Rarely do baseball players go through the arduous process of hitting their way to the majors only to burn every bridge behind them as quickly as Elijah Dukes did at the precocious age of 27.
Compared to other sports, the gestation period necessary to produce a Major League Baseball player is insanely long. A 19-year-old can go from March Madness to NBA point guard in a few months, but even the most talented young baseball players must spend years on long bus rides from one crappy minor league facility to another before making the bigs. It is a torturous road meant to weed out the ambivalent, uncommitted, and crazy.
This makes the tale of Elijah Dukes that much more remarkable, or ridiculous, or tragic. Rarely do players go through the arduous, years-long process of hitting their way to the majors only to burn every single bridge behind them as quickly as Dukes did. And by the precocious age of 27, no less. Elijah Duke is the Mozart of Assholes.
Dukes hasn’t played pro baseball of any kind since toiling for the (unaffiliated) Newark Bears in 2010, but is back in the news now for all the wrong reasons. Caught by a routine traffic stop in Tampa with marijuana on his person, Dukes went the Super Troopers route and tried to eat the evidence. He was betrayed by telltale weed flakes on his shirt, and the large blunt that he forgot was tucked behind his ear. It reads like a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie, except that it might actually make you laugh.
As attempted evasions of justice by former baseball players go, the closest comparison I can recall is Scott Spiezio, who back in December of 2007 crashed his car while drunk driving, pummeled the friend trying to help him, and then hid in his wife’s closet when the police came knocking. (Spiezio was especially afraid of arrest since this facial hair alone could get him 20 years.) But when this happened, Spiezio was 35 years old, at the tail end of a decade-plus MLB career. Dukes, almost shockingly young for a baseball retiree, has already surpassed him, performing at a seasoned veteran’s level of Crazy.
Dukes was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2002, and as a Minor Leaguer was suspended at least once every single year from 2003 through 2006, a clear warning sign no one bothered to heed. He made the Opening Day roster in 2007, homered in his first at-bat and performed decently enough for a rookie, though by May it came to light that he’d threatened his wife by texting her a picture of a gun; he added the caption, “You dead, dawg” in case the image was too ambiguous. (He also threatened their kids.) In June, it was discovered he’d impregnated a 17-year-old in the foster care of a relative. (Dukes beat statutory rape charges by a hair’s breadth.)
Dukes was demoted, and following some more ugly incidents in the minors (including another restraining order), he was traded to the Washington Nationals. The Nats were so terrified of him they hired an ex-police officer to shadow him at all times (who carried the Orwellian title, “Special Assistant: Player Concerns”). He had one good year while in DC, but his health became the main issue: After multiple trips to the DL limited his playing time over two seasons, the Nats released him during spring training of 2010.
Dukes didn’t retire so much as quietly admit defeat. He said he left the game to concentrate on launching a rap career as “Fly Eli.” (Hip hop and baseball has always been a solid combination; just ask George Foster, or Lastings Milledge.) He also put a few more notches on his Terrible Human Belt by assaulting a pregnant woman and failing to pay child support. In this light, I’d much rather see him get arrested for weed-noshing.
Many baseball players have enjoyed long careers and gone off the deep end in their old-ish age (see: Lenny Dykstra, Juan Marichal). Plenty more have been culled by the gentrification process of the minor league grind before reaching The Show. Almost none, however, have made it through that gauntlet, then packed 50 years’ worth of Terrible into as small a space as Elijah Dukes has. He is as rare a figure in the game’s history as Babe Ruth or Albert Pujols, and we are unlikely to see another one like him. If we’re all lucky.