Editor’s note: Baseball America recently ran a story on Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes that delved into his troubled background and whether he’d be able to put his past behind him. We heard that Dukes wasn’t happy with one passage from the story that talked about him attending four high schools in four years prior to being a third-round pick in 2002 out of Hillsborough High in Tampa.
Because Dukes is just down the street from Baseball America HQ at Triple-A Durham this season, we had the opportunity to talk to him about the story and give him a chance to fully discuss his perspective on it. So Chris Kline, who wrote the original Dukes feature, interviewed him before a recent home game:
Kline: So I understand you were saying that you getting kicked out of one high school simply isn’t true, but in all my research, I came to the conclusion that you had indeed been expelled. You said before if we wanted the truth about you to come to the horse’s mouth, so what is the truth?
Elijah Dukes: I got suspended probably five times (through high school) and all that stuff comes from goofing off–never fighting–goofing off.
Kline: But in my research, I found that there was an expulsion.
Dukes: See, what happened was, a teacher said I hit him, but then they found out I didn’t hit him because everybody wrote a letter saying, “Hey, this guy didn’t do nothing. The teacher bumped into Elijah, you know?” So it was just people taking the teacher’s word over the student’s word. They went ahead and did a whole investigation and found out I didn’t do it. I had to make up four classes in two weeks (after being suspended) and I passed all of them and finally ended up graduating.
But yeah, the teacher was trying to say that I pushed him, but everyone knew he bumped into me and it started this whole mess. They had to interview a ton of students, investigated it and found out I didn’t do anything. They apologized for it and the teacher ended up quitting, but I kind of had to go through the wringer with everything.
You said I got kicked out of every school and when I read that, I couldn’t believe it because I never got kicked out. If anything, it was other schools recruiting me to go there. That’s why I went to four schools in four years. They want the best guys at their schools and they do all kinds of things to get coaches to get you there.
Kline: It kind of seems like all of this stuff in your background seems to have gotten a little overblown–like it’s become bigger than you.
Dukes: I think it definitely has and I want people to know what I’m all about because this whole image thing has gotten out of hand. It’s probably always going to be there, though, and I’m just trying to go out, play baseball and get to the next level and stay there for a long time.
Kline: So have you been settling in here in Durham?
Dukes: This is great, we have a nice team here and everything. Unfortunately I got off to a little shaky start and I’ve been battling up there trying to get settled in. I haven’t really got settled in yet. It’s coming along. I’m not doing too bad, but I’m not doing as well as I should be doing. I’m going to start working extra to get back to where I was in spring training.
Kline: Is it something where you feel like you need to change your approach, or is it adjusting to Triple-A for the first time?
Dukes: I’m getting a little too aggressive again instead of being more selective. I’m not being calm and selective, I’m getting aggressive up there every time and it’s almost getting the best of me consistently. I’m throwing my hands out there so quick and I’m not even really seeing the pitches. I just need to get up there and get back to being where I was in the spring.
Kline: What’s one thing you want to accomplish off the field this season?
Dukes: I’m all in-house during the season, so I haven’t really been able to check out the city at all. Eventually I’m going to try to get a vehicle up here and I like to try to visit some of the schools where kids aren’t as fortunate as other kids. I like to go visit with them, tell them stuff about me and where I came from, visit the Boys and Girls Clubs and play ping-pong with them, stuff like that so they see that people in my situation are people too. That’s definitely one thing I really like to do.
Kline: Anything else you want to clear the record on?
Dukes: The thing about my mom. (According to Tampa police, Elijah’s father fatally shot a man who sold $100 of fake crack cocaine to Elijah’s mother.) I mean, maybe the police wrote it or whatever, but when I ask people about it, it’s always a different story every time. No one really knows the truth about what happened that night. So I don’t think that should really be in any stories when it comes down to my family history. You get so many stories and the police people put it in there–they’re going to put the story in there that makes it easy, make it easier for them to indict somebody. They’re going to flip the story a little bit.
Kline: You were saying earlier that your approach at the plate was aggressive, but if that’s aggressive, then your approach on the bases is even more so. I think anyone can see that when you’re barreling down on a second baseman trying to break up a double play . . .
Dukes: That’s the only way I go is hard. I don’t soften up for nobody and there’s no reason to let up or give in. I don’t care if you’re short or tall, big or slim–I’m going in there hard. If you’re man enough to stand in there, you’re probably going to get a lot of body over the top by the time the play’s over. That’s just how I play. My game is similar to Pete Rose when it comes to sliding–you slide in hard and something’s going to happen. Guys are going to move out of the way or umpires might not see the tag. When you slide in hard, things are going to happen.
Kline: How are things dealing with the Blue Monster (at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park) in left field?
Dukes: It’s been a process. I’m missing some of the assists I should be getting that I normally would get if we were playing in a normal depth outfield. But I’ve been getting out there to take more balls off the wall to learn it a little better. Right now I’m short-handing balls, coming up short a little bit on my throws. And it’s tough judging balls off that wall with all of the spin. I’m going to be taking balls off there during BP every day and take it a little more seriously than I have been taking it.
Kline: Just from seeing you interacting with (Rays farm director) Mitch Lukevics, it seems like the two of you have a pretty good relationship. What kind of role does he play in your life and career?
Dukes: Mitch is like a father from home. Ever since I came into this organization, Mitch has been one of the guys that I call all season, call him on Father’s Day, call him on Christmas. Guys like that you just have to keep in touch with. He doesn’t care what the situation is, he’s going to view you just like anybody else. Like he always told me, yeah, I’ve made mistakes, but if he had to put his size 11½ shoe up my butt to get me to listen and get me on the right path, it was going to happen. Once he said that, I knew that he was one of the guys for me. Mitch is one of the greatest guys in baseball.
Kline: You’ve said before you weren’t a big music guy and you thought you were the only player in the organization that didn’t have an iPod. Is there anything you do listen to at all?
Dukes: I listen to Neo a lot. I’m an R&B type of guy right now. I listen to a lot of slow jams, but I’m still not big on music, really. All these guys have iPods. They have like 3,000 songs in them, but it’s not 3,000 good songs. There aren’t 3,000 good songs out there. All those jokers (who have them) are just trying to catch somebody’s eye or something. I’ll probably just keep the CD player for a long time.
Kline: So what else do you do in any kind of downtime you have?
Dukes: I play with the guys sometimes, but it’s really been my PSP (Playstation Portable) this season and of course, Tiger Woods. I just play the PSP because I’m more of a loner. Mostly everybody hangs out all the time and I just sit in there, play the PSP or watch ESPN, that’s it.