2002 Midnight Sun Game

10:29 p.m. Time to slap on some more sunblock.  Moments ago, a brisk breeze bulldozed the low, grey clouds and now the sun is blazing through.  The tightly wound crowd begins to chant: “Sun!  Sun!  Sun!”  The PA system blares cheerily, “Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter…”  The Midnight Sun Baseball Game is about to begin.This game, a 97-year old tradition, has never once been played with artificial lights – even though it usually wraps up well after 1 a.m.  That’s because, in Fairbanks, Alaska, on June 21, there’s really no such thing as night.  Even simple, everyday events like a baseball game take on a quirky bent when Fairbanks celebrates the solstice.

After three months of winter, when the sun barely makes it above the horizon here, the hours of sunlight crescendo rapidly through springtime to a spectacular climax on June 21st.  My husband, Paul, and I had journeyed to America’s most northern metropolis to sample the Midnight Sun festivities, including this ballgame, a 10-kilometer run and the only street fair where I’ve ever panned for gold.

Speaking of goldpanners, that happens to be the name of the local amateur ball team.  They’ve been representing Fairbanks since 1960.  One can only imagine the earlier days of the Midnight Sun Game, with teams like the “Smokes” and the “Drinks,” who dueled for the first championship in 1906 (tellingly, there is no record of the score).

As the Goldpanners take the field, I’m looking for future superstars.  The Panners have sent more players to the majors than any other team in their class, including Tom Seaver, Dave Kingman and homerun czar, Barry Bonds.  The players are mostly from college teams “down in America” (as they like to say up in Alaska) and seem as jazzed as the crowd.  They snap photos of the stands and the dazzling sun; one guy is even shooting video.

While teams have come from as far as Japan to face the Panners in this one-of-a-kind event, tonight’s opponents hail from Ukiah, California.  And, though I’m visiting from the challengers’ turf, I’m heartily cheering the home team.  The Ukiah Victory Dons are neatly dispatched in their first at-bat, and I join the 4,500 other spectators who are stomping their feet on the metal bleachers.  This not only makes a stupendous rallying racket, it warms the blood.

Scanning the stands, I notice a young woman selling beer.  She has eyes like a Huskie and is wearing sandals.  The temperature has dropped to the high 30s.  I wonder how long I can hold out before sporting my embarrassing hat with the cozy earflaps.  The loudspeaker blasts, “Good day, Sunshine.”

Fairbanks can actually get pretty warm. In fact, it has one of the widest temperature spans in the world, from 79F to 93F.  But folks like to talk about how, when you throw a hot cup of coffee in the air at 40 below zero, it vaporizes into ice crystals before it can hit the ground.  Or how the cold is no big deal – after all, schools let the kids play outside until -20°.

The crowd explodes as the Goldpanners put together a rally and send Brandon Averill across the plate.  Energetic teens deploy across the stadium and lead us in a ragged “wave.”  “You can do better than that!” they chide gently, “That was more like low tide!”  Feeling a chill, I launch into another foot-pounding frenzy.  “Panners!  Panners!  Panners!” we roar.

Aside from several foul balls that arc over the crowd and seem to careen directly towards our car in the parking lot, this proves to be the major excitement of the game until the clock ticks towards midnight.  Tradition calls for play to halt at the stroke of 12 for the singing of the Alaska Flag Song.  The crowd rustles; people are checking their watches.  As the Fairbanks side goes down, the announcer invites us to stand.  The players doff their hats.  A pinkish-gold sunset/sunrise paints the horizon, crowned by the glowing moon.  A young woman leads us the song that celebrates

The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes and the flow’rs nearby
The gold of the early sourdough dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams
Alaska’s Flag to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.

It’s one of the most tuneful and sincere anthems I’ve ever heard.  I get a lump in my throat as I think of all these people celebrating the sun after a long, hard, coffee-vaporizing winter.  Earlier in the day, I’d asked veteran Panners General Manager Don Dennis how Fairbanksans felt about the Midnight Sun Game. “For most locals, the important thing is being there at midnight,” he said. “It means we made it through another winter.”

Behind me, Elaine Fibraz telephones her son at his Anchorage sports bar.  “I always have to phone every year at midnight to let them know the score,” she confides. Outside their dugout, Panners players grin and pose for photos with a clock.

It looks like things are going to wrap up neatly as we head into the top of the ninth inning.  Then suddenly, the Victory Dons rally.  They score.  I wonder if the Panners outfielders are having as tough a time as I am following the ball.  Not that it’s dark exactly, but it’s about as dim as it gets on June 21 in Fairbanks.

At least there’s a clear sky.  “One year we played Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and it was really overcast,” Dennis remembers.  “The game was won by a home run.  The only way we could see the ball was because the scoreboard was lighted and when it got in front of the scoreboard, we could tell it was a home run.”

The rowdy crowd spurs our hometown heroes to retire the side and we go into the bottom of the ninth, tied.  But it is far too cold for extra innings.  We know that; the Panners know that.  They do not fail us.  In quick order, Ryan Haag gets on base and Chad Corona brings him home with a whack into the outfield.

“Hey, did anybody see where the ball went?” a fan inquires.   The Victory Dons are no doubt wondering the same thing as they trudge off into the rosy Alaskan dawn.

At last, summer has arrived in Fairbanks.

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