A Bronx traffic sign that points toward Yankee Stadium is bigger than the entire grandstand at the home park of the Alexandria Dukes.

The arrow sign beside Rte. 1 in Alexandria that points toward "Class A Baseball Team" is no larger than home plate.

The path to the big leagues is wide. Those who follow it are many. The way is narrow to Four Mile Run Park. Those who find it care deeply about their baseball.

Fans who gather together in the Dukes' name are pure of heart. Weather and the Carolina League standings have seen to that.

There was a time when the Alexandrians might have had fad appeal as well as fan appael.

For opening night of professional baseball's return to Washington the bleacher stands were packed with 3,500 people.

However, 16 rainouts winnowed the front-runners admirably "Ppd," was the team insignia, grumbled the wet fans huddled in the hallways of Cora Kelly Elementary School waiting for the nightly deluges to stop.

By the time balmy baseball nights last place. For all that fair-weather fans cared, the Dukes might as well play in Egypt.

Now, in the season's dog days, the Dukes' support is down to a rock bottom of 700 or so a night, still tops in the humble Carolina loop.

"We're the cream of the crop," says ardent fan Dick Phillips. Or, as Duke cocaptain Gray Pellant says, "We're down to the diehards. They'll never leave us."

"When we got the Dukes I was overjoyed," said hearty Phillips, a butcher and market manager. "I've sat and watched the Senators when there weren't 1,000 people in the whole park.

"Hell, we had Senator teams that were worse than the Dukes."

Phillips, typical of Duke fans, does not come to the bush leagues to be blase, but to be part of the show.

"All right, Pratt," boomed Phillips at the home plate umpire, "I don't want any nonsense out of you tonight." The umpire, pretending not to hear, casually bent over to dust home plate, his derriere pointed directly at the voice.

"Don't worry about the plate, Pratt," rasped Phillips. "It's your eyes that need cleaning off."

Phillips, a seasoned big-league heckler, has two rules of razzing unique to Class A.

"No profanity," says the 40-year-old. "The atmosphere here is too intimate. It would be like swearing in someone's living room."

That intimacy also prompts Rule 2. "I always change seats after eighth inning," says Phillips, "so the umpires can't come looking for me."

It is that proximity that lures most Duke fans. Phillips is one of the few says. "I deliberately sit on the visiting team's side so I won't get to know the Dukes too personally. If I did, how could I yell at them?"

Most of Dukedom, however, can't get close enough to each other and to the players.

Alexandria fans sit in clusters, in their own adopted baseball families. Quips and quizzes are the rule.

When the Duke announce a score-card-number giveaway, a fan yells, "I've eaten there. Can I just have the money?"

TTrivia questions in the stands have a sorrowful Senator bent. "When we (the Senators) traded Pete Runnels the year before he won the batting title," asks Phillips, "who was the Cuban players we got in the deal who still hasn't reported?"

The Carolina League, with towns like Kinston and Winston-Salem is the right name for the Dukes' habitat. The atmosphere of Four Mile Run Park is homespun, informal, civic-minded, small-town and southern.

The Dukes may be 10 minutes and two right turns from the 14th Street Bridge, but their park, set next to the railroad yards and facing green trees on a hill, could be 10 miles from Shreveport or Savannah.

"You couldn't really call this a stadium," says Duke outfielder Jimmie Williams. "It's just bleachers behind an elementary school."

"It's like you're back in Legion ball," says pitcher Craig Allegraza, looking at the outfield cyclone fence that is half covered with brightly colored 1890 style billboards, and half unboarded so roving children watch free.

For the fans, however, Four Mile Run Park is ideal, since no park could possibly offer its customers seats that are closer to the players, unless they sold tickets on the bench.

Fans in the first row of box seats are closer than most on-deck hitters in the majors. And exposed to as much danger. Fans have been clipped with several foul balls and one-flipped bat already this season.

"Look out, guys," announces fan Bill Lawter, sitting in the first row on the third-base side."Weak left-hander at bat against a fast pitcher."

That means 90 mile per hour fouls on checked swings at point-blank range.

The Dukes marvel at their fans' fortitude. "One lady got nailed in the arm by a foul ball last night. They took her to the hospital," said Williams. "And there she is, back tonight with her arm in a cast in a sling."

"Yeah," said Coach Mickey Bowers," but I notice she moved behind the screen tonight."

Those seats behind the screen behind the plate are so close that every muttered word at home plate is clearly audible.

The consequence of such elbow-rubbing is that Duke fans feel like, and sometimes are, part of the team.

"I like coming to the Dukes' games far better than I ever liked going to the Senators, though baseball at Griffith Stadium was one of the great loves of my life," said Virginia Smith, a school nurse who has not missed a game all season beside the Dukes' dugout.

