2007: Replacing ping! with crack! for Alaskan summer

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2-month season gets NCAA players used to wood bats

Alaska Post online

The Alaska Goldpanners and Omaha (Nebraska) Strike Zone line up for the playing of the National Anthem prior to the 2005 Midnight Sun Game.

The boys of summer are back, and Alaska baseball fans’ winter-long dreams have finally become reality.

The sharp crack of the wooden bat connecting with the leather ball, the muffled slap of the ball hitting the pocket of the glove, the fans cheering their team and booing the umpires, homeruns, spectacular catches, well-executed double plays, stolen bases and occasionally even a triple play – all are signs that it’s baseball season once again.

The outfield is a dark rich green, the Astroturf infield a lighter faded yellowish-green. The smell of popcorn permeates the stands and hot dogs are cooking on the grill.

Though the nearest major league team is an overnight flight away in Seattle, fans can watch amateur baseball at its best right here in the form of the Alaska Baseball League.

The six teams comprising the league play in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Kenai and Palmer. After a long, cold winter, there’s nothing quite like sitting under the Alaska evening sun watching a good game.

The Alaska Goldpanners and Athletes in Action Fire play at Growden Park in Fairbanks. The Anchorage Glacier Pilots and Anchorage Bucs call Mulcahy Stadium home. The Peninsula Oilers play at the Coral Seymour Memorial Ballpark in Kenai and the Mat-Su Miners host their visitors at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer.

The six teams recruit top college players from around the United States, many of them coming directly from the College World Series.

The Alaska League has been well represented in the big leagues over the years, sending up hitters, pitchers, fielders and one World Series-winning manager.

The Panners have a total of 187 former players who were called up to the majors, and the Glacier Pilots have sent 70 up. In the past six years, the AIA Fire have seen 30 players drafted and several of them are in the major leagues, said Chris Beck, general manager.

Oilers GM Shawn Maltby said there are “too many to count,” who have graduated from his team to the big leagues. Some of the more notable Oilers alumni include J.D. Drew, Rich Aurilla, John Olerud, Frank Viola and Dave Stie.

The Anchorage Bucs have seen about 20 players go on to play in the major leagues, including Jeff Kent, Calvin Murray, Geoff Jenkins, Jeff Francis, Jered Weaver and Wally Joyner.

Others who spent a summer or more playing ball in Alaska include pitchers Randy Johnson, David Bush, Tom Seaver and Floyd Bannister. Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Bryan Price threw for the North Pole Nicks in the 1980s.

Other sluggers and fielders they faced included the likes of Chase Utley, Adam Kennedy, Bret Boone, Graig Nettles and Terry Francona, now manager of the Boston Red Sox.

The history of the league is rich with names of former players, rivalries between the cities and traditions.

One such tradition is the annual Midnight Sun Game played on the longest day of the year. As near as Interior baseball historians can estimate, the tradition began in 1906 and the Panners picked it up when the team formed in 1960.

The game begins at 10:30 p.m. and is played without electric lights. Play stops at the half-inning break nearest midnight for the singing of the Alaska Flag Song and a celebration of the midnight sun.

Since 1960, the Panners’ record in the Midnight Sun Game is 36-11, with several of the wins pulled out in late-inning come-from-behind situations. The visitors this year are the Oceanside (Calif.) Waves.

Todd Dennis, in his eighth year as Goldpanners’ assistant General Manager and member of the team’s board of directors, has been around the team his entire life. His father, Don, has been the general manager since 1967. Todd started working with the Goldpanners in 1981, and has held a number of jobs.

“We have a new head coach, 1978 Goldpanner Tim Gloyd. Tim is the head coach of Yuba College in Northern California. He is coming off of his best season since taking over coaching duties 10 years ago.” Dennis said.  “The roster is filling with prospects, and returning players include Joey Dunn, Matt Fitts, and 2005 ABL Player of the Year Matt Vogel, who is returning as a player/coach.”

Zak Basch, assistant general manager for the Anchorage Bucs, said his 2007 team looks promising.

“Our team looks good,” Basch said. “We have players from baseball powerhouse schools such as Long Beach State, Stanford, Rice, Cal Poly (California Polytechnical State University), Santa Clara and Kansas, among others.”

Mike Garcia will return to his sixth year as the Bucs’ manager, having previously managed from 89-92 and in 2006. He coached for 25 years at Canada College in California, where he is currently the athletic director.

Shawn Maltby is the general manager of the 2006 ABL champion Peninsula Oilers. He said the level of competition and sportsmanship in Alaska is unsurpassed.

“We are looking good this summer,” he said. “On paper you always may look good but coming to Alaska and swinging a wood bat is much different then an aluminum bat.”

Aric Thomas, who played for the Oilers on the 1992 and 1993 national championship teams, will manage the team this year.

The Fire is one of four teams nationally under the Athletes in Action umbrella. Beck is the national teams director and the Alaska general manager.

“The team is shaping up,” Beck said. “We, like all the teams, have to wait and see how the college season runs, as well as the draft -we all lose kids to the draft.”

Beck said what he finds memorable of summers in the ABL is the competition.

“The competition is so great that we have had 3-4 teams vying for first place all the way up to the last week of the season,” he said. “Just being in Alaska and having the opportunity to play baseball is great for our kids.”

Basch, a former Goldpanner who stayed in Alaska, said he enjoys the travel.

“I think it’s great that the kids get to see different parts of Alaska and stay in some unique places. In Fairbanks, the (visiting) team stays in a trailer park inside the stadium and in Kenai the visiting teams stay in the local bingo hall,” he said. “Also, I enjoy seeing players’ first impressions of Alaska when they arrive for the first time, because it reminds me of what a unique place it is that we live.”

“It’s great cheap entertainment with quality players and baseball,” Maltby said.

The Anchorage Bucs’ Opening Night is June 9, and is Military Appreciation Night, Basch said. All military and families get in free, and they get discounted tickets for the rest of the season.

For information on admission or game times, call the Goldpanners at 451-0095; the Glacier Pilots at 274-3627; the Bucs at 272-2827; AIA at 937-3527; the Oilers at 283-7133; and the Miners at 745-6401.

Sean Timmons, the Goldpanners all-time strikeout leader, pitches in the Midnight Sun game June 21, 2006.

Alaska Goldpanners infielder Derek Bruce takes a big swing at a pitched ball in June 2006.

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