The silence of defeat in a major league dressing room is never total. The comforting tinkle of money never entirely disappears.
When the Alexandria Dukes huddle in their makeshift locker room after a loss - 25 men in one elementary school classroom - there is silence indeed.
At Four Mile Run Park, in the lower reaches of the Carolina League, defeat carries its true weight, The Dukes' sadness is not shaming.
On the long ladder from little league to big league. Class A ranks high - just three steps from Nirvana. The fast balls are almost as hot, the home runs nearly as long as in the majors.
That's half the truth about the Dukes. The other half is that in pro ball the Dukes are what is called an independent team made up mostly of unaffiliated players.
Did a euphemism ever hide so little? Unaffiliated means unwanted, by any major league organization.
"We're mavericks. Baseball has said, 'So long' to us, but we've refused to accept it," says Duke cleanup hitter Paul Gilmartin, first baseman in summer, apprentice chiropractor in winter.
"No big league organization likes an independent. They hate to admit their scouts overlooked you. We're anti-establishment, trying to show them up. Our only chance is to lick their bonus babies so we get noticed.
"Nobody goes anywhere off an independent unless you win."
Of all pro teams, the Dukes feel their mutual baseball fates are most intertwined. Win, and the games's lifeboat will surely arrived for a few. Lose, and all sink. That's togetherness.
"I wouldn't say we have team spirit," and one Duke with a hardboiled curl of the lip. "I'd say it's something stronger than that."
On the wall of the Dukes' locker room, nee classroom, hangs a large schedule-calendar. When the team started its first season with victories, each day on the calendar was crayoned with a bright "W" or "L".
Then came the "R"s - 16 rainouts that minced the pitching staff with makeup doubleheaders. In the wake of the "R"s came strings of "L"s as the Dukes slipped to 38-53.
The Dukes, sarcastically rechristened Ducks, stopped writing up their "W"s and "L"s almost two months ago. The calendar-schedule remains on the wall, those two months of blank squares testifying to the dreams of May, the realities of July.
"Up with your Dukes," say the team's promotional fliers. Well-chosen words, for the bottle for respect at the bottom of the bushes - on $500-a-month and $5-a-day meal money - is rough.
A smoky, late-afternoon sun hung over Four Mile Run Park recently as the Dukes gathered for their evening ritual.
The first coolness of evening had not yet cut the stifling air. The plaintive steel guitar music from a player's tape deck gave the dusty diamond a mournfull country beat.
"By game time, they'll switch to Glenn Miller," cocaptain Ray Boyer said. "But now, we get to listen to our kind."
So Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band sing, "If I wasn't crazy, I would go insane . . . been battlin' motel maids, chewin' on Rolaids, just countin' the hours 'til I can get home."
Boyer, and most of his teammates, have hit the baseball road, using the minors as a way to learn the world. "It's an extremely independent life," said Boyer, who at 22 has played from Georgia to Phoenix to Texas to Virginia to the Carolinas.
"I'm a Yankee (New Jersey) who's met the rednecks and the cowboys. Ever been to Tombstone, Ariz? There's a nice little bar by the OK Corral." Corral."
But if the Dukes' life is one part adventure, it is nine parts baseball.
Boyer sat looking at his blue and swollen calf. "I tried to skip rope," said the center fielder, "but this big wild bonus baby from Peninsula nailed me anyway. Now I've got a case of elephant calf.
"That's 18 . . . no, 19 times I've been hit by pitches already this year. The league doesn't keep that statistic, but my body keeps count."
Boyer rubbed his forehead where a knot and finally gone down. "Got hit by a ground ball playing center field," he said disgustedly, showing how the bad hop had even knocked his cap off. "But I didn't make an error. Kept the ball in front of me. Defense is my strong point."
In the Dukes pasture, self-defense is as important as defense. Kinston Manager Leo Mazzone said "The Dukes' outfield is the worst I have ever seen anywhere in pro ball."
"As soon as I saw my outfield," said Boyer, eyeing the field as if it were mined, "I swore I'd never dive for a ball all season.
