By Joe Connor / MLB.com
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — It’s after Midnight on the Last Frontier, 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and some future Major Leaguers are playing wood-bat baseball at Growden Memorial Park without the assistance of artificial light — thanks to the sun.
The 48-year-old Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, the northernmost organized baseball club on planet earth, celebrated the Summer Solstice June 20 by hosting a travel team, the Ukiah Victory Dons from Mendicino, Calif., in the 98th annual “Midnight Sun game.” The Goldpanners, members of the six-team summer Alaska Baseball League (ABL) that prepares the nation’s top college players for a future in the Majors, topped Ukiah, 3-1, before a sold out crowd of 3,500 enthusiastic fans. It was the Goldpanners 11th straight Midnight Sun victory.
In summer, with the Earth’s axis tilted toward the sun, “sunset” and “sunrise” become misnomers throughout the 49th state, but especially during the solstice, which in Latin means “the sun stood still.” About an hour and a half after the Goldpanners took the field at 10:30 p.m., the sun dipped below the horizon, yet the sky continued to provide plenty of natural daylight. And some few hours later, the sun began to rise.
After 5 1/2 innings, at the half-inning nearest midnight, play was stopped briefly for the traditional singing of the Alaska Flag Song, a verse of which resonates: “over land and sea, a beacon bright.” While the lower 48 baseball parks may experience rainouts in summer, in Alaska, there can occasionally be “sunouts” when the sun shines so brightly players have trouble seeing the ball.
“You’ll be outside, and all of the sudden, you look down at your watch and it’s 2:30 (a.m.). And it’s still light outside,” said Drew Jenson, the Goldpanners winning pitcher for the Midnight Sun game and a junior at San Diego State
The traditional Midnight Sun game has been played here on the Summer Solstice in some form since 1906, beginning as a result of a wager between two local taverns, more than a half-century prior to Alaska’s statehood. The Goldpanners welcome an out-of-league touring team to experience nature’s splendor on the solstice before the ABL plays its balanced, 35-game regular season schedule through late July. The top two teams earn invitations to the National Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series in Wichita, Kansas, August 2-16, considered the nation’s most prestigious amateur tournament.
“The big thing up here is the mentality of the players,” explained second-year Goldpanners manager Ed Cheff, who also skippers Lewis-Clark State. “It takes a special mentality; special players.”
The ABL has produced its fair share of future Major Leaguers — more than 160, in fact. ABL alumni read like a who’s who’s of baseball. Randy Johnson and Eddie Guardado suited up for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots while Jeff Kent and Keith Foulke are former Anchorage Bucs. Craig Counsell was once a member of Palmer’s Mat Su Miners. And John Olerud, J.D. Drew and Rich Aurilia suited up for the Peninsula Oilers in Kenai, whose ballpark is plenty pitcher friendly with heavy air blowing in from the Cook Inlet.
But the ABL franchise with the most storied history is the Goldpanners, who have won a record six NBC World Series titles and countless ABL championships. Last year, the Goldpanners defeated the 2001 NBC champion Glacier Pilots, its chief rival. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi are Goldpanner alumni, and like father, like son, both Bret Boone and father Bob Boone are ex-Goldpanners.
“We’re trying to develop players up here, but every organization up here wants to win, too,” Cheff said. “We don’t recruit a guy who just hits home runs. That’s just not much of a factor in this league. We recruit athleticism.”
Like the better known Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL) in Massachusetts, players here use wood bats, not aluminum, which translates into a pitcher’s league, Cheff said. In addition to that adjustment, players are away from their families all summer and must hold jobs. There is also extensive travel throughout the state.
“You’ve kind of got to have a structured mentality to be successful. It’s their first year of a daily grind; some long road trips, being away from home,” Cheff added. “It’s like a mini minor league season.”
But the biggest adjustment?
“It’s tough to go to bed because it’s always light out,” quipped Goldpanners infielder Derek Bruce, who is a sophomore at Washington State.
Bruce rooms with teammate Emerson Frostad at the home of Kevin and Terry Ginley, who live across the street from the ballpark.
“We pretty much have the basement to ourselves,” Bruce said. “They’ve made us steaks, pork chops, chicken, tacos.”
Jenson’s job is maintenance of the bullpens. His teammates have similar “ground crew” chores for their home ballpark: watering the field, raking the dirt and picking up the trash leftover from the previous days game in the seating areas. But when snow-capped mountain ranges dot the landscape beyond the outfield fences of most ABL ballparks in idyllic wooded settings, life is pretty good. When they aren’t at the ballpark, the players are fishing for salmon and coming across moose, caribou or bears in their back yard.
Said Jenson: “This is better than any other summer I’ve had.”
Joe Connor is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.