The next time you hear someone say that there is no professional baseball in Washington, put up your Dukes.
The Alexandria Dukes, leaders of the Carolina League, are Washington's home team. They offer the sweat and spit of sand-lot baseball in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
This is Class A baseball, the lowest rung on the ladder to the majors. The Dukes are a Pittsburgh Pirates farm club, and one visit to Four Mile Run Park proves that they are doing Pittsburgh proud.
We went to the All Faiths Day game: tickets were discounted when you presented a current church or temple bulletin. A bargain at any price!
The game began with the presentation of the colors: a brand new flag donated by the Colonel John Donelson Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. This was the real thing, every star hand-sewn in place. The seamstress and her spouse had box seats for the occasion, which meant they sat in folding chairs near home plate rather than on the metal bleachers.
The Dukes were playing the Hagerstown Suns, an Orioles farm club. As soon as the players took the field, we realized that this game was unlike those we are accustomed to watching in stadiums and on television.
When you're with the Dukes, it's Everybody's Game:
Everybody plays. There are four fielding positions at Four Mile Run: right field, left field, center and parking lot. So many fouls go over the bleachers and onto the parked cars behind them, that some people prefer to play the lot, to collect a souvenir ball or clear a profit by selling balls back to the club. Children line the first and third base fences, gloves poised, waiting to field a fly ball. Some of the best catches occur off the field.
Everybody wins. There are so many prizes awarded during a Dukes game that it is really combination baseball and bingo. Every second pitch is followed by the announcement of a lucky winner of dinner at a nearby restaurant or a lube job at a local auto shop.
Everybody coaches. Fans sit so close to the field that they feel an obligation to offer advice. When the pitcher seemed so preoccupied with preventing the runner on first from stealing second that he forgot about the batter, a closet coach cried out, "Don't worry about him, get the one with the stick."
Everybody chews. Between gum and tobacco, mouths are moving faster than feet both on and off the field. Most of the players look young enough to collect bubble gum cards rather an appear on them--but they can all chew with the pros.
Everybody understands the priorities. The biggest cheer of the day greeted the announcement that the team has applied for a beer license.
Everybody has a chance to score. During the seventh inning stretch, the first base umpire took advantage of a lull on the field to try some sideline action of his own. He called a youth from the stands to deliver a message to the blond in the third row: "I could look at you all day." Unfortunately, she was too busy bolstering Hagerstown's sagging spirits to respond.
Even with her help, Hagerstown lost the 7-2 contest.
I cannot offer a play-by-play account of the game. There was a Bad News Bears movie on TV that night and the two games tend to blur in memory. But there was plenty of excitement. In the fourth inning, the pitcher caught a pop-up off a bunt, slid over to a runner coming down from third base and, in a cloud of dust, tagged him out for a double play.
We have come to expect spectator sports to be big business. In Alexandria there is no mammoth stadium, no stentorian announcer, no psychedelic scoreboard.
The Dukes are still out there playing baseball as if it is a game. Maybe that is why we all ended the day feeling like winners.