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Take It From Somebody Who Isn't In The Game.

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Hey there Mr. Dukes, or can I call you "Elijah"? You don't really know me and I don't really know you. The one time we did meet face-to-face, I was one of a handful of media members listening to you deal with the adversity of getting sent down to the minors last March. Through the shock of the demotion despite a productive spring, you said, "But it's all good. I'll go to Triple A or wherever they send me and go play hard and swing the bat."

"Play hard and swing the bat." It sounds simple, and it really is. And that's why I'm really hoping you can get your act together. You have something very few people have-- THE opportunity we all dream about as kids.

Like you, and most other baseball fans, I was a fan of the game when I was very young. I played tee-ball, occasionally watched a game on TV or in the old Al Lopez Stadium, and Johnny Bench was my hero. As I got older, I understood the game more and tried my hand in two seasons of winter league baseball with no luck. I wasn't as experienced in playing the game like my teammates, my lack of depth-perception in the outfield didn't help me defensively, and my 1-for-68 (or something like that) at the plate probably hindered any chances of me making the high school team. If I only knew Fred McGriff then like I know him know... but I digress.

Let's face it, I flat out sucked as a ballplayer. There are other baseball fans who are in the same boat as me. But there are also tens of thousands, and maybe even millions, of baseball fans who at one time came close to getting drafted or sniffing the majors but never got that cup of coffee. They never got that one opportunity because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were overshadowed by a more talented teammate. Maybe an injury came along and derailed what could have been a productive career. Whatever the case, that opportunity never came about. You, Elijah, still have that opportunity.

You were an all-star in Hillsborough County as a high school player. USA Today said you were the best two-sport athlete in the nation. You're so talented, you had a football scholarship waiting at N.C. State. Talent spoke again when three teams inquired about you before the MLB 2002 draft, and your hometown team eventually drafted you in the third round. Since then you have clobbered the ball in the minor leagues. You have so much potential, there have been rumors the Rays could trade Rocco Baldelli and actually make an upgrade with you in center. There have even been whispers you may turn out to be better than Delmon Young. I think it's safe to say the talent is there.

We all know about your "extra baggage", it's a lifetime's worth not able to be securely stowed in the overhead compartment above you. Your father killed a man, your mother was a drug user, you grew up without a father figure in a household with five siblings. You have been arrested a few times and have been labeled a malcontent by former coaches, players, and now fans and media.

Yet the carrot is still hanging from a stick.

I can't get inside your head and know what you're thinking, and I can't firmly put myself in your shoes knowing exactly how your upbringing hurt you in so many ways. I also know turning one's life around does not happen overnight. Interventions, rehab programs, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle afterwards doesn't play out in a few days. It takes a few months to stop the bad behavior, and a lifetime of commitment to being a good person and doing good things to pull off the complete 180.

What I'm saying is, Elijah, no matter how long it takes to completely get on the right path, please do it. I've seen so many people, both inside and outside of sports, who are so talented and have the world on their platter, yet they don't sieze the moment. Later in life those people analyze the "shoulda, woulda, coulda" of their lives... if they are still alive. Some I know are lost in a haze of drugs, crime, or dead for one reason or another. Then they get thrown in to that pile of people who were, "great people with tons of potential, but pissed it away".

I'd hate to see that happen to you. And it doesn't have to, you know.

You've been suspended by the Rays, because they have to do that. They know you still have some value, either to them or to another team. If you want to make it to the big leagues, you have clean up your life. Continue to play hard and swing the bat, but start removing yourself from everything that prevents you from living your dream of one day playing in a major league ballpark.

Part of the maturing process in life is not putting yourself in bad situations. With everything you've been through up until now, everything you say and do will be looked at under a microscope for all to see. So yes, that "little bag of weed" can get you in a lot more trouble than if Joe Schmoe was in your position.

It took Josh Hamilton years to find the right people to keep him clean, and it will likely take you a long time too. Then again, Josh Hamilton has a chance at cracking Cincinnati's roster this season, finally getting a chance to play out the dream he and the tens of thousands of people who never got that chance dreamed about.

I can't say this is your last chance, or next-to-last chance, simply because I can't predict the future. But the chance is there, the carrot is on the stick. Keep grabbing at it Elijah, so one day you can make the dream of playing in the big leagues come true. Maybe then you'll realize what you have, and how much you still have going for you.