CHICAGO – Buried deep within the legalese of Major League Baseball's labor agreement is a section labeled "discipline." It allows a team or the commissioner's office to suspend a player, so long as there is "just cause."
Apparently, an alleged threat to kill your wife and children does not fall under such auspices, because neither baseball nor the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have levied any kind of penalty on Elijah Dukes, who recently whispered these sweet nothings on a voicemail for his estranged spouse: "You dead, dawg."
Dukes, in fact, is still playing center field for the Devil Rays, getting paid more than $2,000 a day, traveling on chartered jets and staying in luxury hotels while the baseball establishment sits on its hands knowing that within the past month, two more players had allegedly struck their wives, only to have grievances filed on their behalf by the players' association when they were suspended or demoted.
Sounds like a great commercial: Major League Baseball, where we demand wife beaters play.
Dukes, perhaps more than anyone, illustrates the flaw in baseball's ability to ably discipline. The 22-year-old has been arrested six times since he turned 13, including for marijuana possession in January. The Devil Rays have suspended him again and again for fighting with managers, teammates and umpires in the minor leagues. He is the ultimate recidivist. Proving "just cause," however, is so difficult – any team would struggle to tie lost advertising or ticket sales to a single incident, and monetary losses are the only way to truly quantify – the Devil Rays punish him by writing his name into the leadoff spot every night.
Somehow, in baseball's twisted moral code, when a pitcher throws at a batter it earns him an automatic suspension, yet the threat of murder doesn't justify so much as a wet-noodle lash.
Caught in the middle are the Devil Rays, who have stuck by Dukes partly because of his immense talent – his nine home runs lead all rookies – and partly because of social responsibility. When Devil Rays owner Stuart Sternberg first heard the allegations, he said he wanted to immediately release Dukes. And then he wondered what might happen if he did. Whether Dukes would follow through on his alleged threats, and whether NiShea Gilbert and her two children with Dukes would end up dead, and whether Sternberg never could assuage his guilt.
If Sternberg believes Dukes possesses such tendencies, the fact he has kept him around this long is curious.
Essentially, it has come down to that: Keep Dukes or cut him. The union, which files grievances to assert its legal rights, would win in arbitration because of a simple principle that is uniquely American: Dukes hasn't been proven guilty of anything, and he won't be, either, because Gilbert declined to press charges.
It's too bad common sense can't intercede, the chasm between what maintains the union's integrity and what maintains the sport's grows larger with every instance in which baseball dismisses domestic violence with no recourse.
Baseball enables Dukes, just as it has Seattle pitcher Julio Mateo and Arizona utilityman Alberto Callaspo recently, and just as it did Brett Myers when he allegedly punched his wife on a Boston street last year, and just as it did in previous years with Dwight Gooden and Wil Cordero and Dmitri Young and Devil Rays players Julio Lugo and Bryan Rekar.
It tells them that abusing a woman is tolerated, so long as she doesn't press charges.
What a message to send to an already coddled group.
And that is where baseball players differ from others in society who knock around women: Players are public figures, recognized as such, paid as such and thus held to a higher standard. To strive for the ubiquity baseball does and follow that by asking to hold its players to the same threshold as any other person is an exercise in hypocrisy.
Baseball should know that its public perception is only as good as its ability to mete out discipline. With as many players on the police blotter as the transaction wire, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asserted himself as the league's Judge Dredd. He makes the laws, he enforces them and if anyone wants to argue, Goodell’s word is final.
Were Bud Selig to try that, he'd get laughed at.
Some things just don't change in baseball, no matter the relative peace between the owners and the union. It's the same pattern that played out in the years leading up to performance-enhancing-drug testing. If the union's strength – admirable in most instances, misguided in others – did not directly block such a program, it certainly placed an invisible fence around one.
The same kind that protects Dukes today. As he slipped on a blue suit Sunday at U.S. Cellular Field after going 0 for 5 in Tampa Bay's 11-5 victory, Dukes stood insulated from everything surrounding him and, as such, continued to decline comment.
"They call me Silent George," Dukes said. "That's my new name."
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, like Sternberg caught in the in-between, milled about the clubhouse. He thought long about the consequences of playing Dukes and felt it was the right decision. Dukes hasn't been a clubhouse distraction – "He's just fine around here," outfielder Carl Crawford said – and continues to produce. And if Dukes is ever going to heal, Maddon reasoned, it might as well start here and now.
"Like anything else when there's a problem," Sternberg said, "quite often the best course is the most painful course to take."
Sternberg seemed genuinely concerned. For so long, the Devil Rays have been the laughingstock of baseball, and finally, they've got a clubhouse filled with young and dynamic talent. And along comes Dukes, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, looking more linebacker than outfielder, maybe the most talented of the bunch, even more than Delmon Young or B.J. Upton. And they know Dukes grew up rough, his dad sent to jail for murder over a bad crack deal when he was 12. And as much as they try to work with him, to make him see what he's about to squander, nothing permeates.
So in the next week or two, Sternberg must make a decision. He can send the message that Major League Baseball and the players' association refuse to.
Sternberg can stand up and say that the Devil Rays were forced to get rid of Elijah Dukes because the suspension that they felt had plenty of "just cause" was not permissible.
"I'd like to think, in a perfect world," Sternberg said, "he can be part of (our organization) and we can be part of helping him overcome and deal with the issues he's got – make him a good, productive citizen and father and husband and whatever it is he would like to do. That's a perfect world."
It certainly is.
Though as Sternberg knows, Major League Baseball's world is anything but.