Monday, September 8, 2008

Elijah Dukes: So Far, So Good

Going into this season, there were few question marks (really none) on the Nationals more pregnant (pardon the pun) with potential disaster (and upside) than Elijah Dukes. Not his ability of course. From the start, we were told that he had the talent to be a 5-tool all-star, potentially immediately. The question was whether he could stay out of trouble or not.

The initial reaction from the Natmosphere was overwhelmingly negative. NTP got the first post up, saying:
I don't want Elijah Dukes to be a member of the Washington Nationals. I don't want him to put on a uniform and be held up as a representative of my team and my city. I don't want him to be a symbol of what the Nationals stand for or what DC-area children should aspire to. It's not often that character trumps talent in professional sports. But this is one time when it damn well should.

Some athletes, like Josh Hamilton, come right to the brink of squandering their prodigious talent before they figure it out. Others, like Young, have a good reputation marred by one unforgivable incident. And some guys, like Robert Fick, just do stupid things because, well, they're kinda stupid. Elijah Dukes is in another category. He's not Hamilton, who was mostly just hurting himself. He's not Dmitri Young, who had a 30-year track record of being a pretty okay guy to fall back on. And he's not Fick, who will forever be linked to one inexplicable dumbass on-field decision. Right now, Elijah Dukes is a danger to himself and a detriment to everyone he comes into contact with.
Those are some mighty damning words, and he was not alone. Chris Needham jumped on board, labeling Dukes a "fecking scumbag." Going into this season, if we could get through the month of April without an arrest or incarceration, we were supposed to be happy. I probably would have said something similar had I been posting then. Dukes, from what was reported in the media, was a terrible person, a violent criminal with truly sociopathic tendencies.

And since then... crickets on the police blotter. No ejections. No fights. A couple pitchers complaining that Dukes celebrated too much after walk-offs. And one dug-out spat with Manny that both men insisted was an honest misunderstanding the next day, with no recurrences of any kind. Dmitri Young, who was supposed to be Elijah's chaperon, has been out of the picture almost all year, but he hasn't been needed. Watching the team, Dukes seems to get along well with his teammates, smiles a lot, etc. On a team that's been on the verge of a total morale collapse all year, that had to eat $8+ million in salary to cast off dead weight vets with bad attitudes,
Dukes seems to have been, dare I say, a positive force in the clubhouse.

I started to wonder whether the talk of "Elijah Dukes, OG" was a little overblown when I saw this video on Washington Post website in February:

Now, this is just a few minutes on a driving range, so it's not much to go on, but in this candid moment, Dukes just didn't seem like the evil-doer we were told to expect. He seems... charming. He has a sense of humor. He seems actually pretty bright, chatting off the cuff and making quick jokes about random topics. He jokes about himself in a completely disarming, self-effacing way.

So how to resolve this with his track record? Let's not forget, this is a guy who had enough personal problems to fill an entire feature section of the St. Pete Times. They even provide a handy timeline of his run-ins with law enforcement and other problems.

That timeline is pretty damning. The sheer length of it is overwhelming. But when you take out the Mickey Mouse stuff like the traffic stops and pot busts, the fights at 13, the teenage pregnancies (which obviously reflect very poor judgment but have nothing to do with violence or criminality), and the accusations that were later dropped
(also note that this paper chose to fluff up the "Ten Years of Trouble" timeline with incidents in which Dukes was the alleged crime victim), you're left with a shorter list.

I by no means minimize the significance of these incidents, but let's be clear that the serious crimes that Dukes has admitted or been convicted of are:
1. choking and punching his sister, Katrina;
2. failing to pay child support;
3. the "you dead dawg" incident.

That third one though is the incident that really sticks to Dukes. You know the story: he storms into his wife's elementary school where she works, screams lots of awful things at her, and then calls her and leaves a voice mail message, threatening to murder her and their kids. He also texts her a photo of a handgun.

