By Sean Deveney
Fairbanks, Alaska, requires toughness. Living on the 65th parallel, you don’t exactly spend time thinking about how the petunias are coming along. The average high temperature in January is 2-below. Extension cords dangle out of car grills, and most parking spaces are equipped with electrical outlets. That’s because if you parked for a few hours during an Alaska winter without plugging in, your engine would become an Ice Pop.
Mother Nature hung a Keep Out sign here, and most of humanity listened. The population of Fairbanks, Alaska’s third-largest city, is 30,000. That’s a couple of city blocks in midtown Manhattan. But there’s evidence that Alaskans are not daft. After all, even here, they find ways to play baseball.
In the early 1900s, on Alaska’s southern tip, locals built a field on the tidal flats of Ketchikan Creek. When the tide was high, the field was underwater. At low tide, they played. In Barrow, on Alaska’s northern tip, there’s a field with a road through right field. The right fielder has the right of way on a batted ball. And in Fairbanks, on every summer solstice, they play the Midnight Sun game. It starts on June 21 and ends June 22, no lights allowed.
That was confusing for Chu Yuan-Chin, a 19-year-old Taiwanese outfielder for the Goldpanners, Fairbanks’ entry in the Alaska Baseball League — a respected summer training ground for U.S. college players. The Goldpanners have been the hosts of the game (first played in 1906) since 1960, and Chu soon learned he wasn’t just adjusting to America — he was adjusting to Alaska. But when Goldpanners starter Chris Kissock threw his first pitch against Beatrice (Neb.) at Growden Memorial Park, it was 10:27 p.m. and sunny, with the temperature in the 50s. By the seventh-inning stretch, it was 11:43 and still sunny.
At 12:31, Chu fought fatigue and doubled in the bottom of the 10th to give the Goldpanners a 2-1 win. “It’s weird,” Chu says. “I never thought I’d play a day game that ends at 1 a.m. It was tough to see.”
Tough. Exactly. The Midnight Sun game is baseball under any circumstances, even the toughest that Alaska offers. Don Dennis, the Goldpanners’ general manager, was attracted to the team by a tough situation. In 1967, he was working with a team in Grand Junction, Colo., when the Goldpanners’ field flooded. In need of help, team founder Red Boucher lured Dennis to straighten out the Goldpanners. Dennis never left.
One of Dennis’ heroes is a tough SOB, Gutzon Borglum, the man who created Mount Rushmore. The sculpture is nice, but Dennis reveres him because he’s a kindred spirit. When Borglum recruited workers, not only did they have to be the finest in their field but they had to play baseball.
When the Taiwanese national team visited Fairbanks for pre-Olympic work in 1984, how do you suppose Dennis housed them? The Fairbanks Ritz? Nope; he bought used trailers that had housed workers on the Alaska Pipeline. They’re still home for visiting teams.
Fairbanks players are given $800 for the summer and are set up with host families. Part of their duties include field maintenance at 11 a.m. (Outfielder Jordan Mayer bemoans, “They pushed it back for the midnight game — all the way to noon.”) Veterans of the Goldpanners would scoff. Used to be, players got summer jobs. Legendary catcher Bob Boone worked at a lumberyard. Dan Pastorini — later a quarterback in the NFL — spent the summer of 1968 wrestling barrels for Standard Oil.
Obviously, there is value in Fairbanks toughness. The team has produced almost 200 major leaguers. Dave Winfield was better known as a basketball player before his stint in 1971. Tom Seaver was a junior college kid in 1964. Alvin Davis and Harold Reynolds forged a Fairbanks friendship before they became Mariners teammates. BALCO did not exist when Barry Bonds played for the Goldpanners in 1983 nor when Jason Giambi was with the team in 1990.
When Winfield made his induction speech at the Hall of Fame in 2001, he reflected on his time in Alaska. He listed three favorite things: “To get a chance to win, climb mountains and go dog sledding in the winter.”
Mountains, dog sledding and winning baseball games. Those Alaskans do some tough things.
Sean Deveney is a staff writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at email@example.com.