"I've been collecting metal and glass out there. I've got two fenders, one hub cap, a drive shaft and four spark plugs. At the end of the year, I'm going to build a '54 Chevy with the parts."
However, last week Boyer forgot where he was. "I must have been in another world," he said, feeling his still-sore chest. "I dove for a blooper, You know, that's the only outfield where you can dive for a fly ball and get a shave at the same time."
The infield is only slightly better. "We have unusual soil," said second baseman Gary Pellant. "Whenever it rains, it grows rocks." And it always rains.
We have a drainage problem in the outfield," added Boyer. "The drain is the highest point in the park. Think about that."
"The other teams have to play on the same field," said Duke manager Les Peden, then added sheepishly, "But only 14 times."
"I've noticed the other teams' infielders have stopped taking ground balls in infield practice," pointed out 32-year-old outfielder Jimmy Williams. "They're already gunshy."
Former Duke shortstop Hunt Mitchell, now with Toronto's Utica, N.Y., farm club, wore a perpertual shiner.
"I keep coming out during the day to rake my position," said Mitchell "but the rocks keep coming back."
"Well, they can't make it great down here, or you wouldn't want to get away from it so bad," rationalized Williams. "But I gotta admit, I never thought I'd see a field where I'd rather DH than play."
The Dukes' field, which looks innocent and normal enough from the stands, makes the Alexandrians day-dream of other fields.
"I played in Fenway Park once in a Cape Cod League All-Star game," said Boyer. "I didn't want to leave the park. After the last out, I could have knelt down and kissed that grass."
The Dukes exchange their stories of the big time, their memories of playing in major league spring training stadiums, their buddies who have made the majors. To an outsider, the Dukes seem incredibly remote from the big leagues. To them, Yankee Stadium seems just across the street.
Among the better Duke players there is one refrain, "I was so close."
"I should be with the Mets now," said fleet leadoff man Elwood Holland, a Howard University graduate. "I was going to get drafted out of high school, but the Mets scout who had contacted me had a heart attack and died."
Now, Holland has lowered his goals. "I just have the hunger for baseball," said the gregarious left fielder with the daring feet, who has scored from first base on a routine grounder to shortshtop. "I'm not looking for a whole lot, I just want a chance.
"A lot of people will discourage you, but I figure if you keep knocking on the door, somebody's bound to answer.
"Those scouts can take one look and foresee a lot about you. All you need is to have some one liek you."
The Class A life is easier for those Dukes who have never been drafted, never been signed by a big league team and then axed. Their motivation is purer, their self-confidence actually less tattered.
"Everytime I face a draftee, I want tie an anchor to him and bury him," said Holland. "I can't help comparing myself to that guy and saying, "What do they see in him that they don't see in me?"
The haunted Dukes are those who had the big league connection, then saw their slander limb sawed off.
"Hank Aaron was always my hero," raid Boyer, who was a major college All-American at Georgia Southern, hitting .415 as a senior. "When the Braves drafted me, Aaron was their general manager (actually director of player development).
"I finally got his autograph," said Boyer softly. "He signed my pink slip."
The shock of the ax is not forgotten quickly. "I played Class AA for Baltimore last year," said 6-foot-5, 225-pound Craig Allegrezza, the Dukes' leading winning among starters. "That stadium in Miami held 10,000. Sometimes when it only had 250 people in it, it felt like a moratorium (sic) but it was big time.
"The Orioles called me in this spring and said," 'We had a meeting and came to the conclusion that you're not a prospect.' That was it. "I wanted to believe that if I stayed by the phone some other team would call me. It took me three weeks to realize what had happened."
Every Duke - except two who are property of Seattle - has his own reason for believing that baseball found him expendable.
"The team that drafted me thought I was a hothead," said one Duke, "Once you get a bad mark on you . . ."
Most comforting is the belief that a good attitude and good luck can work miracles. "If they invent a position on top of the flag pole," said Holland, "I'll climb up there and play it."
Because no Duke is guilty of hubris, the club is singularly well-knit.
