Unless they get serious about baseball in Scandinavia or some other place near the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks will continue to have the market on games under the Midnight Sun just as it has for the past century.
“It’s unique. We’re the only people that have it,” said Don Dennis, the Alaska Goldpanners’ general manager since 1968. “Nobody else can do it.”
That’s because nobody else who has almost 22 hours of daylight on the summer solstice plays baseball regularly. And the other five Alaska Baseball League teams, the nearest 300 miles to the south, simply don’t have enough light to start a game at 10:30 p.m. and play it all the way through without flipping the switch for artificial lights.
A huge crowd is again expected at Growden Memorial Park for tonight’s Midnight Sun Game when the 4-2 Goldpanners take on the Beatrice Bruins of Nebraska, who are 5-8 overall and 2-5 on their Alaska road trip. Beatrice won the series opener 12-1 on Tuesday.
The Goldpanners’ box office will be open today from noon-5 p.m., and the gates will open at 8 p.m. for those with early entry passes. The box office will re-open at 9 p.m. but all that will likely be available then are standing-room-only tickets, said Dennis. Game time is set for 10:30 and the game typically ends around 1-1:30 a.m., with the majority of the hardy fans remaining until the final pitch.
Growden Memorial Park has seats for 3,300 fans. About 4,000 crammed into the ballpark last year, with hundreds standing down the left field line or sitting in grass down the right field line. The 2005 crowd for the 100th Midnight Sun game was huge but hardly a record, said Dennis.
“They claim in 1967 there were 5,200 fans,” he said.
The game has always been popular locally, but Dennis credits the Internet with increasing its visibility worldwide.
“I can’t even begin to tell you the explosion of interest,” Dennis said, adding that ESPN and Baseball America have ranked the game on Top Ten lists of baseball attractions.
The first game was played to decide a bet between two local bars, and on this day in 1906 the California Bar (“Drinks”) beat the Eagles (“Smokes”) in front of 1,500 spectators.
This year’s event is being billed the 100th anniversary game, and fans, who are known to come to the famous game from around the United States, will be treated to a great show.
In addition to seeing many top college baseball players in action, they may witness the sun setting to the north at 12:47 a.m. Thursday. Then in the half inning ending closest to midnight, longtime Goldpanners President Bill Stroecker–whose father Eddie played catcher in the original contest and is credited with being a Midnight Sun Game founder–will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at midnight. Bill Stroecker also will play trumpet with the Frigid-Aires as part of the pregame entertainment. Sally Ann Thibedeau will sing the Alaska flag song after Stroecker’s toss.
Among the media present will be a crew from Fox television working on an NCAA sports program, a documentary filmmaker from Boston and a reporter from the Miami Herald.
If all goes as planned, the Goldpanners will emerge victorious as they have the last 13 Midnight Sun games and 28 of the past 32. The Goldpanners began hosting the event in 1960; from 1906-1959, various local and military teams played.
Getting the pitching start for the Panners is Chris Kissock, a right-hander who was 9-2 this season with the Lake-Clark State College Warriors coached by Ed Cheff, who also leads the Goldpanners.
Kissock said the atmosphere was phenomenal recently when 5,000 fans turned out to watch LCSC win the NAIA national championship in Lewiston, Idaho.
“I’m looking forward to it being like that tomorrow,” said Kissock, who has recovered nicely after bone chips in his elbow prevented him from coming to Fairbanks and experiencing the Midnight Sun Game last summer.
“It’s kind of weird how it’s at 10:30 at night. Maybe I’ll take a nap during the day,” said Kissock. “But you gotta approach the game the same way.”
All but a few of the Goldpanners players have now joined the team, but one player who will regrettably be away is Fairbanks legend Sean Timmons. In his 10th season with the Panners, Timmons has been the winning pitcher in three of the past four Midnight Sun Games and last year his No. 33 jersey was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Timmons, however, is studying to become a physician’s assistant and is in Savannah, Ga., for testing and not due to return to Fairbanks until Thursday.