Thursday's storm was of major league proportions, meaning the Alexandria Dukes and the Lynchburg Mets didn't have a chance. The Class A Carolina League would score this game a rainout.

"That's all right," said Dukes' Manager Mike Toomey, looking out at a hotel's flooded parking lot. "Friday and Saturday nights there will be a fireworks show and Sunday there will be a doubleheader." [Friday night's game also was rained out.]

Toomey was thinking in terms of crowds. It used to be that "crowd" was one of those superfluous words that would slip into the minor league vocabulary only in rare instances, like on a special promotions night when all kids 48 and under get in free.

Then something happened: Major league baseball players went on strike 22 days ago.

"I think the strike definitely has something to do with our bigger home crowds recently," Toomey said. "People who are real fans need a place to go. I've had a couple of people who are Baltimore Oriole fans come out to our park and tell me how much they miss the game."

Before the strike, the Dukes had drawn 13,434 in 24 home dates. The nightly average was 559 in a park that seats 2,016.

In the eight home dates since the strike, the Dukes have drawn 8,988, an average of 1,123 per game, doubling their nightly attendance.

"Yeah, that may be true," said Toomey, "but we'll have to wait and see what happens to the crowd once the strike ends to see if the strike is the cause."

Toomey's doubt about the strike's effect on attendance is shared by other minor league officials. When surveyed, most team representatives said their teams' attendance had risen since the strike, but not necessarily because of the strike.

"The minor leagues have been here for a long time and drew just fine. Last year they drew 12 million fans," said John Johnson, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, governing body of minor leagues.

"Sure, we're getting a lot of attention. We know it and we're flattered by it," Johnson said. "We also know that when the strike ends, we will probably lose some."

Johnson said it will be another week before the June attendance records of the minor leagues can be compiled. "But I can tell you this," he said. "As of June 1, before the strike, we were up 8 percent."

Jimmy Bragan, president of the Double-A Southern League, says there are other factors involved in his league's recent attendance increase, such as improved weather and school summer recess.

"We're also had additional exposure with major league coaches coming down," said Bragan, "Yogi Berra was down with Nashville (a New York Yankee farm team) and he made a trip with them. I told the team to promote that. They did and it helped their attendance.

"The strike has given us additional exposure in the media, too. But still the best promotion in the world is winning. That's why a team like Birmingham in its last 10 home games (all during the strike) has increased its average from 1,500 to 3,700 a game. They are winning," Bragan said.

On Thursday night, the Denver Bears of the Triple-A American Association drew 59,691 in a game supplemented by a fireworks show. That crowd broke the all-time minor league record (58,980) set at the Bears' fireworks affair last year.

"The strike has had zero affect on us," said Bob Burris, business manager of the Bears, the team that sent Tim Raines and others to the Montreal Expos. "We're just very popular in town. There's not much else to do in Denver in the summer."

Last year, the Bears drew 565,214, second best in the minor leagues (Nashville drew 575,676). Burris said the attendance is up slightly since the strike but that it has more to do with promotions and Roman candles than the strike.

"Maybe the one effect we have had from the strike is that some people in Kansas City called and wanted to know our home schedule so they could plan their vacation in Denver around that this summer," Burris said.

On June 23, the Eugene, Ore., Emeralds of the Class-A Northwest League drew 6,190, setting a league record.

"We have people on the outfield lines and turned away about 300 to 400," said Emeralds' General Manager Jim Brasher.

"We're averaging 700 people more per game this year than last year at this time. That's not because of the strike," Brasher said. Brasher explained the large opening day crowd was a result of a promotion of selling a general admission ticket book for games during the year, with a free coupon for a family of four to attend Opening Day. The same promotion last year drew more than 5,900.

The Springfield, Ill., Redbirds of the American Association, about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis and about 190 miles southwest of Chicago, say they are attracting baseball starved fans from both major league cities.

"It's tough to document, but we have had quite a few people from St. Louis and some from Chicago," said John Wallenstein, the Redbirds' sales manager. "We've played 10 home games since the strike and our average attendance is up from 1,650 (before the strike) to 2,400."

Wallenstein views the increase philosophically. "This bears out that there isn't that much of a difference from Triple-A to the major leagues. Granted, the ball parks are a lot smaller and there is less consistency in the players. But this strike is getting some credibility for the Triple-A that it has long deserved."

Some of that credibility is being furnished by the media. A New York radio station has broadcast the games of the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, as has a Baltimore station with the Orioles' top farm team in Rochester.

The Entertainment Sports Programming Network (ESPN), America's all-sports cable television station, has done many minor league games, the first coming on June 13, the day after the strike began.

"Our original intent was to stop after the strike ended. But our response has been so overwhelming that we are thinking about continuing," said Chris LaPlacca, the communications representative at ESPN. CAPTION:

Picture, A crowd of 59,691, breaking minor league record of 58,980, watches Denver Bears play host to Omaha Royals. Rain failed to dampen ardor Thursday night. AP