Few protest, especially at end

Published May 29, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - A man hit a ball with a stick. Did you cheer?

The home team won a game on Memorial Day. Did you begin to forget?

An accused player danced around the infield, his teammates pounding on his back, the approval from the crowd washing over him. Did you forgive?

Elijah Dukes won a game Monday night. Sports being what they are, and fans being the way they are, perhaps he won something more. Like it or not, in the eyes of some, perhaps he took a step toward a pardon.

Of course, it should not matter. When compared to the accusations leveled against Dukes in the previous week, baseball is a tiny thing, and winning a game doesn't have anything to do with vindication. But you know: after Dukes knocked in the winning run in a 6-5 Rays victory, there will be a few more fans ready to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This was Dukes' first game back in the home lineup, and it could not have gone better for him. Fans barely protested at the beginning, and by the end, most of them were cheering his name.

Perhaps you expected outrage as Dukes played in front of the home crowd for first time since he was accused by his wife of threatening her. It didn't happen. There were a couple of catcalls as he jogged to centerfield, and a smattering of boos when he came to bat, but there was no heat to the fury.

This was the sound of Tampa Bay's outrage? This was the fury of fans who are supposedly fed up? This was what the Rays feared so much they had kept Dukes out of the lineup for two games last week?

Yeah, that'll teach him.

If there was a message for Dukes in Monday's game, it was the chilling sound of mild dissent. It was as if the Rays slipped him into the home lineup and, somehow, no one noticed.

I'll be honest. I expected more of a protest, if not against Dukes in particular then against the allegations of domestic violence in general. Given the passion of my e-mail over the last few days, I expected a little more indignation. Given the protests in my phone messages, I expected a little more scorn.

Remember the crowd's anger a few years ago when Baltimore's Roberto Alomar appeared here after spitting at an umpire? This was nowhere near that. It wasn't the level of disapproval Albert Belle heard when he made his first visit to the Trop while with the Indians. John Rocker drew a louder reaction when he made his first appearance for the Rays.

So what are we to make of the sedate reaction?

Are we to believe that everyone who wanted to protest Dukes did so by refusing to attend the game? Yes, there were a lot of empty seats, but that's always true of the Rays. If you believe that, you can also believe the fans have been protesting the Rays for one thing or another for most of the decade.

Are we to believe Tampa Bay is soft on allegations of domestic violence? Are we to believe baseball fans care less about death threats than those outside of the stadium? Are we to believe fans were merely giving Dukes the old silent treatment? Are we to believe that all involved have agreed that it is time for yet another chance for Dukes?

Or, perhaps, are we to believe this controversy may blow over more quickly than most of us anticipated?

If you are the Devil Rays, how can you not be relieved by such a passive reaction? One minute, the front office had to be bracing for the reaction, and the next, it had to be asking, "Was that it?" If this is the sound of fan unrest, why should the team ever suspend anyone for anything?

If you are Dukes, how can you not be encouraged? How can you help but think, "This is going to blow over pretty quick"? Why should he ever feel the need to apologize?

"Some fans were a little hard on me," Dukes told Rays broadcaster Todd Kalas after the game. "It's all right. They'll get over it."

If there is hope for Dukes - and evidently, the Rays have bundles of it - he needs to find an experienced voice. Maybe someone who has made some mistakes himself. Maybe someone who has endured controversy. Maybe someone also from Tampa.

If so, the Tigers' Gary Sheffield says he is listening.

Before the game, Sheffield stood at his locker and talked of his hopes for Dukes. For months he has been encouraged by those who know Dukes to become a mentor for him. Sheffield says it is a role he is willing to play.

"I think we all need somebody to help us through our youth," Sheffield said. "He's in a tough situation. He needs to gravitate toward a veteran to kind of guide him. I look at his ability, and I think he can be an asset to major-league baseball and to the Devil Rays. I want to see a guy achieve things rather than be another statistic."

Sheffield said the two talked Monday, though not about the specifics of Dukes' latest incident. He said if Dukes were to bring it up, he would talk to him about it.

"I'm not an authority figure where he has to talk to me," Sheffield said, "but if he wants me to help, I will. It saddens me that it's starting off this way. I just don't want it to get out of control."

At this point, any guidance will do. Dukes needs to find someone he can trust and pay attention. He needs the voice of perspective.

Ah, forget it.

From the sound of it, all he needs is a few more base hits.