BY CARL DUBOIS
‘I guess I found a love for the game again,’ senior LSU outfielder Quinn Stewart said during the Tigers’ first week of practice last week. Stewart regained confidence playing for the Fairbanks Goldpanners in the Alaska Baseball League last summer.
Quinn Stewart doubles down the left-field line and stands at second base, smiling in the sun on an afternoon that, with a stiff north wind, feels colder than its high of 63 degrees.
Such a winter’s day in Louisiana could almost be mistaken for a summer night in Alaska, where Stewart spent the bulk of June and July putting distance between himself and a disappointing 2005 season at LSU.
There were long days and long nights last year for Stewart. The Tigers failed to win a regional for the first time in 11 seasons, and Stewart failed to live up to the goals he set.
Playing in the Alaska Baseball League, a wooden-bat summer league for college players, Stewart said he found perspective in the miles between Fairbanks and Baton Rouge. New teammates and a new style of play, plus a change in his surroundings, helped Stewart.
“I guess I found a love for the game again,” the senior outfielder said. “I got a chance to get away, go have fun, get some confidence back and just play. That’s really all it was. Last year took a toll, struggling as much as I did.
“The best things about Alaska were seeing such good competition and getting back the confidence that I need going into this season.”
LSU plans a new style of play this season – more running, more bunts – and Stewart’s eager to see it happen. On the first day of preseason practice Tuesday, he laid down a soft, perfect bunt down the first-base line.
Good day, sunshine
Stewart thought he knew about long days. Then he played in the Midnight Sun Game.
His team, the Fairbanks Goldpanners, is the home team for the game, played annually since 1906 from late night until early morning – without the aid of artificial lighting – on June 21, the day of the summer solstice.
What started as a bar bet is now an institution in Alaska. The game begins at 10:30 p.m., halts for a brief ceremony at midnight, then resumes, usually ending around 1:30 a.m.
The sun drops out of sight below the horizon and rises again during the game, but there is always enough natural light for safe play, Stewart said.
“When the game started at 10:30 at night, I was in the outfield with my sunglasses on,” he said. “It mentally throws you off. You know that it’s late. You know the sun should be down and it should be dark.
“When the game ends after 1 in the morning and the sun’s high in the sky, it throws you.”
Stewart said January days in Baton Rouge are often similar to summer days in Alaska. A few chilly nights forced him to wear long sleeves under his jersey, unthinkable at LSU that time of year.
There were other options, other summer leagues, but Stewart said he opted for Alaska to see a part of the world he might not otherwise see.
“I knew it was different right away,” he said. “It was 98 degrees when I left here, and getting off the plane in Alaska it was 65.”
In summer, there is no real darkness in Fairbanks, he said. Blinds and blackout curtains are essentials for anyone wanting a good night’s sleep during the never-ending daylight.
Stewart said he slept in a basement with no windows and got plenty of rest.
Still, he always felt out of synch.
“We said it was like ‘Groundhog Day,’ the same thing every day,” Stewart said, recalling the Bill Murray movie. “It’s never like you’re starting a new day. You go home and take a nap, and then you wake up and do the same thing.
“You wake up, go to the field, go to work, come home, take a nap, get up, go to the field, play a game, go hang out, get something to eat, go to sleep, get up and do the same thing over and over.”
Stewart said he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“I loved it.”
The day after
The longest day of the year is long gone. The shortest day of the year just passed.
All daylight all the time is no longer part of Stewart’s life. He’s back in Baton Rouge and back at LSU, hoping to parlay the baseball lessons of the summer into a solid spring.
He said he improved his pitch recognition and his ability to hit the ball where it’s pitched.
Stewart said he was used to success before he played at LSU. His struggles last season, when he hit .250 and struck out 25 times in 116 at-bats, frustrated him.
“You feel like you’re letting your teammates down,” he said.
Stewart had a few adventures in the outfield too. He said assistant coach Turtle Thomas, in his first season coaching the outfielders, wants LSU to have one of the best defenses in the country, and he’s working toward that end.
Not everything in Alaska was like a beautiful sunset followed soon after by an equally breathtaking sunrise. Although Stewart hit .291 for the league champion Goldpanners and led them with eight home runs, he struck out 35 times in 151 at-bats.
Most of the strikeouts, he said, came early, when he was adjusting to the wooden bat.
Stewart, who grew up in California and went to high school in Rowlett, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth, said he was at first hesitant to spend the summer so far from home. The Cape Cod League is one thing, he said, but Alaska?
“I’m glad I went now,” he said. “I had a lot of fun.”
Stewart’s positive experience in Fairbanks might not be the start of an Alaskan pipeline from LSU, but he said he’s already thinking about returning one day.
“I’d like to go in the winter when it’s dark all the time,” he said, “just to see how that is.”