tampabay.com

Rays shelve vexed Dukes

The troubled outfielder is designated as temporarily inactive.

By MARC TOPKIN and EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published June 23, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays solved one problem Friday by removing controversial outfielder Elijah Dukes from their team.

But rather than cutting him loose completely, they worked out an arrangement that gives him time away from the field to resolve his personal problems, and leaves open the possibility that he could play for them again -- perhaps later this season.

"What this allows us to do, and Elijah to do, is take some time away from the field and to focus on his personal life, re-evaluate everything, and, most importantly, allow him an opportunity away from the spotlight," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He has accepted this task and we're very encouraged by it."

Officially, the Rays optioned Dukes, 22, to Class A Vero Beach and placed him on the temporary inactive list, where he will remain for an undetermined amount of time as he undergoes counseling. They also agreed to pay him his $380,000 major-league salary as opposed to his minor-league salary of $30,000.

Dukes has been the subject of controversy, and headlines, since a May 23 St. Petersburg Times report of allegations by his estranged wife, NiShea Gilbert, that he threatened to kill her and their two children. It was also reported he fathered at least five children with four women, and that a then-17-year-old in foster care said he made her pregnant.

Rays officials grew frustrated with the distractions, and players and coaches told management they didn't want him around.

The Rays explored a cautious trade market, then settled on a plan that serves many purposes -- restoring focus on the team by removing Dukes, while keeping him in the organization, ostensibly so he can receive assistance, but also as a potential asset.

Manager Joe Maddon said the subtraction would be viewed as an addition in the clubhouse.

"It's the right move for right now," he said. "The tack we're taking makes everyone better."

Veteran leftfielder Carl Crawford said removing a distraction should help the team progress.

"We didn't like having to open up a paper and read about it," Crawford said. "And you hate to be in a clubhouse knowing people are talking and whispering about you. That kind of stuff won't be going on anymore."

The Rays are not allowed to discuss what type of help Dukes may receive through their employee assistance program, but it is clear he has agreed to undergo some type of counseling -- in addition to what has been court-ordered -- because Friedman made several references to officials and experts deciding when Dukes would be ready to return. "A lot of this," he said, "is over our head."

Dukes is allowed to work out occasionally at the team minor-league complex, but Friedman stressed he was taking "a personal leave" to be "away from the game" and said it was "unclear" if Dukes would spend that time in Tampa, where he grew up and has family, and problems.

The Rays said the decision was mutual by team management and Dukes' representatives, and apparently without objection from the players union, which would have fought any suspension or disciplinary action. Dukes was informed by phone of the decision and wasn't at the stadium Friday.

"This is an example of the Devil Rays and Elijah reaching out to each other to make sure that he remains a Devil Ray," agent Scott Pucino said. "It's great for all sides that we've been able to come to this agreement. Elijah knows he needs help and the Devil Rays have continued to show their support."

Friedman said it was premature to say if Dukes would return to the team, but that it was possible. He topped short of saying this was the last chance for Dukes, who was suspended multiple times last season, but said the agreement was "one of the last options" they had.

"People who do know Elijah know that at his core he is a good person," Friedman said, "but obviously he has made poor choices and done so repeatedly, so it's something that he needs to get his personal life in order."

Friedman said the events of the past month "really had an impact on (Dukes) from the standpoint of the distractions that he has caused and the embarrassment to his family," and that Dukes was comfortable with the arrangement and "willing to try to change."

That seems to be a significant difference since Tuesday, when during an angry 14-minute rant on 620-WDAE radio Dukes said he didn't need any professional help, and since Wednesday, when he walked through the team clubhouse making threatening comments at a Times reporter.

While the Rays were confident this was an appropriate course of action -- "a great step," Friedman said -- Dukes' estranged wife, who recently was granted a restraining order prohibiting him to interact with her or their children for a year, and also filed for divorce, was not so sure.

"I just hope he gets the help he needs," she said. "I want to know what kind of state of mind he's in right now. When he's not playing baseball, he's really frustrated and he takes out his frustration on everyone else. I know that from last year when he was in Durham (and suspended several times).

"If they're not going to get him help, it's not going to be the solution. It's just going to escalate things."

Times staff writer Brant James contributed to this report.

A decade of trouble

At age 22, Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes has amassed dozens of contacts with law enforcement and the court system. They range from traffic stops to paternity suits to his own calls to report being a crime victim to calls others made to report his actions. The following list was compiled from public records showing some contacts with the system. In some cases, records could not be obtained to show the resolution.

1997

Sept. 29: Dukes, 13, is arrested on a battery charge, according to Tampa police records. Because he's a juvenile, no details are available.

1998

Nov. 21: Dukes is again arrested on a battery charge, but because of his age details aren't available.

