tampabay.com

Owner: Aiding Dukes top priority

Sternberg says the Rays' reputation takes a back seat to trying to help a troubled man.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published June 24, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - While the Devil Rays hope time away and counseling help Elijah Dukes, principal owner Stuart Sternberg acknowledged Saturday it was not "likely" the troubled rookie outfielder would be rehabilitated.

But just the possibility that Dukes could be is enough reason for the Rays to help, Sternberg said, even if it means jeopardizing the franchise's reputation.

"If it's about helping a person or the reputation of an organization, I think our reputation will stand itself through, " Sternberg said. "This will pass, hopefully with a very positive outcome for him. If it doesn't, our reputation will remain intact as an organization that's trying to help somebody, and did what they could to help somebody.

"If I have to, or we have to, put at risk something relative to the value of helping somebody become a productive member of society, who's got children and family and people who care about him, there's no question about which way I end up on that."

After weeks of mounting frustration over the distraction Dukes' off-field issues created, including reports of domestic threats and paternity issues, the Rays on Friday removed him from the big-league team but kept him in the organization with full pay of his $380, 000 salary, placing him on the minor-league temporary inactive list, possibly for the rest of this season. They agreed to give him his major-league salary, rather than $60, 000 the minor-league minimum for players with major-league service time, to avoid hassles and delays from the players union on the move.

Sternberg said the Rays didn't instead cut Dukes loose because it wouldn't "do him any good, " and absolutely not to retain an asset for a future trade.

He also said the Rays would have "very near" zero tolerance for future distractions. When told some close to Dukes, 22, say keeping him off the field could cause problems, Sternberg said the Rays also heard "that taking baseball away will be the only thing that gets his attention."

Though Dukes has been through counseling, anger management courses and promises before, Sternberg said the difference - "a significant point" - is that this time Dukes wants the help: "He's asked for it."

Though Dukes was adamant in a Tuesday radio rant he didn't need professional help, he apparently changed his story in subsequent conversations with team officials, even breaking down at one point. The embarrassment and fallout from the radio episode may have been the tipping point.

"Maybe that was sort of the climax, " Sternberg said. "There was no harm done to anybody (but) it certainly hurt his reputation further, and if that's what caused him to get to a point where he felt he needed some significant assistance, I applaud it. I'm glad it happened."

Most important, Sternberg said, is the chance the Rays can help.

"Possible is good enough for me, " he said. "He's a young man, an old boy possibly, and he's been part of this organization out of high school, and he's got a family and he's got a bunch of children."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.