VIERA, Fla. (AP) -Elijah Dukes sat there, looked straight ahead, and spoke evenly about being a new man, sounding as earnest as anyone with all sorts of behavioral and legal problems in his past and present and two skeletons on his shirt possibly could.
Dukes reported to Washington Nationals spring training Wednesday and took questions during a hastily arranged and limited-in-scope news conference, the troubled outfielder's first public comments since June, when he was dropped off the roster of his previous team, Tampa Bay.
``I know I have to get it together now,'' Dukes said.
His long list of misdeeds - including arrests for assault and for marijuana possession, paternity suits, and a threatening phone call to his estranged wife - were deemed inappropriate topics by the team.
Dukes, whose 3-year-old son Elijah Jr. was in the room, vowed that he has changed, thanks in part to the tough love and monitoring provided by the Nationals. That includes phone calls from first baseman Dmitri Young - who overcame his own woes to resuscitate his career last season with Washington - and time spent with special assistant to the general manager Barry Larkin, along with a full-time team employee who has lived with Dukes and speaks to him every day.
``I've been working on myself a long time, and I finally found a breakthrough,'' the 23-year-old Dukes said. ``And from now on, everybody gets a chance to really see (what) the real Elijah Dukes is like. I've always been working on it, it's just been issues of mine and I think now I finally tuned it up a bit so I can stay on the field the whole year.''
That has been a problem. During his time in Tampa Bay's organization, he was suspended both in the majors and the minors for various confrontations with umpires, coaches and teammates.
In May, he was held out of two games after the St. Petersburg Times reported his estranged wife sought court protection when Dukes allegedly left a threatening message on her cell phone and also sent a text message that included a picture of a gun.
The player's wife also gave the newspaper an account of an episode at the middle school where she teaches, saying Dukes threatened her at her classroom while the students were at lunch.
In June, Dukes was given what the Rays called a personal day off after published reports detailed a pregnant 18-year-old girl's claim that Dukes was the father of her unborn child. Later that month, the team put him on the temporary inactive list, and he hasn't been in the majors since.
In December, the Nationals traded promising young pitcher Glenn Gibson for Dukes, who hit .190 with 10 homers and 21 RBIs in 2007. The Nationals' hope is that he can avoid future mistakes away from the field and flourish on it.
``He has a lot of residue from things that happened in the past, and again, those are personal, and legal, and economic,'' said Nationals president Stan Kasten, who flew to Florida on Wednesday and spoke before Dukes did. ``And he really doesn't have a latitude to talk about those things. I hope you understand that. They're complicated and they're numerous and they're probably going to be a part of things he deals with for a long time in the future.''
Asked whether Dukes would operate under a ``zero-tolerance'' policy much the way Young did a year ago, general manager Jim Bowden would only say: ``I think every situation's different.''
``We're going to do everything we can to help Elijah Dukes as a human being and help him do the right thing, both in his personal life and on the baseball field,'' Bowden said. ``He has tremendous potential. There's no reason why he can't be a 30-40 home run hitter, no reason why he can't be a 90-100 RBI guy and play great defense no matter where he is, right, center or left.''
The Rays shielded Dukes from the media when possible, and Kasten wants reporters to check with the team's PR staff before speaking to Dukes, an unusual arrangement in a sport that offers reporters plenty of clubhouse access to players. A Nationals spokesman opened the news conference by saying, ``Just be mindful to make a nice impression on Elijah, and hopefully we can keep things positive about his time with the Nationals.''
During Dukes' time in Tampa, as his personal problems mounted, Dukes would speak occasionally about working to turn things around. On Wednesday, he said he has turned things around.
``I'm not the type that likes to put my foot in my mouth. What I can say is that I put forth 110 percent in finding myself and becoming a better person for those around me, and it will show in due time,'' said Dukes, wearing a huge gold earring in each lobe.
``I have tests in my life everyday trying to raise my son and stuff like that. I have my issues, but I overcame them and I'm here without being on the front page, behind bars or something. Obviously, I kind of dealt with my things the right way this year.''
Dukes and his new team both hope that it will help him to move away from Tampa.
He grew up there, so it is filled with old haunts and hangers-on.
``We felt like, with the connections he had in this area with family and friends, it was going to be extremely difficult for him to really turn the corner and be able to focus on baseball,'' said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' VP of baseball operations. ``We felt like a fresh start was in both parties' best interest.''
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

Top MLB Public Bets

MLB Predictions & Picks

Thumbnail Dodgers vs. Brewers Prediction The Milwaukee Brewers forced a Game 7 with a decisive victory at home last night over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Will Milwakee secure another triumph tonight in front of the...
Thumbnail Dodgers vs. Brewers Prediction The Los Angeles Dodgers can punch their ticket to the World Series with another win tonight in Game 6 at the Milwaukee Brewers. Can Milwaukee extend the NLCS to a...
Thumbnail Red Sox vs. Astros Prediction The Boston Red Sox picked up an important victory last night and are now one win away from advancing to the World Series as Game 5 of the American League Championship Series...
Thumbnail Red Sox vs. Astros Prediction The Boston Red Sox pulled away in the latter innings yesterday to win Game 3 of the ALCS at the Houston Astros. Is Boston the right team to bet on again today as the...
Thumbnail Brewers vs. Dodgers Prediction The Los Angeles Dodgers survived in 13 innings last night in Game 4 of the NLCS to even it up at 2-2 with the Milwaukee Brewers. Can Los Angeles get a better start out of