Rays give Dukes a clean slate

After tough '06, Dukes starts fresh this spring

ST. PETERSBURG -- On a recent morning, Elijah Dukes could be heard giving his take on bass fishing.

Seems the highly touted Rays outfield prospect likes to catch fish, but he doesn't like to grab them.

"I don't trust them," Dukes said. "If they can eat a fish, they can rip you up a little bit. So I don't want to try and grab them."

Still, as Dukes points out: "That doesn't stop me from being a bass fisherman."

Dukes looked relaxed delivering his oratory on bass fishing, as men are prone to do when spinning yarns about man against nature and hauling in the big catch. But he doesn't quite have the whole fisherman gig down just yet. When asked about the biggest fish he's caught, the best he could come up with was a three-pound bass.

Dukes smiled when told he needed to learn how to lie better about his catch if he is to become a true fisherman.

"Three pounds, that's big where I come from," said Dukes, defending himself.

Dukes, 22, has experienced a host of problems, on and off the field, since the Rays selected him in the third round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. Despite the baggage, Dukes carries a refreshing element of sincerity and innocence to him. He wants to move forward and leave the past in the rearview mirror.

"I've made strides," Dukes said. "I have setbacks here and there. A lot of people do. But I've made tremendous strides. ... I have made strides; I don't need anybody to tell me that, as long as I know. [And] as long as the team knows how far I've come, that's what matters."

Dukes has off-the-charts potential. He's a five-tool player waiting to happen packaged in a 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker's body. And while he wants to look to the future and forget about the past, will the Rays be equally as eager to forgive?

"We want to keep this a positive venture for him and keep moving forward," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He's done all the right things to get to this point and now we just want him to go out there and focus on playing the game and trying to make this ballclub.

"He's a young man with outrageous potential. It's incumbent upon us as an organization to try to see that all the way through, to get it to happen all the way through. We get Elijah playing like he can at the Major League level and becoming absorbed into this organization, and it's going to benefit us for many years."

Asked specifically if he would be able to clean the slate with Dukes, Maddon replied, "Honestly, I have."

"I'm pretty good at doing things like that," Maddon said. "It's all about today. You can't get it back, but you can learn from it -- what's happened previously to all of us. I'm looking forward to the present with him and the future with him. And we're all willing to try and make this work. I really don't look at the negative past."

Dukes said the Rays' willingness to stand behind him means a lot to him.

"Since I've been here, they've had my back 110 percent," Dukes said. "And you can't say that for most organizations. They have stuck by me and I'm going to stick by them, regardless of the outcome of anything. Just the way they treat me, it feels good, and I'd rather not go anywhere else."

Many times, prospects are talented enough to make the Major League roster, but they are sent back to the farm where they can play every day. Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, said Dukes is past that point and can make the team this spring even if he isn't a starter.

Dukes isn't discouraged in the least that the Rays' starting outfield is a formidable group that includes Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young.

"It's a good thing," Dukes said.

If Dukes indeed hangs with the team, the Rays will be adding an impact player who can come off the bench as a pinch-runner or a pinch-hitter, in addition to playing in the outfield a couple of times a week. And Dukes is comfortable playing center field, which is important given the fact the Rays don't have a backup and Maddon doesn't want to relocate Crawford on days when Baldelli is out of the lineup or used as a DH.

"I just want to play, period," Dukes said. "Wherever they want me to play, I'll try."

Dukes even tried his hand at first base during a stint in the Arizona Fall League.

"I felt fairly comfortable after the first game," Dukes said. "The first game, I couldn't get it together, but after the first game I felt more comfortable. ... But it's a big adjustment after being in the outfield most of my life. It looks easy, but it's not as easy as I thought it was."

Dukes was named the 2006 Al Lopez Award recipient as the Rays' top rookie in Spring Training after hitting .400 in 14 games with a triple, a home run, six RBIs and two stolen bases. Dukes said last spring's performance won't make him more comfortable this spring.

"No, I'm never comfortable," Dukes said. "I set high expectations for myself, so I'm never comfortable with myself."

But will the Rays be comfortable with him?

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