If the Dukes were to leave Alexandria, nobody would be more disappointed than the dedicated baseball fans who volunteer to work at the ballpark to help the financially strapped team make ends meet.
For the past five years, the volunteers have done many jobs the team would have had to pay others to do. Most are members of the Dukes' Booster Club--yearly dues $5--and many of them live in Alexandria.
The hard-core faithful, all of whom profess a profound love of baseball, include:
* Leon Saffelle, a retired naval research model maker, who helps maintain the grounds.
* Dick Phillips, a meat manager for Giant Food and a past president of the Booster Club, and E.J. Wolff, a retired Navy chief and quality control specialist. They run errands, have equipment repaired and answer the office telephone.
* Jean Wolff, wife of E.J., a retired Navy Department secretary, who works in the stifling, nonair-conditioned Dukes' office three days a week.
* Ayn Watkins, a graphic artist and "baseball nut," who lives in Fairfax County. She painted the grandstands, bleachers, dugouts and restroom doors this year and does graphics work for the team.
Other Booster Club members wipe off seats, wash down the clubhouse and do other chores. On one cold, rainy preseason night in April, a team of four men, headed by Eric Zimmerman, the Dukes' 24-year-old general manager, erected 10 of the 35 billboards that enclose the outfield.
"I have a three-way love affair, starting with my wife, the city of Alexandria and baseball," said E. J. Wolff, a Dukes fan since 1977 when the city was awarded the franchise. A frustrated athlete, Wolff says, "There is a little bit of 'I wonder if I would have ever made it?'-type of thing in everybody."
And, he added, "Down here, you get to know the players. The competition is a lot better. They are not out there because they are getting paid for it." (A Dukes player earns a minimum of $800 a month plus meal money. Some players earn more, but the team would not provide salary figures.)
"I love baseball and attend every game," said Phillips, who has been a season ticket holder since 1978. "I don't think I have missed a home game since we got the club."
"I just like to watch my home-town team," said Daniel Sublett of Alexandria, a Booster Club member, as he watched the Dukes take on the Hagerstown Suns recently.
Against the background of a lingering, magenta-hued sunset and later a nearly full moon and gleaming jets taking off from nearby National Airport, Sublett and about 500 other fans watched the Dukes, led by Larry Lamonde, a 21-year-old knuckle ball pitcher who has since moved up to a Class AA team, take the Suns 6-1.
"These Dukes are better than lots of big league teams--they're better than Boston," shouted another fan, who had been eavesdropping on Sublett's interview with a reporter, proving that Dukes fans are as vocal as any others.
"The Dukes are good," said Gene Repass, an Alexandria resident for 18 years who attends games with his dog, Rusty, a Welsh corgi. "But attendance could be a lot better. I don't know why they don't draw; you always see a pretty good game. I sure would hate to think about their leaving."
Phillips and Wolff think the lack of beer sales has affected attendance and both were critical of the Alexandria School Board and City Council. On the recommendation of the school board, the council recently voted against permitting the sale of beer at Four Mile Run Park, where the Dukes play.
"I am from the Bible belt in Georgia and I have just never heard of anything so narrow-minded in my life," Phillips said. "Speaking as a fan, I think it is going to cost Alexandria the ball team."
"This school was closed when the Dukes came here," Phillips continued, "but some people resent the team so much they have tried to force the Dukes out."
"Nobody on earth loves baseball better than I do," said Colton Watts, 72, who lives near the ballpark. Now retired, he gets there early to watch the teams warm up and always sits in the same seat in the C section of the grandstands.
Colton said he also believes the sale of beer would boost attendance at Dukes games: "I don't like the recent vote but there's nothing to do about it. We signed a petition to let it come in and submitted it to the City Council, but nothing ever happened."
Since their first season in April 1978, the Dukes have drawn more than 120,000 spectators.
Because the Dukes operate on a shoestring, general manager Zimmerman and team president, A. Eugene (Gene) Thomas, an Alexandria builder, said that the fans who help out at the ballpark play a major role in cutting costs.
Jim Wild, the Duke's tanned and muscular 21-year-old groundskeeper, agreed. "I would not be able to get everything done if it were not for these people."
Also important to the Dukes' low-budget operation are the half-dozen neighborhood kids--they range in age from about 10 to 14--who gravitate to the ballpark to earn spending money.
Many of them work for Wild, doing chores such as raking the field, sweeping the dugouts and picking up trash; some work as bat boys or shag baseballs. For their work, these youngsters earn free admission and $2 a game, an occasional freebie--such as a $10 Dukes' baseball cap--and proximity to the players, some of whom will make it to the big leagues. The kids also earn 50 cents for each $2.50 baseball they retrieve from the parking area.
Thomas said that the Dukes have had a positive influence on the youths. "We have erased the four-letter word from their vocabularies--there are no rowdy kids. We would never tolerate it."
Thomas also said that Alexandria Chief of Police Charles T. Strobel had attributed "a 50 percent drop in the crime rate" in the vicinity of the ballpark directly to the team's presence in the neighborhood.
Strobel was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But a police department spokesman confirmed a general drop in serious crimes reported in the area of Four Mile Run Park since 1978.