The Alexandria Dukes might be baseball's best-kept secret. Despite one of the best records in organized baseball, they attract only a few hundred fans.
It hardly seems to matter. The players on this Pittsburgh Pirate farm team know that good things happen to players who win. They're attracting notice in Pittsburgh, where the people who run the Pirates are looking for major leaguers.
"We always like to see kids develop and get to the bigs as quick as possible," said Tom Kayser, the Pirates' assistant minor league director. "Sometimes this type of success happens when a group of players is put together in the low minors. They win and all progress together. We'd like that to happen here."
Eleven of the Dukes played last season in Greenwood, S.C., where they became experienced winners. Greenwood won both halves of its South Atlantic League (Class A) season.
So when the Dukes assembled for the first time near the end of spring training this season, many of the players knew each other and they knew how to win.
"We were able to step right in and play together," shortstop Marvin Clack said. Clack hit .303, scored 86 runs and stole 30 bases at Greenwood. "We know one another very well, and we react to each other in certain situations. We know what each of us will do in certain spots.
"It's like putting gas on a fire. We won last year and we expect to win now."
The Pirates assigned veteran baseball man John Lipon, who managed the Class AA Buffalo Bisons last year, to manage the Dukes. Lipon had managed the Salem Redbirds in 1974, '75 and '80 when they were affiliated with the Pirates.
"He's an excellent coach and very easy to play for," said Clack, a 23-year-old switch hitter from Seguin, Tex., who has improved his fielding this season. "Some coaches are real hard on you and that just puts more pressure on you. It's a good atmosphere here with John. He relaxes you when you're on the field and it's much easier to perform.
"Most of the guys here are used to college and high school coaches and that's always my way or no way," said pitcher Lee Marcheskie, a 24-year-old right-hander from Newton Falls, Ohio. "Here, the coaches (Lipon and Dan Warthen, the pitching coach) observe how you do things and most times they will help in other ways instead of trying to change what you have been doing for years."
Alexandria has a good mixture of players. Some are returning from last year's 62-75 club, some played in Bradenton, Fla., in the rookie league and some are first-year professionals. Catcher Burk Goldthorn hit .348 at the University of Texas last season and did most of the Dukes' catching this season until suffering tendinitis in his throwing shoulder.
Goldthorn and many of the Dukes think their ability to enjoy themselves helps them win.
Goldthorn, who like many of his teammates enjoys good times, occasionally takes batting practice with shin guards on his legs and arms. Batting practice pitcher Warthen is not known for his control.
Pitcher Chris Green, who has a 6-1 record this season after a 15-7 season in Greenwood, also has a sense of humor. When Jim Felt hit a home run against Durham, fans near the dugout chanted: "We want Jim." So Green came out of the dugout to tip his cap.
"We do a lot of joking and kidding around," said Mike Quade, the versatile player coach who is hitting .284 despite shuffling between six positions. "I get some flak because I'm bald. I'm not sensitive about it though, and I think you've got to keep the guys loose. You might not see as much kidding around if we were 10-30, though.
"I think we are the loosest team in the league," said Green, 20, from Los Angeles. "You look at the other benches and they don't seem to be having fun. We like to joke around and have fun. We also like to play hard and win."
"There is a fine line between 'me' and the team and that's a paradox in the minor leagues," Kayser said. "It's the manager who brings it all together and makes them perform as a team. The players know they will be seen. Whether they are doing well or poorly, they will be seen.
"We aren't just pleased with the success here, we're thrilled," he said. "Coming out of training camp, we were a tad bit worried about this team, for no particular reason. But they have gotten some key performances here. Clack is proving he's a prospect at short, (Rick) Renteria has been able to make the switch from third base to second and be one of the most cohesive influences on the club. I hate to leave anybody out, because everyone is doing what they are supposed to do."
"Two major reasons for our success so far has been pitching and defense," said Lipon, who managed the Cleveland Indians part of the 1971 season and was Carolina League manager of the year in 1974 and '80. "Dan (Warthen) has instilled confidence and a positive attitude with our pitchers. Defensively, we've been solid up the middle. Clack has cut down his errors from last season and Renteria has adjusted well from his defensive switch and still hit well." Renteria, 20, hit .286 and led Greenwood with 90 runs scored last year. This year, he is the second-leading hitter in the Carolina League with a .358 percentage.
Alexandria's pitching has been excellent. Lipon limits his starters to 125 pitches, then--without exception--lifts them. The bullpen, consisting of Wilfrido Cordoba (3-2, five saves), Jeff Zaske (3-2, five saves) and Marcheskie (3-1, two saves) has been solid. Cordoba and Marcheskie played last season at Greenwood. Cordoba won seven, had 11 saves and a 1.56 ERA. Zaske, mainly a starter last year, split time between Buffalo and Alexandria.
The Dukes have helped their pitchers with timely hitting. Their aggressive offense often will hit and run, even when the team is behind.
"Many times we'll hit and run so the batter will just cut down on his swing and look to make contact," Lipon said. "Aside from the concentration to make contact, it stresses a point to the guy. He might say, 'Hey, if I cut down my swing a little, I'll hit better.' That's what we're after."