By Jim Caple
FAIRBANKS, Alaska – The Midnight Sun game is like most baseball games -except here the shadows are still creeping across the infield at close to 11 p.m.
“Nobody here knows if the lights have ever been turned on or not,” Alaska Goldpanners manager Ed Cheff said, squinting through the golden sunlight at the light towers at Growden Park. “The rumor is that they might not even work. I know they’ve never been on in the four years I’ve been here. You talk to the locals about the lights and they just laugh and say, ‘Yeah, we don’t know about them, either.'”
Cheff said this Tuesday night around 10 p.m., as his team warmed up for the 100th annual playing of the Midnight Sun game, held in Fairbanks on each summer solstice – and always without artificial lights. The game starts at 10:30 p.m. and has been known to end after 2 a.m. (And just think how long it would last if there were commercials!) While the sun officially sets at 12:47 a.m., it really just dips below the horizon for an hour or so. There’s a rosy glow near the horizon but it never really gets dark enough to stop the game.
Not that you would want to face Randy Johnson in these conditions.
“My guys used to yell, ‘Turn on the lights!’ and I’d say, ‘No way,'” former Goldpanners manager Red Boucher said. “So they would yell, ‘Then how are we going to see the ball?’ And I would say, ‘Listen for it. If you hear it humming real loud, you’re too close.’
“No other city in the world has this tradition so there is no way we’re turning on those lights.”
And just in case someone tried, Boucher said it wouldn’t matter. “I pulled out all the fuses.”
The Midnight Sun game is one of baseball’s greatest and oldest traditions, dating back to 1906, or nearly to Julio Franco’s birth. That was so long ago that they couldn’t sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch because the song hadn’t been written yet.
Or just think about it this way: Alaskans were playing this game 50 years before Alaska even became a state.
Here’s Goldpanners manager Ed Cheff just before game time, 10 p.m.
“Baseball was the big thing to do in Fairbanks back then because there was nothing else to do in Fairbanks,” said Bill Stroecker, whose father played in the very first Midnight Sun game. “There were no automobiles here, no planes, no trains, no roadways. The only way to get here was to come up the river by boat.”
Kind of puts a whole new spin on a long weekend in Detroit, doesn’t it?
“I got off the plane to join the Goldpanners in 2001 and said, ‘Where the [expletive] am I?” former Goldpanner pitcher Zak Basch recalled. “Then we won the National Baseball Congress championship in 2002. And I got drafted when I never should have. And I had a minor league career I never should have. And I tell you, winning the NBC World Series for the Goldpanners trumps anything I did in my pro career. I’d give up my entire pro career to get back one second of playing here, that one second throwing the last pitch to win the NBC series.”
Basch is one of the hundreds of collegiate players to have made his way from the Lower 48 to play summer ball with Fairbanks in the amateur Alaska League – following a line that includes Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Jason Giambi, Alvin Davis and Bret Boone. The players live with host families, work the field in the morning and play each night. Some, such as Basch, love the experience. Others, such as Boone, were – well, less thrilled.
“It’s a good experience but it’s just different,” Boone said. “It’s weird. I mean, it never gets dark. It’s like every game is a day game but you’re playing at night. The sun is still above your head at midnight.”
Well, not quite. But Basch insists there was a game a couple years back that was delayed because the sun was shining in the first baseman’s eyes â€“ “And it was 11:45 p.m.”
That’s the way it is when you’re the northernmost baseball team in the world. How far north? North Pole, Alaska is 10 miles to the south of Fairbanks. Of course, that’s not the actual north pole – merely a town that named itself North Pole to generate a cottage Santa Claus industry (the high school team is named the Nicks). But still. We’re talking way up there.
Midnight Sun game
Fans flock to the Midnight Sun game in Fairbanks every year. Hey, there’s even an Ice Museum smack in the middle of downtown.
Fairbanks is an insane town. The average winter temperature is 12 degrees below zero, and it’s so cold that the temperature somehow actually increases with elevation. “I’m OK up until about 30 below,” Goldpanners pitcher and Fairbanks native Sean Timmons said. “Once it gets to 35 or 50 below, then I start getting cold.”
