Captivating Dukes is eager to shine

Despite a tarnished past, the Rays outfielder remains focused on achieving success.

Published March 23, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - There's something about Elijah Dukes that makes people want to watch.

A five-tool prospect in the body of a linebacker, even the sight of the Rays' 6-foot-2, 245-pound outfielder swinging through a spring training fastball evokes a show-stopping reaction from a crowd. Combine that with his athleticism playing the outfield, a savvy plate discipline and his ripe age of 22, anyone around the game knows Dukes has the ability to do something great.

"He's got a presence," said hitting coach Steve Henderson, who has instructed Dukes in the minors since he first came to the Rays as their third-round pick in 2003 out of Hillsborough High. "An opposing pitcher knows he has to think twice with this kid. You don't want to make a mistake on him because he's that strong and smart that he might do something to hurt you real bad."

The only question heading into this spring was whether Dukes could put his troubled past - which included four suspensions last season playing in Triple-A Durham and several legal problems that included an offseason marijuana possession charge - behind him.

There was concern how Dukes would fit in within the Devil Rays clubhouse, but he has adjusted well, often leading card games inside and showing his hustle on the field. And if centerfielder Rocco Baldelli's hamstring injury keeps him out, Dukes figures to play a significant role in the lineup.

"He's been a great teammate," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's worked extremely well. And he's really helped his case to make the team."

When the subject of having to prove himself comes up, the conversation with Dukes turns sour. He's tired of those questions. He wants to be judged on his ability to play baseball.

"There are plenty of guys in here I don't know," Dukes said. "They don't have anything to prove to me. Our job is to play baseball, not to play make up with each other. We come together and we're here to do one thing and one thing only and that's win. That's the only thing I've got to prove to anybody, contribute to winning.

"I'm not really out here to win people over. I'm just going to do my job and stay on the field to help the team."

Many in Rays camp know him from minor-league teams. To them, Dukes is passionate about winning and has a remarkable competitive fire, two things anyone would want in a teammate.

"The guy comes here early," outfielder Delmon Young said. "He works hard. He plays the game hard. He signs for fans and stays out there forever. He does things that people never really talk about."

Young first saw that in the 2003 instructional league, when he first met the guy everyone just called "Dukes," the 18-year-old who was an All-America high school linebacker who turned down a scholarship to play at North Carolina State. The two became quick friends, often sharing rooms on the road. When they played together in Double-A Montgomery, they would bring a PlayStation 2 on the road. Some nights they would play the March Madness college basketball game until 3 a.m., just because neither one wanted to go to sleep having lost.

"He doesn't like to lose at anything he does," Young said.

Now those competitions continue at Young's house in St. Petersburg, where a group of younger Rays - Young, Dukes, catcher Shawn Riggans, first baseman Wes Bankston, infielder/outfielder B.J. Upton and pitcher Scott Kazmir - play video games, pool and pingpong.

"They get heated," said Riggans, who has played with Dukes and Young since 2003 in Class-A Charleston. "A lot of guys who have asked me, 'What's up with Dukesey?' Now, guys who are hanging out with him for the first time and seeing that he's a good guy. You don't want people who are flippant about winning or losing. You want people who are here to win. I think guys are realizing that."

"All those guys, they know I'm a fiery player," Dukes said. "They know my intentions. Once they realized that, we were all cool. But you're not going to be liked by everybody, whether you do it the right way or you do it the wrong way."

They all want to forget last season, a controversy-riddled year at Durham that ended 14 games below .500 and with first-year manager John Tamargo fired. Without mentioning names, Riggans said that he believed some at Durham baited Dukes last season into the outbursts that caused his suspensions.

"There have been times in the past where I know he's been baited," Riggans said. "People want to see him lash out so they can send him home. I've seen that happen. Last year, when it was happening in Durham, I was furious, because there were some people who came into our organization for the first time who were making judgments on him."

Pitcher James Shields, promoted from Durham in May, defended Dukes to Friedman when headlines were coming out of Durham last season.

"He's been a really good guy to me," Shields said. "When I got called up, it was like he was happier than me. That's how good of a teammates he's been. He has a passion for baseball. I told Andrew, he's an impact player. ... I love having him playing behind me. When I was in Triple A, he was making plays that I don't think a lot of guys can make."

Dukes played in just 80 games last season, but his performance - a .293 average, 10 homers and 50 RBIs - was enough that the Rays believe he has nothing to prove at the Triple-A level.

This spring he's hitting .316 and had the winning single in the bottom of the 10th Thursday in a 6-5 win. Last spring, Dukes hit .400 in his first big-league camp, earning the Al Lopez Award as the team's top rookie.

His first pro season, he struck out 130 times in 383 at bats. Last season, he almost had just as many walks 44 as strikeouts (47).

"When he first came up, he had no plate discipline," Young said. "Last year, he wouldn't swing at a ball. He's sitting back, working the count, doing everything to get on base. When he got his pitch, he just crushed it. In two years, he's gone from a talented guy without patience to a smart hitter."

In the minors, he would tell Young how pitchers were tipping their pitches. Henderson said he's always asking questions, looking for flaws in a pitcher even when he's not in the lineup. If there's any carryover from his football days, Dukes said it's the way he stays tuned into a game.

"In football, you always have to be ready every play," Dukes said. "That's just the way I try to be in baseball, ready to go on every pitch. That's just the way I've always been. That's the way I think I can accomplish more is by working harder."

Now it's just a matter of deciding to become the complete player - and teammate.

"He's his own individual," Henderson said. "He makes his own decisions. I don't care who talks to you, but you're the one who makes the decisions, whether it's right or it's wrong."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.