Sports Illustrated: The Alaska Baseball League – A major league pipeline

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -There are so few fans in Mulcahy Stadium this summer evening that a heckler’s game-long monologue carries clear to the pitcher’s mound. It’s the eighth inning. The hometown Anchorage Bucs are tied with the Peninsula Oilers, 2-2.

“Hit it right at him, see how his reflexes are!” he urges the batter.

The man’s voice cuts easily through the quiet chatter of about 300 people lounging in the bleachers at this Alaska Baseball League game, between teams made up of college players from North Carolina to Hawaii to Taiwan. The park holds 4,500 people, but the average turnout for a game is several hundred.

League managers say most Alaskans don’t realize, or maybe don’t care, that more than 400 league alums have gone on to play in the major leagues.

Mark McGwire, Randy Johnson, Jason Giambi and 2006 All-Star Game MVP Michael Young all have stood on ball fields from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula, squinting into the interminable daylight of the Alaska summer and swatting at mosquitoes so enormous they’re known as the unofficial state bird.

Before he was a New York Yankee, Giambi was an Alaska Goldpanner in Fairbanks. He batted a team-high .377. Sixteen years later, the All-Star slugger recalls the annual Midnight Sun game held each summer solstice. The game begins at 10 p.m. and lasts past midnight, but has never used artificial lighting in its 100-year history.

“It was kind of tough to see for two innings, but otherwise it was pretty cool to play in a game like that,” said Giambi, then a freshman at Long Beach State.

Since the league’s founding in 1969, Alaska teams have won the National Baseball Congress championship 15 times. Top teams from 20 leagues and 19 regional tournaments will play in the NBC World Series at the end of July in Wichita, Kan.

Yet five of the ABL’s six teams would not survive without revenue from bingo parlors and charitable gaming tickets called pull-tabs. The sixth is funded by a Christian organization. Food and beer sales bring in a large-enough chunk of money that the nonprofit teams sometimes fork out handfuls of free tickets to get fans into the park.

The Cape Cod League in Massachusetts supplanted the Alaska league in the 1990s as the premier college summer league, but the ABL maintains strong relationships with dozens of college coaches, who can be a big influence in a player’s decision on where to play summer ball.

The allure of Alaska sometimes helps attract players, too. During his 2001 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Dave Winfield recalled his two summers in Alaska: “It was the best baseball in the country; prettiest, most majestic state in the union.”

Years later, players often remember the state’s wonders and peculiarities more clearly than their feats on the diamond.

All-Star pitcher Mark Redman of the Kansas City Royals helped the Kenai Peninsula Oilers win the NBC championship in 1993, and returned the next year to play for the Anchorage Bucs.

Redman had a particularly harrowing encounter with one of the dozens of moose that roam Anchorage. Arriving home from fishing one night, he found a big bull standing on his doorstep.

A mischievous neighbor suggested to the San Diego native that he lure the moose away by feeding it some carrots. Redman approached, unaware that the ornery animals have been known to kick to death anything that seems threatening.

“He chased me down the street,” Redman said. “I probably never ran so fast.”

Luis Gonzalez of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who played for the now defunct North Pole Nicks in 1986-87, remembered his host family sealing his windows with aluminum foil to block out the late-night sunlight.

During his first time in Anchorage, Gonzalez and some insomnia-stricken teammates were up at 4:30 a.m. in a parking lot playing cupball with a broomstick and a ball of plastic cups wrapped in socks.

“A police officer pulled in there saying, `I know you guys are from somewhere where it’s nighttime, but you need to get to bed,”’ Gonzalez said. “We were like, `Sir, we can’t sleep.”’

The ubiquitous summer sun doesn’t help attendance. During the seven weeks of league play, most people use their spare time to binge on 24-hour sunlight in Alaska’s stupendous wild country – hiking, camping or sinking a line into gargantuan salmon runs as often as possible before winter banishes almost all light from the sky.

Or maybe crowds aren’t impressed by the young players still fine-tuning their talents. Johnson was known as the wildest of pitchers when he played for the Glacier Pilots in 1984.

Pilots general manager George “Lefty” Van Brunt still can’t fully bend his right toes more than 20 years after Johnson hit him in the foot with a fastball.

“Hoo-ey! He was only 19, but he threw hard,” Van Brunt said. “I couldn’t get that foot out of the way, no way.”

The league traces its roots to the Goldpanners, founded in the early 1960s by Red Boucher, a telecommunications whiz who later served as Fairbanks mayor and Alaska’s first elected lieutenant governor. The ABL was born after Anchorage responded with team of its own, the Glacier Pilots, in 1969. The Bucs, Oilers, Mat-Su Miners and Athletes in Action round out the league.

From early June to late July, players are exposed to the brutal schedule and travel conditions they would face in the minor leagues, playing a game a day sometimes just hours after the 360-mile bus ride between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Oilers, for example, boarded an 11 p.m. bus to Fairbanks after finally beating the Bucs, 4-3, in 10 innings.

Adding to the high travel costs, teams pay full airfare to Alaska for all players, coaches and umpires, and up to half the airfare of visiting opponents from the lower 48.

Players get a small stipend to clean the stands and mow the fields. They also hold Little League clinics sponsored by local businesses.

Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona and Tim Wallach, who would go on to win three Golden Gloves with the Montreal Expos, were assigned to run a clinic when they played for the Goldpanners in 1978.

“The second day we got bored,” Francona said. “We went to McDonalds, and the kids we were supposed to watch got into a rock fight.”

Francona, who guided the 2004 Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years, served out the rest of the season as his star teammate’s chauffeur.

“Wallach was such a good player that my job was to make sure he got to the ballpark,” Francona said. The following year, Wallach won the Golden Spikes award for best college player after leading Cal State-Fullerton to its first national championship.

As for the small crowds, the players don’t seem to mind. Jason Castro, a catcher from Stanford, said it’s a big change from the 7,000 fans at the NCAA regionals in June, where the Cardinal beat Texas.

“It’s more of a hometown feel here,” Castro said. “There seems to be a little more heckling and you can hear it a little better. It’s kind of entertaining.”

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