2006: Baseball at midnight? Only in Alaska

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It’s a baseball happening unlike anything else when the Alaska Goldpanners take the field for the Midnight Sun Game.

BY CLARK SPENCER
MIAMI HERALD

The sun was posturing, scraping the western horizon while making its slow descent to the north. A rainbow unfurled in the east. And Bill Stroecker was standing impatiently by the admission gate at Growden Park as fans lined up to celebrate a baseball happening like no other.

Here, 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the summer solstice that falls on June 21 provides the one essential ingredient required for the Midnight Sun Game: namely 22 hours of daylight that makes baseball possible without the need for artificial illumination. It is the national pastime, au natural.

The first such game was played here 100 years ago when a couple of local taverns, one nicknamed the “‘Drinks” and the other the “‘Smokes,” hit the diamond to settle a wager. Eddie Stroecker played in the 1906 inaugural.

Stroecker’s son, Bill, has continued the family’s Midnight Sun tradition, serving as president for the Alaska Goldpanners, a summer-league collection of mostly collegians whose list of alumni includes names such as Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield. Stroecker, 85, also plays trombone for the Frigid-Aires, a jazz trio on tap to entertain last week’s crowd with a few pregame tunes.

Only the accordionist had not shown by 9:30 p.m., one hour before the Goldpanners were set to face the Beatrice Bruins, the visitors from Nebraska. Stroecker was agitated.

“‘The number of years the three of us have been in Alaska is 203,” Stroecker said, eyes alert for the missing band member. “And, apparently, one of us has Alzheimer’s.”

At last, the accordionist arrived, the Frigid-Aires did their thing, and at 10:30, with many in the crowd of 4,000 wearing sunglasses and commemorative visors given out to them on the way in, the Midnight Sun Game officially was on.

Although the vast majority of spectators are residents of Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city with a population of 30,000, some had traveled from as far as Cooperstown, N.Y., to take in the only baseball game of its kind. They all had come to witness a unique spectacle that Goldpanners general manager Don Dennis said “has kind of taken on a life of its own in recent years.”

“‘The baseball is almost kind of secondary,” Dennis said.

“MUST-SEE’ EVENT

Baseball America has identified the Midnight Sun Game, as well as a Red Sox-Yankees showdown at Boston’s Fenway Park and the College World Series in Omaha, as one of its 12 “‘must-see” events.

“‘Part of the fun is seeing people from the outside coming to the game, people from America,” said Bob Anderson, who has spent his entire life in Alaska and is proud of the state’s frontier image.

Alaska is as vast as it is remote, closer to Russia than it is to any of the states in the contiguous 48. Slice Alaska in half, Alaskans are fond of saying, and Texas becomes the third-largest state.

The lone star of Texas doesn’t put out 22 hours of high-wattage light, either.

Just ask Kyle Colligan, the center fielder for Beatrice, a native of Houston and a sophomore at Texas A&M. When he told friends about the Midnight Sun Game, many of them had trouble comprehending.

“They say, `Baseball at midnight? No lights?’ “‘ Colligan said.

But it’s true. And for Alaskans, it’s their just reward for putting up with the long winter months when the sun pops up for only three or four hours, no more.

Luella Rasley said she nearly turned around and returned home the second she and her husband set foot in Fairbanks in 1959. It was cold and remote. Now she wouldn’t trade it for anything, and summer baseball makes it all the better. She and her husband are board members for the Goldpanners and have season tickets. They were in their seats for Wednesday’s game at 8 p.m., arriving early to soak in the atmosphere.

“‘Look at this,” Rasley said, producing a small pin from her purse. “They gave us these at Fort Wainwright back in 1961 for showing up on the day it was minus-72.”

It wasn’t nearly that cold last week, light-jacket weather but nothing unbearable.  More important, the sun made its grand entrance in late afternoon after spending much of the day looping the sky, obscured behind a thick blanket of clouds.

The sun was scheduled to set at 12:47 a.m. Thursday before reemerging at 2:57 a.m. But while it dips a mere degree and a half below the horizon, its reflected rays shed enough light to allow play without too much difficulty.

“‘A wonderful gloaming,” is how John Luther Adams, a local artist who moved to Alaska in the 1970s as a professional environmentalist, describes the effect.

Not that playing conditions are always perfect.

TOO BRIGHT

Al and Lynn Hines, who serve on the Goldpanners’ board of directors, enjoy telling the story of a recent Midnight Sun Game in which their team’s first baseman requested a timeout because he was unable to make out the pitcher while trying to hold a runner.

“‘A cloud had moved over, and he said he couldn’t see, said it was too dark,” Al Hines said. “So we waited 20 minutes until the cloud passed and started again. A couple of innings later, the first baseman called time again. He said he couldn’t see his pitcher because the sun was in his eyes. It was too bright.”

Marlins bullpen coach Mike Harkey went 10-0 as a Goldpanners pitcher in 1986. He helped lay the artificial turf, a three-toned carpet that has remained in place ever since. Dennis said the old, all-dirt infield had become too difficult too maintain from one season to the next due to permafrost, which made the ground unstable.

