Dukes finds comfort zone with Nationals
Counselor serves as father figure for once troubled outfielder
VIERA, Fla. -- Three months after the Nationals acquired outfielder Elijah Dukes during the Winter Meetings, their relationship is working out -- so far.
Dukes' teammates don't seem to care about the negative publicity he received during his five years with the Rays. There is first baseman Dmitri Young and infielder Willie Harris by his side as he is talking with the media. Dukes calls them his big brothers.
Left-hander Odalis Perez isn't too far behind. He wants Dukes to be part of a card game, even though the latter isn't very good at playing any card games.
"We all jell together. It's all good," Dukes said.
It has been all good for Dukes so far because the Nationals have put a plan in place to make sure he stays on course. The team hired counselor James Williams, a Nationals special assistant, to be a father figure for Dukes.
Dukes, 23, spends daily sessions with Williams, who is known to give the outfielder tough love when needed. The Nationals have declined the media's request to talk to Williams, but Dukes said Williams has made a big difference in his life. The two were able to click, according to Dukes, because Williams spoke to family members only when it came to researching the outfielder and his troubled past.
"He is always saying, 'What do you need me to do?' Those are the kind of things that can get you relaxed," Dukes said. "That's real good because the team offered it to me. A lot of teams don't do that. I can recommend him to anybody. He could probably take a lot of stress off a lot of people. He's that super nanny. You are talking about James.
"When you have a guy that reaches out to your family first before he comes to you, that means he has a plan."
Dukes doesn't appear to be stressed out on the field. He thinks very highly of himself when it comes to his baseball skills. Unlike many players in the big leagues, Dukes is not afraid to talk about his goals for the season.
"My goals are to basically get out there and try to hit my 30 homers, [drive in] 100 runs, score 100 runs and win the Gold Glove," Dukes said. "It's typical goals."
Dukes will get his chance to reach his goals starting on Opening Day. He will be the Nationals' regular left fielder after it was learned that Wily Mo Pena will start the season on the disabled list with a strained left oblique. Entering Spring Training, Dukes was considered Washington's fourth outfielder.
Dukes downplayed the fact that he was going to play every day because of an injury to another player.
"I'm starting the season in Washington, period," Dukes said. "We are a team, and if [Pena] is not ready, hopefully I can be in there to fill in. When he comes back, I will be the fourth outfielder."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.