Dukes' expectations raised for 2010

Dukes' expectations raised for 2010

Call July 1, 2009, the day Nationals right fielder Elijah Dukes was humbled. It was in Miami, where Washington general manager Mike Rizzo informed Dukes that he was being optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.

The Nationals felt Dukes made too many fundamental mistakes in the outfield and on the bases.

When he returned to the big leagues a month later, Dukes was a changed man. Dukes became more media-friendly after being known for not trusting most people, and often talked about what he needed to do to get better on the field.

The change in Dukes prompted the club to dismiss James Williams, the person responsible for keeping an eye on Dukes on and off the field. The Nationals feel Dukes is mature enough to take care of himself.

For the 2009 season, Dukes played in 107 games and hit .250 with eight home runs and 58 RBIs. He then went to the Dominican Republic to play for the Licey Tigers, when tragedy struck. His father, Elijah Sr., was diagnosed with liver cancer after he was released from prison, according to published reports.

Dukes left the Dominican and spent a few weeks with his father before the latter passed away a couple of days before Thanksgiving.

MLB.com caught up with Dukes more than a month later to talk about baseball and his father. One thing was certain after the interview ended -- Dukes misses his father and considers Rizzo, manager Jim Riggleman and eye-in-the-sky coach Tim Foli father figures.

MLB.com: What does it mean to have Riggleman as your full-time manager this coming season?

Elijah Dukes: Well, the relationship that we have is right on. He would come up to everybody after the game and he would always say something encouraging. Because of the positive outlook that he had, we wanted to put out. Everybody wanted to do [well] for him, because he believed in everybody. So, I go into camp knowing that he is going to be the manager. He is going to sit there and give us 110 percent every day.

MLB.com: Once he became manager, you and Riggleman talked every day during the season. How much did that mean to you?

Dukes: He would come up and talk baseball with me. He wanted to see where my head was at. He would always encourage me to be more of a leader and go hard all the time. He told me to never give up me and never skip a day. He doesn't want me to say, I came up short and regret it at the end of the day.

MLB.com: Riggleman also attended your father's wake. What was your reaction when you saw him?

Dukes: It meant a lot to me. I really wasn't expecting him to be there. I had tears in my eyes when I first saw him. I loved that he came out to show his respects. It made me feel good.

MLB.com: Did his arrival tell you that a manager cared for you?

Dukes: Oh, yeah. That was, by far, the most [heartwarming] things a coach ever did, as far as that emotional standpoint. Riggleman coming down like that really puts the icing on the cake. He goes down as a good guy in my book. I don't care what [anybody] says. Nobody really does that type of thing nowadays. They send people, but to have the manager of a baseball team -- that means a lot to me.

MLB.com: What kind of year are you expecting to have? I think a lot of people expect big things from you this coming season.

Dukes: I expect big things out of myself. I'm disappointed when I get hurt and have long stints on the [disabled list]. What I'm focusing on this offseason is endurance. I want to have more endurance than I did last year, so I won't take those long stints on the DL. I'm trying to avoid a lot of those nagging injuries that I have been getting the last two years, so I can stay on the field and put up the numbers I'm capable of.

MLB.com: You will be arbitration-eligible after the 2010 season. How important is it to have that big year?

Dukes: It's always important to have a big year every year, but it's really most important to get this big year right now. This can basically change the whole lifestyle of my mother [Phyllis]. Putting up a big year can change her life a little faster than expected. It would be a good thing for me and kind of relieve the everyday stress off her, which she has gone through for the last 49 years.

She is the rock of our family. She holds me together. When I have doubt [in myself], she lets me know. She doesn't cut any corners. She will let you know how she feels. I got my vocal point from her. ... She wants everybody to respect people, so I had to change the way I was. I had to respect other people's feelings and the way people felt about me.

MLB.com: When you came back from the Minor Leagues, members of the local media loved talking to you. What did that mean to you?

Dukes: That's good, but I sat down and I thought about the reason I was sent down. If I was doing my job, I wouldn't have been sent down. I couldn't get sent down if I was hitting .280 and drove in a lot of runs like I was supposed to do. I didn't blame anybody. I blamed myself. I just told myself that I needed to work harder, learn and really focus on every at-bat, every pitch and stop giving away at-bats.

I sometimes found myself taking it easy at times. I'm young and I'm trying to get into it. So I just listen to Riggleman and Foli.

MLB.com:You played in the Dominican Winter League not long ago and your swing looked much better. What are you doing differently?

Dukes: It's not a point of me hitting the curveball or the changeup. It's staying relaxed. I was relaxed because I didn't feel any pressure. [My feeling was], "Go and get the job done." I concentrated on every pitch. It was working. I was really seeing the ball good. I was really amazed because I wasn't hitting that much and it looked like I wasn't missing a beat. It's telling me it's more of a mental game.

MLB.com: I will understand if you don't want to talk about this. You had to leave the Dominican Republic because your father was ill. How are you holding up since he passed away?

Dukes: It's tough at times. At the same time, I keep going, because I have my little brothers and sisters. I basically have to keep going for them, too. It's tough. I try not to talk about him that much. At first, it was kind of tough.

MLB.com: What did your father mean to you?

Dukes: He basically taught me everything I knew about not quitting. He never let me quit on anything. It didn't matter what it was. He would come from work and watch me play on Saturdays. He always found a way to watch me play and show that support. You know what I mean? We did a lot of stuff together -- fishing and everything. That was the upside to my love. I was looking forward to doing things like we used to do. That's was really it.

MLB.com: I know he was proud that you went to the Major Leagues.

Dukes: Yeah. He was sent clippings and he was able to keep the clippings inside. He used to have a book that he used to carry around when clippings and stuff in it. There was a lady who went there and gave him the pictures. She said to my aunt, "He would say, 'This is my son,' and he would tear up and then he would just close [the book].

MLB.com: Rizzo and Foli have been like father figures to you. In fact, Rizzo often gave you tough love.

Dukes: [Laughing] Yeah, he knows what it takes to get me to shut up and play. He would say, "Stop making excuses and just play." He said, "I'm not going to baby you. You know how I feel about you. I love you to death, but I'm going to treat you like you are a grown man." I was like, "All right, I can't really try to step over that line. I can't even flex it a little bit." He let me know that he is going to treat me like everybody else.

MLB.com: I know you liked that Foli, who was the Syracuse manager this past season, told you the truth when you were in the Minor Leagues.

Dukes: Foli is a straight shooter. He can kick a chair over, but at the same time he will do something to make you laugh. It's not like he is screaming mad. Normally, he will be making fun at you in front of me and everybody to laugh. He will say, "All right kid, make sure it doesn't happen again."

He would get on me, too. If I didn't go hard, he would tell me to play hard. Foli loves baseball. He's not going to allow anyone to sit back and depreciate the value of baseball.

MLB.com: You have received a lot of support from the fans in Washington. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

Dukes: I want to say I appreciate the love the fans give me all the time. That's why I sit there and sign autographs. I respect the way they cheer for me. I know they love the way I go hard. I try to give that respect to them by spending that extra time talking to them. I love the conversations I have with a lot of people. I got to meet some good people, too.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.