2003

Dec. 8: Hillsborough sheriff's deputies are called to Dukes' home after he fights with NiShea Gilbert. She says he threw a remote control at her. Prosecutors later drop the charges against Dukes.

Dec. 25: Dukes is pulled over on suspicion of careless driving. When a Tampa police officer approaches, he calls her obscene names, according to an arrest report. The officer yanks him out of the car after he tries to roll up his window and charges him with obstructing an officer without violence. He is allowed to enter a misdemeanor intervention program and charges are dropped.

2004

Jan. 30: Dukes calls Hillsborough sheriff's deputies after a fight with Gilbert, accusing her of spraying him with an unknown substance from an aerosol container. He tells deputies he wants to document the incident but doesn't want to prosecute.

March 16: Gilbert files for child support from Dukes for their son. A judge orders Dukes to start paying $222.26 per month at a later date. Dukes is already $23, 337 in arrears, and the debt is factored into his monthly payments.

April 26: Gilbert calls Hillsborough deputies and says Dukes is harassing her and making threatening phone calls. No arrest is made.

April 28: Gilbert files for a protective order, also known as a domestic violence injunction, against Dukes, accusing him of peppering her with telephone calls threatening to kill her. She said she also receives threatening calls from other members of his family. A judge denies her order.

Sept. 15: Dukes' ex-girlfriend, Carla Bryant, asks a judge to order a paternity test. It shows Dukes is the father of her baby.

Oct. 12: Gilbert calls Hillsborough deputies and says Dukes threw a soda can and a candy jar at her. No arrest is made.

Oct. 15: Gilbert files for another protective order against Dukes.

Oct. 25: Bryant files for a protective order against Dukes.

Oct. 28: A judge grants Gilbert's order and bars Dukes from contacting her for one year.

Oct. 31: A judge grants Bryant's order and bars Dukes from contacting her for one year.

2005

Jan. 18: Dukes quarrels with his sister, Katrina Evans. Evans tells Tampa police he grabbed her by the throat and punched her in the left arm. Dukes is charged with battery. He does not contest the charge and is sentenced to one year of probation.

Jan. 24: Dukes' ex-girlfriend, Zanquesha Jefferson, files a request for prosecution with Tampa police. In it, she says Dukes came to her home and choked her. No charges are filed.

March 10: A paternity test shows Dukes is the father of Shantell Mitchell's baby, who was born on June 7, 2004.

June 16: Gilbert gives birth again and adds the baby to her child support claim against Dukes.

Aug. 8: Dukes is ordered to pay Shantell Mitchell $881.73 per month in child support until $10, 871 in retroactive support is paid off. After that, he must pay $734.78 per month.

2006

Feb. 27: Dukes marries NiShea Gilbert.

May 1: Gilbert files a petition for divorce, claiming Dukes married her to avoid paying child support. She accuses him of being abusive.

June 5: Gilbert voluntarily dismisses her petition for divorce.

Aug. 24: Hillsborough sheriff's deputies arrest Gilbert after she scratches Dukes in the back during an argument. Charges are later dropped.

Sept. 20: Dukes and Shantell Mitchell reach a settlement allowing their child to live with him for the six months of the year he is in Tampa. Child support is suspended; Dukes informally agrees to pay for the child's expenses.

2007

Jan. 15: Dukes and his passenger, Willie Evans, 23, are arrested during a traffic stop after Tampa police find about 2 grams of marijuana in his car. The case is pending.

March 8: The child support case between Dukes and Gilbert is settled through mediation.

April 26: Porcia Reneal Daniels files a paternity suit, which includes a test result showing Dukes is the father of her baby born on July 19, 2006.

April 30: A Hillsborough County deputy issues Dukes a trespass warning after he shows up at Beth Shields Middle School in Ruskin, where Gilbert teaches. The deputy says Dukes was "very irate."

May 1: Gilbert files for a protective order against Dukes.

May 14: A judge throws out the petition after Gilbert fails to show up for a hearing.

May 17: Gilbert again files for a protective order.

May 23: The St. Petersburg Times reports allegations by Gilbert that Dukes threatened to kill her and their children.

May 29: Dukes apologizes to "family, teammates, the fans and the organization" for causing a distraction.

May 30: Gilbert gets a one-year protective order and says she has filed for divorce.

June 13: The Times reports that a teen who lived in the foster care of a relative Dukes told police the Rays outfielder got her pregnant. Detectives believe the sex was consensual and no crime was committed, but according to the police report the incident has prompted a review of the foster home.

June 19: Dukes calls a Tampa radio station to defend himself and his family and make further accusations against Gilbert. Rays officials acknowledge they are frustrated over the continued distractions.

June 22: The troubled outfielder is optioned to the minor leagues and placed on the temporary inactive list.