Dukes' troubled path far too well traveled

Published May 23, 2007

When trouble comes along - and with Elijah Dukes, it usually does - there are only so many ways to deal with it.

You can give it time and hope the trouble goes away. You can give it help and hope the trouble gets better. You can handle it with care and hope the trouble does not blow up in your face.

Or, in the case of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who have tried all of this, you can finally come to an inevitable conclusion:

You can get as far away from the trouble as possible.

If the latest allegations against Dukes by his wife are substantiated, if he indeed threatened murder, if he transmitted the photo of a pistol to her cell phone to intimidate her, then the Rays have no choice but to wash their hands of him.

If the accusations are true, he should be through.

Simple as that.

There is a line between trouble and too much of it, and if NiShea Gilbert is telling the truth about Dukes' behavior, then it finally has been crossed. The Rays have a record of standing by Dukes in the face of problems - arrests and suspensions and injunctions, oh my - but a history of domestic violence, and threats of more, has to be too much for them to explain away.

Again, let's go slow here, because as disturbing as the threatening voice mail is, as frightening as the photo of the gun transmitted to Gilbert's phone may be, these remain allegations. The police have not filed charges.

Still, there is a history that should leave everyone concerned. Dukes has had problems with anger management throughout his career.

For the Rays, it is time to figure out the truth.

What does a uniform mean? Is it only about standings and statistics, about performance and potential? It shouldn't be. For decades, owners have tried to sell the image of a team as representative of something greater. It is supposed to have some sort of bond with its surrounding community. Every time the team releases information on a player's charitable donation, it is trading on goodwill. For the Rays, this is a test of that.

Think about this. For you to disbelieve Gilbert's charges, if you believe she is playing the media as leverage in her divorce (as Dukes' agent, Scott Pucino, suggests) you must believe the following: You have to believe she lied. You have to believe that she faked the photo. You have to believe she had someone imitate Dukes' voice on the phone.

Also, you have to believe that Dukes cares what you think.

Shortly before the Rays' game against Seattle on Tuesday night, Dukes stood in a hallway of Tropicana Field with three Times reporters. One after the other, the allegations were read to him. He was told one of the writers had a copy of the photo of the pistol he allegedly sent.

Dukes did not flinch. He did not blink. He did not ask to see the photo. He did not seem outraged or embarrassed or surprised. He did not explain or protest or apologize, any of the things you might expect from someone who had been falsely accused. He didn't help himself, and he didn't try.

"I have a video game to finish," he said. And he left. Shortly afterward, he led off the game with a triple.

Look, it's hard to blame the Rays for wanting to believe in Dukes. We all want to believe in Dukes, because we want to believe a man can overcome the disadvantages of his youth. The Halls of Fame are filled with players who managed. We want to believe in Dukes because he is talented. We want to believe in another chance, and another after that.

Sometimes, however, the price becomes too great. Sometimes, the risk becomes too large.

If Gilbert's accusations are true - and you cannot say that enough - it no longer matters how mesmerized the Rays are by his talent. They cannot hold onto him. Allegations such as these suggest this story will end tragically, and the Rays cannot afford to be a part of it.

Oh, half-measures are available. The Rays could try to suspend him (if the players' association doesn't get it overruled). They could demote him until the controversy ends. But if the franchise is ever going to suggest that there is a line that cannot be crossed, isn't this it?

If the Rays let go of Dukes, would he end up somewhere else? Probably. Would he succeed? Possibly. No one has ever denied his talent. For a team that has been knocked around lately for letting go of Josh Hamilton, that might be a concern.

It shouldn't be, but here's a promise. If Dukes made death threats, and if the Rays let go of Dukes because of it, they will never hear a word of disapproval here. Because it would be the right thing to do.

Yes, it might be sad if he goes.

On the other hand, it might be tragic if he stays.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.