This is the point at which most people decided that Dukes wasn't just a troubled kid from the wrong side of the tracks but a truly bad person. Who could possibly say such a thing about his own wife and children? I had the same reaction. I abhor domestic violence. I'm one of the tiny number of Americans who still identifies as a proud feminist. This stuff is horrible, awful, terrible, tragic.

But, allow me to suggest that maybe, possibly (and none of us know the real answer), Dukes's text message was not really a serious death threat but a rant, shooting his mouth off, venting, saying something he would later regret. Maybe this was less like Rae Carruth and more like Alec Baldwin's terrible voice mail that he left for his daughter, which everyone was shocked about, but at least some people were willing to at least try to understand in the context of a tired parent losing his temper.

Why, do you suppose, was the media was ready to at least consider the benefit of the doubt for Baldwin, and not for Dukes. Why does Baldwin still get TV and movie roles with barely a mention of his personal problems? Hmm... what could be different about them?

Personally, I don't think it's the media's business to report on the gory details of celebrities' personal lives, and I wish the content of Dukes's text message and Baldwin's voice mail were both kept out of the public eye. But there's no doubt in my mind that the way Dukes has been portrayed has been tinged with a not-so-subtle racism, that it's been all too easy for people in the press to believe that he's as bad as they say. Just look at the photos of Dukes in those St. Pete Times articles. There's an agenda there.

It's bad to lose your temper. It's terrible to say things you later regret. It's also terrible that there are corners of very poverty-stricken America where violence is commonplace, and where it's not at all uncommon for people say things like "I'm going to kill you, [expletive]."

And this is the part of the story that gets left out or ignored. Dukes's upbringing was harder than most of us can ever imagine. He watched his father get dragged off to jail in shackles after getting convicted of murdering a man who sold fake cocaine to his drug-dealing mother.

As I've said before, a poor black boy in America has a lot better chance of going to jail or getting killed than becoming a successful professional of any kind. One in nine black men in America between the ages of 20 and 34 are in jail right now. The Justice Department says that a black man born in the U.S. in 2001 will have a 30% chance of going to jail in his lifetime. Dukes deserves quite a bit of credit that he's escaped those tragic outcomes. He's not in jail, he's not dead, he doesn't have AIDS, he's not on welfare, and he's not on drugs.

That's not to excuse what Dukes said or did. No one should ever punch or choke anyone. No one should ever speak in such language as he used towards his wife.

But the context does shed some light and should cause us to give him more benefit of the doubt, not less. And from what I've seen so far, Dukes has answered the questions that were raised about him as convincingly as he possibly could have to this point. I can't guarantee that there won't be more Dukes troubles down the road. But I'm rooting for him. Like Dukes says on that golfing video, "I root for the underdog."


Hendo said...

I have to admit my own attitude has undergone an adjustment. In June 2007, while the Nats' FO and scouts were still scoping Dukes, I wasn't too thrilled:

"I think we mostly agree that [Dukes] needs to clean up his act, and that he's far enough from having done so to merit extreme caution before even considering introducing him into a fairly stable player personnel mix.

"With respect to remorse and regeneration, Dukes and Young seem to me as night and day."

When Dukes was signed in December, the folks on Nationals Journal were ripping the ownership for being cheap bottom-feeders, to put it mildly. But here's what I thought at the time and still think:

"Irrespective of whether anyone thinks this trade is reckless, or cheap, or whatever, five will get you ten that at least one GM is sitting in Nashville thinking:

"'Boy, I wish my owner had the guts to make these kinds of deals.'"

Whatever else I say about this FO, and I do say it and mean it, this was a well-considered move made for all the right reasons.

Steven said...

I don't understand how this move would have ever been a sign of the ownership being "cheap." If anything Dukes is more expensive than Gibson--he has some arb clock time on him, a minor leaguer for a major-leaguer. I think 231 was right on that score. There were reasons not to like this deal, but surely cheapness wasn't it.