitled, "A Q-and-A with Jim Riggleman", that he doesn't, "...think there's any reason (Dukes) can't," put together a successful season, "But again," the Nationals' Manager continued:
"..that's all talk at this point. (Hitting coach) Rick Eckstein continued to work with him and make progress at the plate. He did some pretty good things. Any player who's his age, they're working toward the prime of their career, age-wise. He's going to be hitting his stride."
In one month, 4 weeks, 7 games and 20 at bats in which he was 3 for 20 with 2 doubles, 2 walks and 5 K's, Elijah Dukes went from the presumptive Opening Day Nats' right fielder, to being a player who "...just isn't good enough to be an everyday right fielder in the majors,'" as Yahoo!Sports.com's David Brown summed up Mr. Riggleman's conversation with reporters in an article entitled, "Nationals release Elijah Dukes, though nobody's quite sure why". Mr. Riggleman's own words, as quoted by Nats Insider.com's Mark Zuckerman in an article entitled simply, "Elijah Dukes Released", are less succinct:
"'Players now and then fall into that category of: they're regulars in the big leagues. They're not bench players. And they're not Triple-A players. They're either going to play for you in the big leagues, or they're not going to be on the team. They need to get their at-bats as a regular, rather than coming off the bench.'"
While the Nationals went to great lengths to make it clear that the decision to release Elijah Dukes this morning was a baseball decision, it didn't help the public perception of the move that the Former DC GM Jim Bowden decided to chime in from the left coast with a message via Twitter shortly after the announcement, which read:
"After latest incident, credit Nats for making the right decision. They told him zero tolerances and followed their word."
The Nationals' team President, Stan Kasten, took it upon himself to respond, indirectly of course, to the rumors of "an" incident leading to Washington's decision, releasing a statement via the Twitter arm of the Nationals' PR machine (@NatsTownNews) which read: (just kidding @NatsTownNews):
"Stan Kasten: "I know of no 'incident' as it pertains to Elijah Dukes and his unconditional release today."
"Stan Kasten continued: "People who are saying this don't know what they're talking about."
Ouch. Shortly thereafter, however, MLB.com's Bill Ladson spoke to DC GM Mike Rizzo who told Mr. Ladson, in an article entitled, "Expected starter Dukes released by Nats", that it was a decision that the Nationals made only after careful consideration and upon concluding that they, "...just didn't see the progress we hoped to get," from Dukes, but immediately afterwards, (or at least in the next paragraph), Mr. Rizzo's quoted as stating:
"'The things that happened in the clubhouse are clubhouse matters. We are not going to go into any details on what happened behind closed doors. We have a more cohesive, united group. I think the chemistry will continue to be great. We think we are going to be a better ballclub moving forward.'"
What things that happened behind closed doors? How did Elijah Dukes affect team chemistry?* And why is Justin Maxwell quoted in the same article saying, as Mr. Ladson writes, that, "...the team had distractions with Dukes, but (Maxwell) wouldn't say what they were. However, he is looking forward to getting a chance to show what he can do on the field." What distractions?
Whether or not there was one particular incident which caused the Nationals to make this decision, as Mr. Bowden asserted and both the Nationals' President and GM denied, or whether it was a series of incidents or distractions, or whether it was the fact that the oft-injured Dukes was already experiencing issues with his feet this Spring, whatever it was, the Nationals handled this in a way that lent itself to conjecture. There was no hint of this move before it happened. And when it did, (happen), the way it was announced, coupled with Elijah Dukes' personal history combined with Mr. Bowden's ill-timed interjection to imply that there was more to the story than the team was letting on. Whether or not there was.
Dukes' reaction to this all? As reported by Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) via Twitter:
"Dukes to AP: "No big deal, no hard feelings."
(ed. note - " * = Former Washington Post Nationals beat writer Chico Harlan was nice enough to agree to an email interview last summer, and I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Harlan if the rumors of Dukes' "presence" in the team clubhouse being a problem had any validity, Mr. Harlan's response seemed relevant, and worth revisiting."):
FB: There's been considerable talk about Elijah Dukes' presence in the clubhouse, and considerable coverage of how he's been handled by the Washington Nationals, can one player, not even just Dukes in particular, really change the whole tone of a locker room?
Chico Harlan: "You might think 25-man clubhouse sounds big, but it’s actually quite intimate. Nobody hides in a clubhouse. And for sure, Dukes has a presence — a physicality, an intensity, a desire — that makes him all the more visible. To be sure, though, Dukes doesn’t change the "whole tone" of the locker room; it’s not like the place would feel like some day spa if he were gone. Dukes doesn’t have many friends on the roster, though."