IN the first inning, a routine fly ball drifted above the left fielder, who, positioning himself just right in the grass, held up his mitt — and then lost the ball in the sun. It was 10:40 p.m. Attribute the error to the solstice light, still going strong at the start of the 99th annual Midnight Sun Baseball Game.
On the longest day of the year, a bull moose adds nearly a pound of growth to its antlers, patrons of the Howling Dog Saloon play volleyball at closing time, and several thousand people jam into a ballpark at the edge of Fairbanks to watch men play baseball through the middle of the night.
The lights never come on. Of course, they don’t have to. The sun sets at 12:47 a.m., then reappears barely two hours later. In the golden twilight, it is baseball at 64 degrees north latitude.
Some people come for the game. The athletes are mostly college age, playing without pay to sharpen their skills in the summer-long Alaska Baseball League. A number of major leaguers — Tom Seaver, Jason Giambi and Brett Boone among them — have played in this midnight classic.
But most people are here just because they can be here, sitting in beach clothes on a still summer night, about 160 miles from the Arctic Circle.
”There’s nothing like it,” said Bill Stroecker, 84, a Fairbanks lifer whose father played in the first game in 1906. For Mr. Stroecker, there is an added amenity. He gets to blow his trumpet with a trio of old friends — the Frigid Aires, they call themselves — playing swing music in the embrace of summer light on the infield before the game starts.
When the first pitch was thrown on Monday, the temperature was in the mid-80’s; hot enough to sweat, still. The mosquitoes were busy, but their presence was mitigated by $2 beers and the organ chord strike-up of Bob Dylan’s ”Like a Rolling Stone,” warbling through ancient speakers.
Alaskans like to put up a hardy front about how much cold, darkness and misery they can take, particularly in Fairbanks, which has — they say — the biggest temperature range of any city on the planet. The coldest day ever recorded here was 66 below zero. The hottest was 99 degrees. The swing of 165 degrees makes it hard to plan a garden, to say the least. But it also makes for some monumental mood changes.
They profess to love winter here, but in truth, they crave the daylight, never more so than in June, when all of Alaska seems to be solar charged, hopped up on ultraviolet energy.
While the hometown Alaska Goldpanners and the visiting Kenai Oilers were playing through their first innings, revelers downtown were eating, drinking, dancing, swimming in the Chena River and strutting in the big star’s grip at the Midnight Sun Festival. People walked past stores like Guns & More Guns Etc. and Arctic Wonder Gifts as they enjoyed the party of light. It could have been noon.
”People are happier this time of year, no doubt about it,” said Tesha Mulkey, a Fairbanks resident who was with her Irish setter, Bruce. ”And with the light, you don’t seem to need that much sleep.”
The sleep issue is the subject of some debate. In the winter, of course, people hibernate, some sleeping 10 hours or more in the icy darkness. In summer, powered by the sun, many Alaskans say that they need only a few hours of sack time, while others complain that they never get a good rest because of the persistent light.
”It’s almost too much daylight,” said James Oden, a Texan, who is finishing his first year in Alaska while stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. ”I’m only getting about five hours of sleep a night. But it’s better than the winter. Then, my wife and I were like, ‘Whoa, what did we get ourselves into?’ ”
Oh, the winters, when Fairbanks gets only 3 hours 42 minutes of daylight at the depth, when the average January temperature is 10 below, when the ice fog can sit on town and induce a frigid claustrophobia, when everyone wears a uniform of unisex, multilayered mufti — enough insulation to pass the strictest building code in Minnesota.
Through winter, people count the added hours of daylight like pennies in a household’s last coin jar; the progression is broadcast on television news and featured prominently in the paper: today, we added five more minutes of light! It comes in dribs and drabs, a few minutes here and there at the edges, and then it surges in, 10 minutes a day, a leap every 24 hours.
People don’t kill themselves at a higher rate in winter or summer, said Bill Rockwell, a paramedic with the Fairbanks Fire Department. It’s in the early spring when winter is over in most of the United States, but the ice on the Chena River has still not broken up, that suicides spike, he said.
”It’s the end of a lot of people’s rope,” Mr. Rockwell said. ”They can’t wait anymore for warmth and light. Me, I’m just busy around the house. And come the solstice I’m working house projects till midnight.”
FINALLY, it’s June, when it never really gets dark.
”This is payback, our reward,” said Ralph Miller, who came to Fairbanks in 1962 and never left. He is retired from the airlines. At the Midnight Sun Festival he was swapping stories with another old airline employee, recalling when Alaskan commercial pilots used to play the harmonica for passengers.
Back at the game, a Goldpanners slugger, Mike Lissman, sent a fastball over the left field fence and into the parking lot of the Fairbanks Curling Club, giving the home team a 2-0 lead. An hour later, just before midnight, the sun touched the horizon to the north, but the light remained strong, and there were no complaints from players about visibility.
At midnight came a sacred ritual. The game was halted as a woman with long blond hair and wearing flip-flops walked to the infield, a microphone in hand. Everyone stood and fell silent. She sang the ”Alaska Flag Song”:
Eight stars of gold on a field of blue,
Alaska’s flag, may it mean to you,
the blue of the sea, the evening sky.
The mountain lakes and the flowers nearby.
THE stands were still packed.
To the north, people were gathering at Eagle Summit and cheering. From that high point, they could look into the Arctic Circle, where the sun was dipping but would never fall below the horizon.
In town, people were playing golf or tending their gardens (yes, they can grow tomatoes in the intense months of summer), or strolling around, somewhat bleary-eyed in the Day-Glo hours after midnight.
At Growden Memorial Park, the Goldpanners took advantage of sloppy play by the Oilers’ infield to put up some crooked numbers, stretching their lead.
Past 1 a.m., children were still eating cotton candy, teenagers were still flirting and fluttering at cellphone calls, adults were still drinking beer and arguing a call by an umpire. Few people were yawning. Take that back: visitors from Outside, as Alaskans call everyone who doesn’t live here, were yawning.
The sunset was frozen to the north, a still-life of mauve. A few light clouds started to brighten, taking on the colors of a sunrise less than two hours away.
”In all of sports, there is nothing that can match this game,” said Ed Cheff, the manager of the Goldpanners. ”Its history is special. The weather is great. The atmosphere is fantastic. Of course, I don’t get much sleep. I get by on four or five hours a night this time of year.”
The game ended just before 1:30 a.m., with the Goldpanners winning 9-1. The temperature at game’s end was 73 degrees. The crowd, which started out at about 3,500, and hadn’t thinned by much, applauded, stood and cheered — for themselves, for the game, for the shortest night of the year, for Alaska.
Some did not want to leave the stands, going home to a day when there would be a few seconds less daylight.
”You enjoy every minute of this,” said Mr. Stroecker, who has lived his entire life in Fairbanks, ”because from here on out, it goes downhill a little bit every day.”