"With a major league team you don't get the opportunity to sit this close unless you're a real plutocrat," said the white-haired woman.

Now, Smith - Smitty to her compatriots - doesn't have to make herself hoarse to inform the home plate umpire, "You're even worse than you were last night on the bases."

When her favorite player - Gary Pellant, the team's best all-around player - kneels in the on deck circle, she makes the second baseman's ears grow red by jokingly yelling, "Come on, Gary, son. Dad wants you to get a hit."

"Is he really your son?" asks a gullible girl in a halter top.

"Sure, by my fourth husband," vows Smitty, straight-faced.

When Pellant strikes out and trudges back to the dugout, Smitty tells him - without having to raise her voice, "Next time, honey,"

Pellant, one of several Dukes who call her "Mom," gives Smith a little post strikeout smile.

"I loved the Senators, but this is better," says Smith, whose retired husband was Alexandria traffic director for years.

"You have to forgive more in A ball. They need someone who'll cheer for them when they're behind 11-0 in the ninth," she explains, well aware after 40 years of watching baseball how hopeless that is.

If the major league fan demands near perfection of the millionaire hero, and heckles him unmercifully for the most innocent misstep, most Duke fans are sympathico and tolerant.

"We know the lumps they take," says Lawter, himself a sandlot player in his day. "That poor center fielder (Rays) Boyer has been hit by so man bad hops in that rotten outfield that the other players say they're gonna paint a bull's-eye on his helmet."

"They have a rough life. There's no peaches and cream out there. Their class of ball is close to us. They're not supermen, just a little better than we are. They have to work as hard at their jobs as we do at ours."

Duke fans tend to be carried away in their loyalty. An otherwise rational insurance man has taken to wearing a Captain Aero outfit and playing a siren next to the Duke dugout to promote spirit.

"The umpires even ejected me from a game last week," he said "Lord, don't put my name in the paper. The people in my office won't believe it's me."

Even the media joins the act. Veteran broadcaster Nat Allbright, who does the games live over WEEL, plays a background tape over the air from his days as a Senator and Brooklyn Dodger announcer that has fans yelling "Peanuts, popcorn."

The background noise from a crowd of 30,000 can sound disconcerting on the radio, making Duke games indistinguishable from the Yankees or Phillies.

"We were listening to the game on the radio in the bullpen one night," said pitcher Allegrezza, "and we kept hearing these crowd roars and vendor cries mixed in with our names. "We kept saying, 'Is that our game?'"

Even reporters have joined in the press box lark of crowing "Getcha peanuts popcorn" so Allbright can have slightly less antiquated sound effects.

An ordinary Duke game has a larger than expected cast of extraordinary characters. The Duke first baseman, an off season chiropractor, stands next to the Kinston first base coach, who years a Hare Krishna haircut along with his Atlanta Brave warmup jacket.

Behind home plate a pencil-thin gentleman with white hairs streaking his three-foot wide Afro stands next to a former Chicago White Sox outfielder named Bam McCall who is now an artist and has a shaved head and full beard.

"This club is a civic project," said Dr. Richard Palmer, former president of the American Medical Association and Duke stockholder who regularly takes a seat behind the screen.

"I get a big bang out of this. I think its great," said Palmer. "I remember when Eddie Yost worked his way all the way up from Class D to the majors when nobody wanted to give him a chance.

"These young men have plenty of time to find their careers, find their niche in the world after they're finished with baseball. This is an experience they'll never forget."

Only one development in the Duke demographics has come, simultaneously a surprise, an encouragement and a disappointment.

"This team really is the Alexandria Dukes," says Gene Thomas, team president. "Its support is almost entirely from Alexandria.

"I don't think we get enough people from across the river (the District and Maryland) to even count them.

"Our breaking-even point is between 600 and 700 a game and our attendance so far has been 982 per game.

"That encourages us, because we're drawing about 65 per cent of our people under 40 years old, and almost all our people from close to us.

"We assume that young people and those nearby are the easiest to retain. We can only draw more from outside Alexandria as time goes on."

If the Dukes are, so far, a limited-edition taste acquired by only a few, it is an addictive one.

Perhaps Phillips, the butcher who does not want to get too close to his Dukes, understands them as well as anyone.

"You have to keep your aspirations alive," says Phillips, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian, working under the name of Greenberry Mayhew.

From his coat pocket Phillips-Mayhew pulls a letter on White House stationery from Rosalynn Carter, thanking him for his comedy performance at a benefit. Not too many meat market managers have those.

"I know what it feels like to believe that lightning can still strike you. That you can make it big," says the 40-year-old butcher, comedian and baseball fan, watching the Dukes botch a play.