Try to picture the local professional minor league baseball team — our lovable Potomac Nationals, single-A members of the storied Carolina League — playing their home ball games at the nearest school yard in your neighborhood. Yes, the ball yard in which you, as a youngster, would go to bat balls around with your dad or best friend from next door. That ball yard.
Hard to imagine, isn't it? Professional ball players playing the grand old game at, say, Carl Sandburg Intermediate, or Mount Vernon High, or Simpson Field. Wow, what a bummer that would be. No knock intended on those wonderful facilities. They're great for our local high school or Little League teams to play on. But they wouldn't quite cut it for minor league ball, would they?
Some Northern Virginia baseball fans think it is bad enough that Potomac plays its Carolina League home games at the tinty Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge. That ball yard, they would argue, lacks the old ball park charm of other area minor league venues such as the playing sites of the Frederick Keys or Bowie Baysox.
But Pfitzner Stadium is baseball's version of Wrigley Field compared to the home ball park in which the Potomac Nationals' predecessor — the old Alexandria Dukes — used to play.
LONG FORGOTTEN in the hearts and minds of most local sports fans, the Alexandria Dukes, former members of the Carolina League, once played their home games at Alexandria's old Four Mile Run Park, located in an industrial complex area just outside of Arlington and a few blocks off of Route 1 North.
The Dukes were part of the Alexandria summertime landscape from 1978 to '83. They were nicknamed the Mariners in 1979 before going back to the Dukes again a year later. The team was respectable in every way except for the less-than-quality standards of its home ball park.
Today, the Four Mile Run Park diamond, located on the grounds of Cora Kelly Elementary, is the home playing site of Bishop Ireton's baseball team as well as American Legion baseball in the summer. It is well suited for those teams and amateur baseball as a whole. But as a pro ball park for the Dukes nearly a quarter century ago? No way.
"It was a cheap place, a band box," said local baseball afficianado Pat Malone. "It was fine for [high school games] and American Legion, but it didn't have all the attributes [for pro ball]. It was bleacher seats, not a stadium. It was miserably hot and sticky, and you were close to the [Potomac] river. It never got any better. It seemed held together back then by band-aids."
In an August 1989 article on the Dukes in the Mount Vernon Gazette, former Dukes star Joe Orsulak, an outfielder who went on to play in the major leagues for the Orioles and Mets, was quoted as saying, "We played in a decent park, but we had to change in a junior high clubhouse. The Carolina League was a good league. But the bus travel was tough and we didn't stay in the best of hotels."
Because Four Mile Run Park was run by Alexandria city and was on school grounds, beer was not allowed to be sold at Dukes games. That hurt attendance and was one of the primary reasons the team eventually moved to Prince William County.
"It didn't take much to move the Dukes," said Malone. "Beer sales was probably the biggest reason. Baseball, hot dogs and beer go together."
JOE VINCI, who was Alexandria's Division Chief of Youth and Adult Sports at the time, said the Dukes were a good draw in their first year in Alexandria. The team had been formed by the then-floundering Carolina League, which had only four teams when the Dukes were formed. Seven years after Washington had lost its major league team — the Senators — to Texas, local fans were thrilled to have pro ball again at any level.
"You couldn't get a ticket," recalled Vinci, of the first season novelty of having the Dukes. "They had a nice beginning."
"It was professional baseball in the Washington, D.C. area," said Malone, who for many years worked tiredlessly in the pursuit of bringing major league baseball back to D.C. "It was, for somebody like myself who wanted to see baseball come back to D.C., something of a foothold. It was great to have something that was organized, professional baseball in the backyard of the nation's capital."
But over the years, the thrill of having the Dukes in town wore off. Ultimately, Dukes owner Eugene Thomas moved the team.
"He kept lobbying for them to get beer sales to make it more of a professional ball park [feel]," said Vinci. "The rec department wouldn't have it."
THE DUKES, who were affiliated with the Pittsburg Pirates during their final three seasons in Alexandria, were not around long. But they did provide local fans with some memorable times. Vinci spent numerous evenings watching the Dukes play at home.
"[The city] wanted me to go out there every night, or someone in my division," said Vinci, who today still works for the city. "I spent part of each night there. I'm a baseball nut. I would have gone out even if I didn't have to. I'm from Baltimore and I grew up with the Orioles. I still have a mini-season ticket plan [to Orioles games]. I loved [going to Dukes games]. It's just a shame it didn't really catch on."
"There weren't big crowds," said Malone. "I think those of us there were true baseball fans who supported the Dukes. They didn't have a lot of people coming outside of Alexandria. ...You had a lot of die-hard Senators fans eager to be a part of something, eager to be there as fans. It was something we could hang our hats on. If you went, you had a good time and appreciated it. But you knew what it was — it was Four Mile Run Park, it wasn't RFK Stadium."
One of the team's all-time highlights came in 1979 when Alexandria third baseman Gary Pellant made baseball history on April 30 when he hit two grand slams in one inning — one batting right-handed and the other left-handed.
"I was there and said, `I don't think that's ever happened before,'" recalled one former stockholder of the team, of Pellant's unheard of feat. "I called Cooperstown the next day."
Some of the teams better players during its time in Alexandria included Orsulak, outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who went on to star with both the Orioles and Mets, catcher Dave Valle, and pitcher Tim Burke.
The Dukes' best season in Alexandria came in 1982 when they captured the Carolina League title by beating the Lynchburg Mets in a playoff series, then defeating the Durham Bulls in the league finals. The team's best players that season were Rich Renteria, who holds the Dukes' single season record for hits and batting average, and Orsulak.
Today, few people remember the old Alexandria Dukes and the steamy nights of professional baseball at Four Mile Run Park.
"The people that remember the Dukes now live in Florida and are out on the shuffle board court," said Malone, with a chuckle.