Devil Rays let Dukes, wife's allegations sit

The outfielder is benched a day; the team looks to help.

Published May 24, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays sat troubled Elijah Dukes on the bench Wednesday, but said they plan to stand behind their rookie outfielder and he likely will be back on the field today.

Rays president Matt Silverman said the organization was "disappointed" and "troubled" and took "very seriously" the allegations by Dukes' estranged wife that he threatened to kill her and their children, but for now would take no disciplinary action against him.

Instead they were hoping to help him.

"Right now we're just monitoring the situation," Silverman said, "and our focus is on helping Elijah through what is a difficult time in his life. We hope that he can fulfill his potential as a ballplayer and as a person, and we are committed to helping him get back on track."

The allegations, reported Wednesday in the St. Petersburg Times, sparked a flurry of response from the Tampa Bay community, including fans who called and e-mailed the team to express their unhappiness.

Law enforcement officials, however, said they would not pursue charges unless his estranged wife, NiShea Gilbert, filed a complaint, which she reiterated Wednesday evening she does not intend to.

And unless Dukes were to be charged with a crime, it doesn't sound like the Rays will do much else. Their actions are limited because of an agreement between Major League Baseball and the players union, which has successfully overturned past disciplinary actions. The agreement also limits how the Rays can investigate Dukes.

"Unless things change dramatically, we expect him to be back on the field shortly," Silverman said.

Another factor is that the Rays view this as a personal matter.

"It's a complicated situation," Silverman said. "The end of a marriage is one that can be very complicated and often times gets ugly. There are two sides to a story, but at this point it's not our place to discuss these."

The Rays said in a statement they would "provide ongoing assistance" for Dukes, likely counseling and anger management assistance through the team's employee assistance program, which he has been involved in for several years.

Public relations and business law experts said the Rays don't have a lot of other options.

"You cannot run around micromanaging the personal lives of your employees," said Theresa Gallion, a labor lawyer at Fisher & Phillips in Tampa.

Manager Joe Maddon, describing Dukes as "pretty much upset," said that he benched his starting centerfielder as much for his own benefit and that a short meeting with Dukes confirmed it was the right move.

"I was concerned about him and what he would be faced with (Wednesday night) specifically," Maddon said.

Maddon said he didn't think it was his place to ask Dukes to explain the allegations, terming it an "unfortunate situation" and saying, "You feel for the young man and his family."

Dukes was not available to the media Wednesday, with public relations vice president Rick Vaughn asking reporters to "respect Elijah's privacy" during "a difficult personal time." Dukes, who went through the normal pregame workout and signed some autographs for fans, swore at a television reporter who sought comments during batting practice.

Veteran outfielder Carl Crawford said he did not expect the issue to become a distraction, but acknowledged that some do view Dukes with caution.

"I read something about a text message with a gun and stuff, and I don't know how that can make players feel," Crawford said, "but I don't see how it will affect things in the clubhouse."

Crawford, who said Dukes' behavior "had been fine up to this point," also said he didn't classify the latest allegations as surprising.

"In the back of everybody's mind I'm pretty sure they were wondering if something like this was going to happen again, so when something like this happens it gives everybody a chance to say I told you so," Crawford said.

The team's reputation in the community could be damaged by the incident.

"They have an image, and their image affects the team," said Andrew Froman of Fisher & Phillips. "It affects the team's attendance, it affects the team's bottom line. If they don't have a legal obligation to make sure their players behave, they certainly have a business obligation."

Silverman said he hoped fans would be patient as they continue to monitor the situation.

"We certainly will face some opposition as we do with any decision we make, and with time and perspective we hope to continue our ascent as an organization this area is a proud of," Silverman said.

If the allegations are confirmed, the Rays should be prepared to act quickly, business experts said.

"Given what's happened at Virginia Tech, there's got to be a zero tolerance for that," said Jonathan Bernstein of the Bernstein Crisis Management public relations firm. "It's one thing to go party too much. It's another to make death threats."

Times staff writer Christina Rexrode contributed to this report.