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12/7/07 Can the Nationals Save Elijah Dukes From Himself?

     Outfielder Lastings Milledge arrives in DC with some baggage. The twenty-two year old managed, in 115 games over two MLB seasons, to go from the prized prospect in the New York Mets organization to possibly starting in the outfield in Nationals Park as the result of last week's trade to the Washington Nationals.

    Milledge angered some by high-fiving home fans after his first home run, raised eyebrows with what many viewed as "misogynist" lyrics in a hip-hop record he appeared on, and ruffled the blue and orange feathers of his fellow Mets players who went all "high school" on Milledge and at one point left a note in his locker which read, "Know your place, Rook. Your teammates."

     There were also personal issues in Lastings Milledge's life which surfaced just before the Mets selected him in the 2003 Draft that tempered the enthusiasm of some within the Mets organization, and once again raised the question of just how much personal turmoil, not just the Mets, but any team could tolerate if a player continued to produce on the field...

    ...But the coverage in the media of Lastings Milledge's trade to Washington and the questions it raised didn't generate anywhere near the amount of vitriolic responses as Elijah Dukes' acquisition has since the Nationals received the twenty-three year-old potential star outfield prospect from the Tampa Bay Rays last Monday.

     In Tim Marchman's 12/7 New York Sun(nysun.com) column entitled, "Young Talent Dominates The Trade Market," which takes a look back at the winners and losers at the recently-completed MLB Winter Meetings, Mr. Marchman writes:

          "The newest National, outfielder Elijah Dukes, was
          available for good reason. He's physically attacked
          managers, teammates, and umpires, and he's notoriously
          threatened to kill his own wife and children this year. He's
          legitimately vile and dangerous, and I wouldn't have him
          in my house."

     But, Mr. Marchman rationalizes, since Washington only gave up "...an obscure A-ball pitcher," to get Dukes out of Tampa, it's a good trade and, "If Dukes hits and doesn't act like a sociopath, the Nationals could have a franchise player."

     Washington Post(washingtonpost.com) Sports Columnist Thomas Boswell, quotes an unnamed Nationals executive, in Mr. Boswell's article, "Nats Get Their Man in Dukes. So Now What?" who flatly states, "If we can help him turn his life around, he might be our cleanup hitter for the next 10 years."

     Mr. Boswell starts his washingtonpost.com article by recounting:

          "Elijah Dukes's reputation hit rock bottom after his
          infamous 'You dead, dawg. . . . Your kids, too' message
          on his estranged wife's voice mail...

And elsewhere Mr. Boswell lays out Dukes' history:

          "...suspended at least once in all five pro seasons; fights
          or altercations with teammates, coaches and managers;
          arrested at least three times for battery and once for
          assault; banned from two minor league teams; at least
          five children by four women; and two women with
          protective orders against him."

     ...and Mr. Boswell addresses the talent vs public relations topic directly when he states, "Talent is the forbidden apple in baseball's garden," and asks, "How much of your franchise's soul will you sacrifice for a bite?"

     The Washington Nationals organization seems to be cognisant of all the well-founded skepticism being voiced about Dukes' acquisition. Washington Times Sports Writer Mark Zuckerman relates, in his article, "Nationals trade for Dukes" that Nationals GM Jim Bowden openly admits:

          "'We're well aware of all the issues...We have a plan in
          place, on and off the field, for him. It's very clear. Elijah's
          on board, 100 percent. He's a very honest person who
          wants to turn his life around...(and)...'His talent is off the
          charts,' Bowden said."

     Nationals Manager Manny Acta was also quoted by Bill Ladson this week, in the mlb.com writers' article, "Nats acquire Dukes from Rays" on December 3rd, in which Mr. Acta states:

          "I think it's never too late to become a better person, and
          this kid is not 91 years old. This kid is 23," Acta said. "I'll
          feel better going to bed knowing that we could give this
          guy another chance in life instead of not doing it."

     If this all sounds familiar to DC fans, maybe it's because GM Jim Bowden, Manager Manny Acta and the Nationals, last February, were saying many of the same things about Dmitri Young when Washington offered the "troubled" first baseman an invitation to Spring Training.

     In Bill Ladson's washington.nationals.mlb.com article at the time entitled, "Nats invite Young, Batista to camp" Mr. Ladson spoke to GM Jim Bowden who was quoted as saying:

          "'Dmitri Young has been through an awful lot, personally,
          over the last several years...He has been extremely
          apologetic for the mistakes he has made in his life. He has
          asked for a second chance in life. He comes in knowing
          the organization has zero tolerance.'"

     Dmitri Young didn't make any mistakes in his first year in DC. In fact, what DY did was hit .320 with 13 HR's and 74 RBI's. Young also received a new contract with the Nationals and is now being looked at as a team leader who can potentially relate to young players like Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes and provide an example of personal redemption, and redemption in the game and in the eyes of those who follow it.

     ...it would appear that the Washington Nationals are not going to write off players as not worth the risk or not worth the bad publicity, as many seem to think they should, but are instead going to try to not only groom potential clean-up hitters like Dukes or center fielders like Milledge, but the Nationals are also going to try to provide an example of the ways in which a franchise can offer a stable base upon which an individual player can not only redeem his reputation, but actually redeem himself, and how, given support, a player can successfully clean up his own act on and off the field.

Can the Washington Nationals save Elijah Dukes from himself?

*Elijah Dukes Links*

Tim Marchman's New York Sun(nysun.com) article "Young Talent Dominates The Trade Market":

http://www.nysun.com/article/67656

Thomas Boswell's Washington Post(washingtonpost.com) article "Nats Get Their Man in Dukes. So Now What?":

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/04/AR2007120402243.html

Mark Zuckerman's Washington Times(washingtontimes.com) article "Nationals trade for Dukes":

http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071204/SPORTS02/112040088/1026/sports02

Bill Ladson's washington.nationals.mlb.com article "Nats acquire Dukes from Rays":

http://washington.nationals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20071203&content_id=2315981&vkey=ne ws_was&fext=.jsp&c_id=was

Bill Ladson's washington.nationals.mlb.com article, "Nats invite Young, Batista to camp":

http://washington.nationals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070214&content_id=1802003&vkey=ne ws_was&fext=.jsp&c_id=was