The Alexandria Dukes have one mission: player improvement. The Pittsburgh Pirates subsidize their Class A farm club with the single hope that future major leaguers will pass through the Dukes' portals and learn something as they go.

So, has there been individual progress this season, along with a first-half divisional title in the Carolina League and the prospect of a second-half success that would provide exemption from the first round of the playoffs?

"You use your motor memory control in your brain," said Brad Garnett, a power hitter who has struggled all season at the plate. "As long as you go out and do things over and over, you're going to improve. What it is is practice -- infield and B.P. (batting practice)."

If that seems an oversimplification of a complicated big-league learning system, it's one on which all the Dukes agree. Ask anyone from Manager Johnny Lipon, who has 40 years in baseball, down to the rawest rookie and you get the same response: the keystones of the Dukes' system are practice, repetition and performance under pressure. In short, doing it.

What is Lipon's favorite teaching tool?

"Playing ball," said Lipon, a former big league infielder, molding the words around a chew of Red Man fine cigar leaf. "If you play 138 baseball games like we have, you've got to improve."

No nightly lectures on hitting the cutoff man, backing up throws, hitting behind the base runner?

No nightly lectures at all. "We haven't had one workout called because we didn't do what we were supposed to the night before," said Garnett.

"We try to do most everything on the field," rather than in meetings, said Lipon. "We play our outfielders shallow during B.P. and let 'em go back after the balls off the bat. Same with the infielders. If they spend 15 minutes concentrating on taking balls off the bat every day it's going to quicken their reflexes, and that's the name of the game."

Lipon firmly believes baseball is simpler than those who watch it might imagine. "Everything a player does out there should be instinctive," he said before a game against the Durham Bulls last week.

"If they do everything naturally, it's automatic that they'll be in position to field a bunt, get the jump when they're stealing or swing at strikes and not bad balls. You don't think about these things. You just do 'em. When you start thinking, you're in trouble."

Lipon's shining success this season has been Rick Renteria, batting well over .300 in his third year in pro ball. Renteria made the defensive transition from third base to second base at Alexandria and was named to the Carolina League all-star team.

Ask Renteria what Lipon has taught him and the dark-haired infielder can't recall any specifics. "When I first started at second, he'd go out there physically and show me. Verbally, he would tell you how it should be.

"But with the mixture of the physical and verbal, when he teaches you something it makes sense and when it makes sense, you want to do it right."

For all his protestations about simply letting players play, Lipon admits to stressing fundamentals in his advisory patter. He says the lessons are no different from those taught Little Leaguers or major leaguers--fundamentals come first.

The Dukes are being taught to swing at good pitches, to run hard, to throw accurately and to the right base, to pitch with control.

The only difference from coaching on a higher level, said Lipon, who managed the Cleveland Indians for 59 games in 1971, is that with the Dukes, "I might repeat myself more. With these guys it might be the first time they've heard it, so I stress it more. I try to treat them like they've played the game, but they don't know a hell of a lot."

Do they listen?

"Most of them cooperate," said Lipon. "You get some guys, they're gonna hit or pitch the way they are and I don't change them. Later on, when they're drowning, they'll be begging for help. That's when they get real receptive."

Garnett was drowning in a one-for-70 hitting slump in midseason. He was in despair when he went to Lipon and asked, "Am I still a prospect?" Lipon told him he was.

"I said, 'Okay, as long as you're not giving up on me, I won't give up on myself,' " said Garnett.

"It takes patience," said Lipon. "You have to stick with 'em, to keep their confidence up. You want an aggressive guy and a guy that's having fun."

What did Marvin Clack learn?

"Patience," said the shortstop, with a smile. "Offensively, I learned to wait for your pitch and hit the ball where it's pitched. Defensively, I learned to take my time, that you always have more time than you think."

Learning "is hard when everything is going on," said Clack, "but it's simple, too. It's seeing your teammates and seeing yourself, them helping you and you helping them."

The life of a Duke is a grind, with four scheduled offdays from April 9 to Aug. 31. That, too, is part of the plan.

"Your learning is in the game," said relief pitcher Lee Marcheskie. "You work with things on the side, you try new pitches. But the only way to find out if they work is to go out there and use them in a game."

Adds Marcheskie, "You can read all the books and watch all the films, but until you play the game you're not learning. The word for the minors is experience."

And it hardly ends here. After the Dukes' brief postseason play is completed, the ones still deemed prospects will move on to the winter instructional league in Florida ("at least they give you 10 days to get there," sighed a Duke), and from there it's on to the Latin American winter leagues, then back to spring training in February.

Success means one more rung climbed on the ladder to the majors. Next spring, for those who make the grade, it's AA Buffalo.

And more of the same.