But what Harkey said he remembers most from his Alaskan experience was the never-ending sunlight.

“‘You drive down the street, and kids are playing outside at three in the morning,” he said. “In the winter, everybody is in their homes, so much so that when summer comes around, the parents and the kids, they don’t waste any of the light. They use it all.”

Marlins scouting director Stan Meek, a player for the rival Anchorage Glacier Pilots in the early ’70s, said he remembered driving home after games at night and seeing homeowners mowing their lawns at at 11 p.m.

“‘What a crazy league,” Meek said. “It was really strange. But it’s great.”

Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg was a member of the “83 Goldpanners. That team ended up producing 14 major-leaguers and featured an outfield of Shane Mack, Oddibe McDowell and Mark Davis, an outfield so talented that when one Arizona State hotshot joined the Goldpanners in late season, he was forced to play first base. His name: Barry Bonds.

“‘It was weird,” said Arnsberg, a former Marlins pitching coach, of the Midnight Sun experience. “You had to have foil on your bedroom windows just to keep the light from jumping in when you were trying to sleep. I remember, unfortunately, walking out of a couple of bars at three or four in the morning and it was broad daylight. It was kind of an odd feeling.”

HOME-FIELD EDGE

Most of the players in the wood-bat Alaska Baseball League are collegians who are put up by local families and work side jobs to earn a bit of summer cash. Quite a number of the Goldpanners have blossomed into major-league stars, including Winfield, Bob Boone, Dave Kingman, Graig Nettles and current players Jason Giambi and Michael Young.

Seaver started the 1965 Midnight Sun Game but did not see its conclusion. He was struck on the hand by a line drive and taken to a hospital. Tom House, who would gain notoriety by retrieving Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run ball in 1974 when it fell in the Atlanta Braves bullpen, won the 1966 Midnight Sun Game, and Bill “‘Spaceman” Lee took the loss in “67.

Fans here still talk about a tape-measure home run hit by Winfield. It landed on the roof of the Fairbanks Curling Club, located about 100 feet beyond the outfield wall in left.

The Goldpanners seldom lose their showcase game and, in something akin to a fall homecoming ritual in college football, typically schedule weaker opponents to improve their odds. Since 1960, when the Goldpanners began hosting the game on a regular basis, they have won 43 times against just three losses. They carried a streak of 13 consecutive Midnight Sun wins entering Wednesday’s contest.

At least the hosts provide lodging for their victims. Opposing teams are housed in trailers that were salvaged in the mid-1980s from Alaska Pipeline camps. They’re located near the left-field bullpen, a long foul ball from home plate.

“We like to call it our `Olympic Village,’ which, as you can see, is anything but,” Dennis said with a light chuckle.

Less humorous was the Midnight Sun experience of 1984, when the Chinese-Taipei national team showed up in Fairbanks to prepare for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Around the fourth inning, the Chinese complained that they were having trouble seeing the ball due to cloud cover and threatened to walk off the field. An umpire, who Dennis said was without authority to make such a decision, coaxed the Chinese into playing seven innings, but no more.

When the seventh ended, the Chinese team packed its equipment (along with a 2-1 lead) and loaded onto a bus. Dennis raced onto the bus in an attempt to resolve the issue, but the Chinese refused to budge.

The Goldpanners were awarded a 9-0 forfeit.

“They had this big, burly first baseman everyone called `Smiling George,’ “‘ Dennis recalled. “When I stepped up on the bus, he had a big grin and, because he could speak a little English, he said, `Goldpanners 9, Taipei 0.’ That’s all he said, and he just sat there grinning.”

That episode didn’t result in any long-lasting damage to overseas relations. The Goldpanners’ current roster features four players from Taiwan, and a team from mainland China is scheduled to spend a month in Fairbanks next summer.

NEW BALLPARK

Dennis said the popularity of the Midnight Sun Game has grown to the extent that the Goldpanners’ board members are setting up a separate committee to handle the logistics.

He said plans also are under way to build a new ballpark designed exclusively for the annual game, a facsimile of the park used in the early part of the last century, one with an all-dirt infield, wooden, bench-seat bleachers, and native birch logs for the outfield wall.

But those are matters for another day.

This week, the pace was so brisk that the eighth inning arrived shortly before midnight, the score deadlocked 1-1. The traditional seventh-inning stretch came and went with nary a stir from the crowd, which opted instead to wait for its own tradition, the singing of the Alaska flag song, which was performed in the middle of the eighth by Sally Ann Thibedeau.

Not long after, in the bottom of the 10th (and 16 minutes before the sun was able to make its official departure) the Goldpanners’ Chu Yuan-Chin drove in the winning run with a two-out single.

As the crowd cheered, the Goldpanners celebrated, and the Frigid-Aires packed their instruments, the stadium announcer sounded off for the final time:

“Thank you for coming, good morning, and drive safely.”

The post-midnight sun was radiating still.

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