Sometimes, all it takes is one season to make history.
The Single-A Alexandria Dukes were born out of a frenzied attempt to populate the fledgling Carolina League; in 1978, the league entertained only four franchises, too few to merit separate divisions. Because of the rush to establish the new club, the Dukes were forced to play their first season without the backing of a major league affiliate. It didn’t help that their ballpark, Municipal Stadium at Four Mile Run Park, was owned by the local school district and located across the street from an elementary school, effectively preventing any alcohol sales at games.
Without the haze of golden suds to distract the fanbase, the rundown condition of the park was even more unbearable. The backless outfield bleachers seated several hundred people, and the weather ran hot and humid next to the Potomac River. As one fan later described the stadium, "It seemed held together back then by band-aids."
Despite the dry, cramped ballpark and a team with no real major league direction, the Dukes attracted over 45,000 baseball-starved fans in their first season. A year later, the Mariners signed on with the club for their first and only season in Alexandria. Seattle had just terminated their contract with the California League Stockton Mariners and shifted half of their Single-A prospects to the San Jose Missions. The other half, including Stockton manager Bobby Floyd, were destined for the Carolina League.
For the first couple of weeks, the young Mariners struggled against their more seasoned competitors. Four days after their home opener, they dropped a 1-0 game to the neighboring Winston-Salem Red Sox on a wild pitch. The following week, they were trumped by the Peninsula Pilots after an explosive eight-run first inning.
The spotlight would shift to the Mariners soon enough. On April 30, 23-year-old third baseman Gary Pellant became the first pro ball player to hit two grand slams in the same inning -- one from the right side of the plate, and one from the left. Pellant’s two victims were Salem Pirates Jose Calderon and Luis Jimenez, both of whom contributed to the 12-run spread the Mariners stockpiled by the end of the seventh inning. After the monumental 20-7 victory, team officials double-checked the record with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. One of the club's stockholders placed a call to Cooperstown the following day, cementing Pellant's place among the greatest switch-hitters in baseball history.
Pellant’s peak performance was the highlight of the season, but the M’s weren’t finished yet. By the end of May, they had moved into first place in the league, knotted with the Phillies’ Peninsula Pilots and Winston-Salem Red Sox; a month later, they were the only team left at the top. Gary Pellant continued to mash home runs, and finished the season with a league-best 18 dingers to his name, as well as a much-deserved All-Star bid alongside Mariners’ left-hander Bryan Clark and backstop Chris Hudson. The Mariners led the league with 211 stolen bases, thanks in large part to a trio of hot-footed outfielders: Rod Hobbs (with 51 bases), Charles Lindsay (with 48), and Elwood Holland (36).
With a hot-and-cold bullpen and an offense that ranked at the bottom of the league in several categories (hits, doubles, triples, and on-base percentage), Alexandria was inevitably edged out of their first-place position by the 85-win Red Sox. While the Mariners had upheld their end of the bargain, the city of Alexandria was in no position to provide the club with a renovated, alcohol-friendly facility, and Seattle quickly pulled their affiliation, funneling their prospects back through San Jose in 1980. Alexandria, meanwhile, reverted to their identity as a co-op -run entity, reclaiming the nickname "Dukes" until they moved to Woodbridge in 1983 as the Prince William Pirates.
- Notable Mariners: Dave Valle.
- During the Dukes’ inaugural season in 1978, they lost 18 games due to rainouts.
- On the day the Mariners honored Gary Pellant for his grand slam-fest, the infielder homered in his first at-bat of the game.
- The Dukes entertained one more MLB franchise during their short-lived tenure in the Carolina League: the 1981-1982 Pittsburgh Pirates. The '82 Dukes proved the most successful of all previous iterations, earning their first and only league title on the back of an 80-win season.