Kamren Dukes currently finds himself in the familiar position of waiting for the next opportunity.
Dukes, who led the SWAC in batting average and finished ranked third nationally in hits en route to conference player of the year honors for Texas Southern in 2018, went undrafted during the MLB Draft, held last month.
He finds himself now waiting for that phone call from a big league club that will bookend what developed into an unexpected great collegiate career.
While in the midst of an All-American season, Dukes often would see professional scouts in the bleachers at games eyeing his every move. Those same talent evaluators — because of his impressive slash line (.391/.457/.538) — gave him the impression that an opportunity in professional baseball would be on the horizon.
Instead, when the 3-day, 40-round draft ended, Dukes was not one of the 1,214 players selected.
“I heard a lot of positive things going in,” Dukes told HBCUSports about his draft status. “Unfortunately nothing happened. I’m playing the waiting game. It sucks because I kept hearing from scouts and players and coaches on other teams how good I was. That got my hopes up. When I didn’t get drafted, it broke me down a little bit.”
Dukes finds himself on the cusp of the major leagues though, admittedly, 2018 was something of an anomaly in his amateur career.
Just four seasons ago as a freshman walk-on, Dukes — one of the most accomplished baseball players in Texas Southern history — was firmly planted on the bench.
He barely saw the field that the first season, even describing himself as “the very last guy to play.” Dukes even seriously contemplated transferring to another school before being talked out it by his girlfriend, Katrina Benton.
As luck would have it, Dukes got a chance to make an appearance when head coach Michael Robertson was thrown out of the game late in the season.
The ejection prompted an assistant coach to insert him in the game in a pinch-hit role. Dukes, understanding that this was a rare shot to make an impression, smashed a run-scoring triple in his lone at-bat that day.
“I never stopped playing after that,” he said.
And he didn’t stop hitting.
By his sophomore season, Dukes hit .303 with 4 home runs and 22 RBI.
“We put him on scholarship his sophomore year,” Robertson told the Houston Chronicle back in May. “He’s gotten a raise every year.”
Dukes followed that up by tallying 56 hits in 196 at-bats. He then raised his RBI total to 3o by his junior year.
‘I knew he had it in him’
The highest level of baseball Jim Dukes ever reached was at the junior college ranks.
When Kamren was born, Jim, active in an adult league baseball in Texas, encouraged his son to play the game.
It was passing along the family heirloom in a sense.
“He was a kid who slept with his bat and slept with his glove,” said Jim Dukes, who works in the construction business.
Dukes didn’t get off to a promising start during those early days.
There were struggles, but there was also flashes of athleticism and speed, too.
He was smaller than most kids, but determined to get better. That meant working harder to refine his ability to catch up with his peers, his father said.
“I knew he had it in him, but he just hadn’t put it all together at once,” said Jim Dukes, who was his son’s baseball primary mentor until the age of 15. “He always had to be better to get where he’s going. He was always a kid who was counted out but came through in the end.”
As a prep, Kamren Dukes played high school baseball at Pearland High School for a program that produced Division I talent and pro prospects such as Clay Hensley, Robbie Weinhardt, and 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers third-round draft pick Connor Wong, a teammate of Dukes.
That’s where Dukes developed consistency, gradually improved his swing and started to stand out among a pool of players rich with talent.
“A prospect for sure. This kid can hit and fly in the infield to make some great plays, a 2014 high school scouting report read. “Still growing into his body and getting stronger, so his upside is good and projects well.”
Burden of the streak
Even though Dukes wasn’t highly recruited, he was on track to play college baseball somewhere until he sustained a serious hip injury late in his senior season.
There goes any possibility of a college scholarship, he believed. There might not even be a college baseball career, either.
“I didn’t think I’d play in college,” said Dukes. “I thought maybe I could get a walk-on opportunity at a junior college.”
Not too far down the road where he grew up, Texas Southern was the only Division I school would be willing to give Dukes a chance to continue a baseball career beyond high school.
“TSU was the only school that kept interest in me,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity. ”
Following Texas Southern’s 10-3 win over Alcorn State in the SWAC tournament opener on May 16, Dukes never felt so relieved to experience individual failure.
He went 0-for-4 to snap a nation-best 34-game hitting streak.
“When it ended, I wasn’t even that mad because I could get back to playing,” said Dukes.
While Dukes hit a robust .430 during the nearly three-month run that started against Oklahoma on March 14 that brought notoriety to himself and the university, filling the hit column in the box score became a burden.
“About 25 or 30 games in, I started pressing,” he said. “I would be thinking, ‘I have to get a hit to keep it going.'”
three occasions — against Grambling State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Arkansas-Pine Bluff — Dukes registered a hit in his final at-bat to keep the streak going.
Towards the end of the run, Dukes’s strikeouts increased and his batting average dropped from .411 to .387.
“After the Corpus Christi game when I laid down a bunt in the ninth inning for a hit, I was talking to the guys saying I wished I didn’t get a hit because I wanted it to end,” he said.
Even his father could see that the prolonged streak was negatively impacting his approach at the plate.
“Since he was a little kid, I told him to have fun when he’s playing, “said Jim Dukes. “Halfway through it, I could tell he was not having fun instead of playing his game.”
After not recording a hit for the first time 10 weeks against Alcorn State, Dukes picked up three hits the next day versus Jackson State before eventually completing his senior season on a 5-game surge.
Waiting for the call
Dukes admittedly overachieved in 2018, reaching an apex that even he surmised was nearly unattainable at one point.
“I didn’t think I would do as well as I did,” he said. “I had high expectations. I never thought of myself as a good player. This year surprised me.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound outfielder now faces a far different, more uncertain outlook; not being able to decide his baseball fate.
Following the draft, Dukes had workouts with the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays, receiving good feedback from talent evaluators. There was still no assurances that a free-agent contract will be offered.
“He was slotted by several teams to go in the 15th round,” said Jim Dukes. “I don’t know what happened.”
Even if Dukes doesn’t advance to the next stage in this baseball odyssey, he will have something fondly to look back on.
“My dad tells me he’s proud,” he said. “He told me at least I went out with a hell of a season.”
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