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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Dukes growing on, off field
Managing his emotions has helped the Devil Rays prospect, a star in camp, focus more on the game.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published March 13, 2006
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Former Hillsborough High star Elijah Dukes has been a pleasant surprise in the outfield, at bat and on base at Rays camp this spring, prompting hitting coach Mike Henderson to call Dukes a "five-tool player."
ST. PETERSBURG - Elijah Dukes said he can pop his arms out of their sockets.
Fun at parties, perhaps, though it seemed an odd point during a conversation about athleticism. But the Devil Rays outfielder had an angle.
Dukes said he understands how his sculpted 6-foot-2, 240-pound body might appear bulky and stiff, especially to those who last season saw him with 11 fewer pounds of muscle.
"The bigger I get, people think I'm not so flexible," he said. "But I'm double jointed, so I'm real loose and fluid."
Dukes has spent the spring proving the point.
The former Hillsborough High star, a non-roster invitee, is one of camp's nicest surprises. He is batting .357 (5-for-14) with a home run, three RBIs and a team-high five walks which prompted manager Joe Maddon to declare Dukes has one of the organization's best batting eyes.
He also has been dynamite in the field and threw out Philadelphia's speedy Jimmy Rollins at the plate on the fly from center.
"He runs everything down with great routes and he throws well," Maddon said. "It's like he's got this knack, this sense. People talk about instincts. He's got 'em."
But to really know how Dukes has progressed, you have to go beyond the numbers and bulging biceps to the struggle within himself.
Dukes, 21, said he missed last year's fall instructional season to attend court-ordered anger management classes after a Jan.18, 2005, arrest on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery. The Times reported the incident was an argument with his sister that turned physical.
"It was like a weight was lifted off me when I got that done," Dukes said of the classes.
Dukes' background is not Leave it to Beaver .
A 2002 Times story told of how his father, Elijah Sr., was convicted of murder when his son was 12, leaving mother Phyllis to raise six kids.
Dukes left Chamberlain, King and Jefferson high schools and stories of arguments with teachers, teammates and game officials followed.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Dukes arrested five times since 1998, all on misdemeanor charges.
The Southern League suspended him for six games last season after an ejection. The Montgomery Advertiser reported it was Dukes' fifth ejection and second suspension.
"That came because he wanted to win so much," said Charlie Montoyo, who managed Dukes for Double-A Montgomery. "And it's not only against him. If he sees an umpire going against other teammates, he gets upset."
Dukes owned up to his past but insisted he has turned a corner.
"It's a challenge every day," he said of controling his emotions. "Part of it is getting mature. You pick up signals and body language."
He also made a connection.
Dukes said before he reacts he thinks about how his actions could affect his family. He compared it to Falcons quarterback Michael Vick getting caught up in the problems of brother Marcus.
"When Marcus Vick gets in trouble, it's always Michael Vick getting named out," Dukes said. "It's the same with my family. When they go somewhere, it'll be like, "Your brother, your son.' I don't want that to keep going, so I had to make a change."
Steve Henderson saw it happen. As Tampa Bay's minor league hitting coordinator, he tried to be Dukes' mentor, always finding time to talk.
If something went wrong, Henderson said he calmly reinforced to Dukes, "Maybe you could handle it a different way.
"This is a good kid," added Henderson, now the Rays' hitting coach. "When he gets around people that like him and he knows he doesn't have to be all mean and tough, he can just be himself. You can already see it here. There have been certain calls that in the past he would have gone crazy. Now he knows how to deal with it."
Enabling him to better show what he can do on the field.
"He's a five-tool player," Henderson said. "He's going to be a good one."
Dukes's home run against the Reds was out in a hurry, and his speed Saturday against the Indians turned a ball off the left-centerfield wall into a triple.
"I have what it takes and it's going to get better every season," said the Rays' third-round draft pick in 2002. "As long as God gives me breath, I'm going to work hard to get better."
Still, Dukes said he knows he likely will start the season in the minors. Tampa Bay's outfield is too deep, too full of names.
"The thing is, I'm not only playing for the Devil Rays, I'm playing for other teams, too," he said. "That's one of the things that keep me going, knowing you can get picked up by any team any time. So you just play hard and somebody else might pick you up or make some moves to get you in there."
"What you're seeing," Montoyo said, "is what I saw all year, a guy playing hard all the time, making plays, getting good jumps on the ball. The sky's the limit on that kid. He's got all the tools."