WHEN THE Alexandria Dukes took the field for their Carolina League season opener last month, they were a ragtag collection of ballplayers hastily assembled from the farm systems of five separate major league clubs.
Manager Mike Toomey, named to the post only the previous week, didn't know the players' names, much less their respective talents. The players didn't know each other's names, much less their respective talents.
Not surprisingly, the Dukes dropped 10 of their first 11 games.
"Our guys were in spring training all over the South," said Toomey, baseball coach at George Washington University for five years before signing on with the Dukes in April.
"We were getting guys from different organizations. They had different plays, different cutoffs. Somehow we had to mold them into one organization."
It has not been easy. After their abysmal start the Dukes won 12 of 14 games. Now, they are struggling again after suffering four straight losses going into yesterday's game.
Still, there are some good signs. They have boosted their team batting average 58 points to .240 and the pitching staff has cut its earned run average, which had hovered around six, by two full runs.
"It's coming together now," said Duke player-coach Elwood Holland.
"It's starting to look good. We've got a little confidence and that's half the battle. You've got to believe you can do it," said Holland, 26, a former athlete at Howard University.
Beginning their third season in Alexandria, the Dukes are functioning this year as a cooperative team. What that means is that nine of their players are under contract to the New York Yankees, five to the Baltimore Orioles, three to the Seattle Mariners, two to the Texas Rangers and one to the New York Mets.
But what it meant is that until two or three days before the season started most of the players who would eventually wind up in Alexandria didn't know where they would be playing this year.
"The other clubs we've been playing had been playing together for six weeks," said Toomey. "We had one practice before the season started."
Mark Johnston, 23, a center fielder, said, "It may not have been so bad that we were all coming from different clubs. But the weather was terrible the first few weeks."
A Class A team, the Dukes are on the bottom rung of the ladder that leads to major league baseball, and in their three years of existence, no player has made it to the big leagues.
"That's a long way to go, but I think every player has the feeling that he can make it," said Ron Russell, 22-year-old right fielder.
"I don't think there is anybody playing in this leaque who does not want to go to the majors, because your're never going to make any money playing here."
A December graduate of Ole Miss, Russell was signed by the Yankees and is playing his first season of professional ball.
Despite the money -- players' salaries range between $600 and $2,000 a month, paid by the major league club that signs them -- Russell says he's loving it.
"You can sleep late in the morning, you don't have to get up and go to work, and then you go out and you play baseball. It would be great to do this your whole life. Right now, I like it a lot."
Accustomed as he was to warmer climates, it was the weather that got to Russell when he played in the cold and drizzle of mid-April.
"You get used to playing when the weather is in the 80s. Then you come up here in the cold. It hurts your hands when you hit the ball."
As a member of the Dukes, Russell will be facing a grueling 140-game schedule over 143 days.
"It's all part of the training process for the young ballplayers," said General Manager Rick Holt.
"What better job could a youngster want than something you enjoy doing?" Holland said. "It's a great opportunity. Only one percent of the population can be professional athletes, and I'm proud to be part of that one percent."
With the Carolina League now expanded to include eight teams, there are two divisions, Virginia and Carolina, with four teams in each. The season is divided into two halves of 70 games each, and at the end of the year the winners of the Virginia and Carolina divisions will play a best-of-five championship series. If different teams win the first and second halves in either division, that winner will be determined by a one game playoff.
Playing in the 2,000-east Four Mile Run Park just off Commonwealth Ave. near Rte. 1, the Dukes finished their first season as an unaffiliated club, relying heavily on former college athletes from the Washington area for their talent.
Last year they opereated as a farm club of the Seattle Mariners, but the Mariners ended the relationship this year, opting instead to go with a class A team on the West Coast.
The Dukes briefly considered going with the Aa Eastern League, made up of teams from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, but decided against it primarily for financial reasons, according to Holt.
"They wanted a $45,000 franchise fee and another $7,000 in league dues up front," said Holt. "That's $52,000 before we could even put a team on the field."
On the road, the Dukes are just a cut above the fly-by-night hotels and run-down buses that characterized minor league baseball a generation ago. They travel in chartered, air-conditioned buses and stay in Holiday and Ramada Inns when on the road.
But the schedule is still rigorous. Arriving home from the last road trip, the team returned to Alexandria at 5 a.m. with a game scheduled for the same night.
Despite their embarrassing start, members of the Dukes feel strongly that they have, in fact, turned the corner and will remain a contender throughout the season.
"We will not be going back to that nonthinking kind of ball we were playing at the beginning of the season," said Johnston.
"We know each other now and we have a lot of confidence," said Victor Rodriguez, 18, of Naguabo, Puerto Rico. "I feel good now. This is a nice organization and the people are good."
An infielder, Rodriguez has been playing second base for the Dukes, and with a batting average of .350 he is the team's leading hitter. Having played previously with Oriole organization ateams in Rodriquez, despite his youth, is beginning his fourth season as a professional. He is considered a strong prospect for advancement up to the majors.
"It's just took some time," said pitcher Mark Smith, 24, of Arlington, "for the players to start pulling for each other. "When we started, nobody knew what to expect from the other players."
The losing streak, he said, was discouraging, but not demoralizing. "We have experienced players on our team. We've all been in losing situations before, and I'm sure we'll have another losing steak. But we'll pull out of it."
But for manager Toomey, the surmounting of one obstacle has meant simply the appearance of another. His team is, at last, functioning as a unit, but now it is plagued with injuries. Last Tuesday, he had only nine healthy players to put on the field against the Salem. Redbirds; and Toomey himself batted for the pitcher in the designated hitter's slot (he went 0-for-3). Even at that he had to juggle, and outfielder Jeff Rudolph filled in for injured catchers Mike Fitzgerald and Jerry Neufang of Lorton.
"Don't get too close to the dugout," he told a reporter that night. "I might have to put you in the game."
The Dukes lost that one, 15-3.