1997: History illuminates Midnight Sun Game

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June 20, 1997, Daily News-Miner
By Chris Talbott

Maybe the hazy eyes of history bring the Midnight Sun Game’s meaning into clearer focus.

That’s the only thing that can explain why first-year Alaska Goldpanners take such a blase approach to the annual baseball game played well past midnight without the benefit of artificial lights.

Jason Lane explained his approach to the game, and it doesn’t involve history. Only the concrete present.

“I think you’ve got to be excited going out every day to be successful,” said Lane, who arrived a week too late last year to participate in the game. “I try to make every day the same. I try not to make any day too much more important.”

A sound scenario, one modified to account for winning the Midnight Sun Game, not just participating. Ryan Soules figures his teammates will have more concrete feelings about the game after playing the Kelowna, British Columbia Grizzlies at 10:30 tonight at Growden Memorial Park, where tickets are available for $5.

Coming to Fairbanks last summer from Seattle where he routinely played in front of crowds smaller than 1,200 at the University of Washington, Soules had never heard of the Midnight Sun Game.

Now, he’ll never forget it.

“It was a lot of fun, a lot of people,” Soules said of last year’s game, which drew more than 4,500 fans to Growden. “That was the most people I’d ever played in front of up until then.”

In the time since that game, a 5-3 win over the Anchorage Bucs, it has taken a prominent place in his memory. “Once you play in it,” Soules said, “it’s pretty cool.”

The same sort of sentiment has been uttered by the hundreds of players who have participated since 1906, when Panners general manager Don Dennis believes the game began. In 1960, the game became the property of the Panners and has established something of a minor legend status throughout the culture of baseball.

This year, CNN will carry footage of the game as well as the entire Midnight Sun celebration. In the past, the game has been written about in Sports Illustrated and carried live on the radio to all parts of the world.

The Panners have done well in the spotlight, going 28-9 since ’60 and drawing sellout crowds every year. And the game isn’t just special to the hometown team. The opponent, which is usually an international team, understands this as well.

“The thing we’re talking a lot about is the experience of being here, being fortunate to be here in the first place,” said John Hampton, manager of the mostly-American Grizzlies. “We talked this morning about the fact that not too many people can say they played at midnight. It’s something not even the major leaguers can say. They have their Fourth of July and fireworks. But nothing like this.”

It is something for the players to remember long after the game is actually played and spread the word about.

“A lot of these kids who go on to play Major League Baseball talk about it,” said Panners manager Don Leppert, who will be managing his first Midnight Sun Game.

“Certainly everyone (in the majors) who knew about it, commented on it: ‘Oh, you’re going to Alaska? You’ll get to play in the Midnight Sun Game,” Leppert said. “There’s a lot of awareness around the baseball world.”

Chris Talbott, June 20, 1997, Daily News-Miner

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