Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Washington's seven-year itch for professional baseball got its first minuscule scratch last night.
Before a standing-room-only crowd of 3,128, the infant Alexandria Dukes played their first home game, losing to Salem, 7-4.
"If you think Washington isn't hungry for baseball, look at this," said Dukes President Eugene Thomas, pointing at hundred of people standing beyond the outfield fences, watching the class A Caroline League game from 400 feet away.
"We told the people, 'We're full to the last seats. Stand anyway you can see. But please . . . come back again."
No one at Four Run Park was in a mood to complain.
So what if the vapor light weren't the best of the brightest? Who cared if that balmy April breeze when the first pitch was thrown ("Steerike one!") had turn into a howling February chiller by the ninth inning.
It barely mattered to these baseball hungry thousands that the Dukes lost to the Pirates from downstate Virginia.
"It's a start," said Bernis Tullington, standing in a three-inning long hot dog line. "It's a baseball."
Last night's home opener - which drew a larger crowd than any other Carolina League first-nighter this season - was typical of class A ball in many ways. Yet it was completely out of the ordinary in others.
The outfield, filled with rocks, glass and an elephant-sized mudhole, was the bush-league pits.
"I found the fin of a '67 Chevy out there," said the Duke center fielder Ray Boyer. "By the end of the season I'll be able to build myself a whole car."
"Time to go out to the pasture patrol," said right fielder Calvin King. "But I've got to watch out for those snakes."
Four Mile Run Park was redolent of bushes, buses and busted dreams. The sun set over the left-field foul pole, the perfect spot to blind the leadoff hitter.
However NBC network camera crew, a dozen minicams, a gang of reporters and enough local politicos to necessitate six "first pitches" - that isn't the low minors.
"Last year in the (class A) Lone Star League in Victoria, Tex, my team's average attendance was 48 people per game," said cleanup hitter Boyer.I think we've got that many people covering us tonight."
Hard by the trains yard, the jittery Dukes off to a bad start.
Pitcher Dave Owen walked the first and third batters. A ground ball kicked off the first baseman's glove for two bases and Salem led, 2-0, before public address announcer Nat Allbright had been able to warn the fans, "Watch out fot those foul balls. That horsehide comes back quick in the minors."
"I could just feel the crowd going slack in the first inning," said Thomas. "One guy behind me yelled, "God, we're going back to the old senators,"
However, in the Dukes' first at bat, Gary Pellant gave the crowd a stimulant. His 390-foot, two run homer, far over the fence and smack into the windshield of a parked car, not only won him a complimentary case of beer, but tied the score and convinced the crowd that the Dukes were competitive.
"We needed that," said Thomas. "You got to be exciting to draw people in this town. We had 1,660 people come out here last week just to stand in the rain and wait for us to call the game.
"But we've got to earn that sort of support. We know this isn't some little town where people come out just because there isn't anything else to do.
The festivities had much class A charm around the edges. An umpire was drilled in the rump by a foul line drive; a Duke outfielder grabbed a sharp single, then ran all the way back onto the infield dirt because he was unsure which base to throw to. Public address advertisements were made while pitches were midway to home plate.
Nevertheless, the simple demands that the folk at Four Mile Run Park made were summed up in the last moments before Washington's first professional "Play ball," since 1971.
"How does it feel to be in a Washington-area ballpark?" blared the PA system.
A New Orleans style jazz band jammed behind home plate, a color guard of flags marched off the field, the umpires took their positions.
The crowd gave one long cheer. It was all the answer they needed to give.