When the team bus broke down at a Sambo's restaurant in Winston-Salem, the team marched three miles back to the motel whistling in unison the theme song from "Bridge Over The River Kwai."
"We call that night 'One Flew Over Sambo's" said pitcher Al Owens.
When Gilmartin - "Dr Paul" - is not praticing his chiropractic methods on teammates' backs, reliever Rick Santos is regaling the club with exaggerated imitations of his mates pitching styles. Santos' most vicious imitation is of himself.
Most Dukes who are not among the six Washington-area products live in the space but presentable Presidential Gardens apartments within walking distrance of the ball park.
"We've only had one near-scandal . . . college girls in the rooms," laughed one Duke pitcher. "We're kinda tame, I'm afraid."
Economy is the watchword on a team where management sometimes asks for part of its $5 meal money back if the has a communal dinner on the road. "This is a good organization," said Gilmartin, "but they sure know how to stretch a dollar."
"As long as you can cook yourself, you can eat very well," claimed Boyer. "Steaks, chops, vegetables . . . I'm not going to cheat my body. In fact, I've saved $500. But I'll admit I keep track of every nickel. And I still drive the same old hunk of junk had in high school."
Hey, Reggie. Got a spare Mercedes?
Compared to the unhappy world champions of baseball in New York, the Dukes have a pleasant, if humble summer life.
When a goofy high-pitched voice pierces the motel walls at 3 a.m., everyone knows it is the huge Allengrezza prowling for munchies and stubbing his toe.
When the venerable Williams, a quality hitter in AAA and Japan, brings his home movie camera to take pictures of his swing, every one grants him extra batting practice cuts, then mugs for the camera.
The young Dukes - and only Williams will admit to being more than 24 - know that their baseball years may be limited.
"I have to get the game out of my system," says Georgetown University graduate Pete Garrity, the Dukes's ace reliever (9-5, 2.62 ERA). "I'm not obsessed with reaching the majors. I just want to see how far my talent will take me."
Garrity's current inspiration is a 45-minute audience he had with Cincinnati's Tom Seaver during spring training.
"I was sitting in my (GU) dorm room in January and I had baseball on the brain, so I wrote a letter to Seaver and asked if I could talk to him since I was going to be in Florida in March.
"I figured, What the hell, he'll never answer."
But Seaver did, giving Garrity a time and place to look him up.
When Garrity arrived at the Reds' park, he assumed Seaver had forgotten his plea to "please, just take a quick look at my mechanics."
"I'm standing around kind of sky," said Garrity, "and here comes Seaver saying, 'I'm looking for Pete Garrity.'"
Now, when Garrity throws his sinkers and sliders, he has a new Seaver grip and those key thoughts, "drop and drive."
Nevertheless, Garrity knows that with the Dukes behind him, he is unlikely to knock out any scouts' eyes. His strength is throwing ground balls; the Dukes' weakness is fielding them. In 60 innings, Garrity has allowed 16 earned runs, but 21 unearned ones.
"That's all right," says Garrity. "At Georgetown I gave up a home run on a ground ball to short. It rolled under the shortstop's glove, under the left fielder's glove and the guy scored standing up.
"I stood on the mound and said, 'Lord', this game can't go into the books.' Sure enough, in the third inning we got 'hailed out.' Hailstones as big as golf balls."
It should be noted that all Dukes do not regard all Garrity stories as being all truth. But that is part of the reason they are in the minors - to swap tall tales, test themselves, savor a slightly disreputable life that has some of the bitter-sweet romantic quality of the circus or the wild west.
"You can't pay A ball all your life," said Pellant, who drove 3,000 miles to the Dukes' first tryout camp.
"We all ask ourselves the same question: How many years can I give to baseball before I get a real job?
"From the minors, you don't even get a letter of recommendation."
The Dukes do not live on a cautious, mundane level.They are brave and poignant baseball outlaws - those who have been roughly slapped awake, yet persist in their dream.
"If you're really happy, you continue doing what makes you happy," said Holland, the man willing to play flag pole. "I see my old friends ready to do all kinds of crazy things just to make money.
"Not me. This is my time to shine."