2004: Alaska ballplayers venture out in midnight sun (Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Tribune

As June 21 spilled into June 22, Fairbanks Goldpanners right-hander Sean Timmons zipped his fastball to the plate and hoped the reading-glasses dimness of playing midnight baseball with no lights might help befuddle Kenai Oilers batters.

“I think it was tougher for them,” Timmons said.

Nothing like adding a few mph to your out pitch through the natural environment.

It was shortly after midnight. The stands at Growden Park were jammed with 4,000 fans, the sun was a slash of orange on the horizon and Hall-of-Famer Ferguson Jenkins threw a special celebrity pitch as a diamond tradition begun in 1906 carried on.

Every year in celebration of the summer solstice, this community of about 60,000 people located deep in Alaska’s Interior stages the Midnight Sun game, the world’s most unusual baseball game. The first pitch is thrown at 10:30 p.m. and under no circumstances on the longest day of the year are lights permitted to shine on the field.

Sunset was 12:47 a.m. and sunrise 2:57 a.m., accounting for nearly 22 hours of daylight, and the temperature hovered near 85 degrees for the 99th game. It is critical to understand that on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, the hours are reversed and the temperature might be 40 degrees below zero in a city only 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle. So residents are enthusiastic about frolicking whenever warmth is available.

This was one year when a cloudless sky and a 2-hour, 45-minute ballgame, ending at 1:15 a.m., conspired to make spectators almost forget what time it was. Almost. While no one lost a fly ball because of darkness during Fairbanks’ 9-1 victory, squinting to pick up pitches, line drives and throws to first was challenging.

“The light’s tough to see in,” said Goldpanners left fielder Mike Lissman, who hit a two-run homer. “You had to concentrate a little more.”

Scores of future major-leaguers have played in the game with the Goldpanners, who usually play non-league opponents, and international incidents twice nearly intruded on play. But that was well after locals began the solstice tradition with games that were more of the pickup variety. In 1960, when the Goldpanners were founded as the first team that would expand into the Alaska Baseball League, the Midnight Sun game became a more extraordinary ritual.

For more than 40 years, collegiate stars have spent summers in Alaska. They honed skills with the Goldpanners and Oilers, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Anchorage Bucs, Mat-Su Miners and the late, lamented North Pole Nicks, whose team symbol was Santa Claus swinging a bat. About 500 players have passed through on their way to the majors.

The Goldpanners, winners of six National Baseball Congress national amateur championships, list 184 major-leaguers on their all-time roster. Among them are Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield, the only two ABL players who have advanced to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Seaver is featured on the cover of this year’s Goldpanners yearbook.

Ex-Goldpanners major-leaguers remember the Midnight Sun event well – even if they couldn’t see all that well at the time.

“It was dark,” said New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, who was a member of the Goldpanners in 1990. “It was a little tough to see right in the middle of the game. But it was fun.”

Jose Cruz Jr., an outfielder for Tampa Bay who played for Fairbanks in 1993, marveled at the entire experience. He did not know about the game until he arrived in the north.

“I said, `You guys are crazy,” Cruz said. “I have to see this.” That was amazing. It’s 10 p.m. and the sun hasn’t gone down. It was a little bit dark. I was glad when it was over. There’s nothing like it, not even close.”

Goldpanners manager Ed Cheff, who in 29 years coaching Lewis-Clark State of Idaho has won 13 NAIA titles, agrees.

“It’s one of the best amateur baseball events there is,” Cheff said. “It’s something special.”

The mystique of the Midnight Sun game is simple: Not once in a century have artificial lights been employed. More than once, however, there has been a clamor from the opposition to change night into day.

Don Dennis, 64, the Goldpanners’ general manager since 1967, said that year a Japanese team called upon Fairbanks manager Red Boucher, the team’s founder, to turn on the lights, but he refused. Then in 1984, a particularly overcast year, a Taiwanese team bugged the umpires. Early on the umps agreed to call the game when it reached the seventh inning. But by then it was bright again. The umpires said, “Play ball!” Incensed, Taiwan forfeited.

Dennis made sure no such complications were in the offing in 2004. He declined to allow the utility company to hook up the lights until after June 21.

The patriarch of the Goldpanners, the white-haired Dennis said the Midnight Sun game is the greatest natural promotion in baseball. Every year more than 20 radio stations, newspapers and other media outlets call from around the country to interview him.

There is enough genuine lore surrounding the game. Former team broadcaster Lowell Purcell got married in the press box over the public-address system during the 1993 Midnight Sun game. Bill Stroecker, team president since 1965, has a direct link to the 1906 game: His father Ed was the catcher in it. In recent years, Stroecker, a trumpeter, and his collaborating buddies called The Frigid-Aires have contributed pregame music.

New York Yankees first baseman-outfielder Travis Lee, who played in the 1993 and 1994 games, said the secret of success is to score early and hold the lead when the sky darkens.

“If you’re behind and it’s overcast, you’re in trouble,” Lee said.

That described Kenai’s fix. The Oilers committed seven errors and were behind 7-0 by the sixth inning when one-time Cub Jenkins strode to the field for a guest appearance marking the closest half-inning to midnight with a pitch. Just before fans stood to hear the singing of the state anthem, the stirring Alaska Flag Song, Jenkins, 61, was asked what type of velocity to expect.

“Just get it to the plate,” he said.

This is the second year a Hall of Fame pitcher appeared for the Midnight Sun game_Gaylord Perry did so in 2003. Greg Harris, Hall of Fame director of development, said the Hall is increasing its interest in Alaska baseball history and wants to do something special to commemorate the 100th Midnight Sun game next year.

Timmons, 29, who has suited up an Alaska-league record eight years but is retiring after this season to finish medical school, always will remember his victory in the 99th.

“It was great,” he said.

Years from now Timmons will recall summer solstice in Alaska, pitching in the gloaming, and he will try to convince his children that it really did take place around midnight.

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