The record high, meanwhile, is 96.
On the other hand, homes are a lot cheaper than in San Francisco. Plus, each summer Mother Nature takes pity on Fairbanks and provides long days of what Cheff calls “the most ideal baseball weather in the world. In the East and the Midwest, they’re baking in the heat and the humidity. But here it’s perfect.”
The weather certainly was perfect for Tuesday’s centennial. Fairbanks received buckets of rain over the weekend, but the clouds parted and the sky was clear by early evening, with temperatures in the low 70s. It was such an idyllic night that even the mosquitoes stayed away.
The ballpark was so crowded that fans stole the bullpen bench and moved it to a standing-room-only section that had been hastily set up in foul territory down the left field line. Fans also sat on the dugout roofs, and the concession stands were so backed up that there was a long line to pay your money, another long line to get your hot dog, and yet another long line to go to the bathroom.
(But when you consider that the fans at the first Midnight Sun game arrived in Fairbanks by taking the train from Skagway to Whitehorse, then tramping to the Tanana River and boating upstream, the lines don’t seem so bad.)
The field at Growdon Park is unusual, to say the least. The outfield is natural grass, but the infield is lime green artificial turf. The basepaths have been dyed a dusty yellow, but the dirt in the sliding pits is a dark chocolate. It’s as if it were laid out by the same guy who designed the old Astros jerseys.
And yet, the way Basch sees it, this diamond is not only the geographic pinnacle of baseball, it’s the spiritual pinnacle as well.
“I’ve been to Fenway Park. I’ve been to Yankee Stadium. I was at old Tiger Stadium. But there’s nothing like this,” he said. “I’m a purist. I love baseball for what it is. And nothing can compete with this. I know you’re with ESPN and you’ve seen it all. Hey, I watch ESPN and nothing on ESPN can top this.
“These kids on the team don’t know. But in five years they’re going to be sitting around with a beer telling people, ‘One time in Alaska I played baseball at midnight without lights.'”
That’s the thing. It’s easy to lose concept of time when it never gets dark. It just seems like you’re at a regular game until you’re walking home and two 12-year-olds on bicycles ride past with bats and gloves and it suddenly hits you, “Wait a minute – it’s two in the friggin’ morning.”
Go back two decades and Timmons could have been one of those kids bicycling. He grew up attending the Midnight Sun game as a fan and now has played in nine of them.
Red Boucher & Bill Stroecker
Red Boucher (who formed the Alaska League in 1960) and Bill Stroecker (whose father played in the first Midnight Sun game).
He didn’t plan on playing in the centennial, though. He is studying to be a physician’s assistant at a Savannah college and is only home for a two-week vacation. “I was going to call the team up to see whether I could sit in the dugout for this game because I knew how crazy the ticket situation would be,” he said. “But they called me about two and a half weeks ago and asked whether I could throw for them. I haven’t pitched since the end of the season last July but I said, all right.”
He said he began thinking Monday night about how the Midnight Sun game could be his last time on a mound. “I didn’t want to go out and disappoint anyone. I wanted to go out there and have one good last game.”
Timmons did, holding the Omaha Strike Zone to one run in five innings, and the bullpen took over from there. Given that the final innings were played in dusk with the umpire expanding the strike zone, Omaha didn’t have much chance for a comeback. The Panners won 3-1 and Timmons got the win in what may be his final game. The final pitch was at 12:55 a.m. and almost everyone stayed for the end, listening to “Midnight Special” playing over the loudspeaker. The “Alaska Flag Song” was sung at midnight before the start of the sixth inning.
Cheff joked afterward about using Timmons on 364 days rest until he turns 40, but the Hall of Fame has a better idea for preserving the pitcher. They asked for his cap and jersey for the museum. “That was awesome,” he said. “And I get a lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame.”
It’s a great exchange. Not only can Timmons visit Cooperstown anytime he wants, but the Hall will preserve the moment he stood precisely where so many players have lived out their midsummer night’s dreams over the past century â€“ in the sunlight and on top of the world.