Fairbanks returned to the winner’s circle after a 22-year absence to win its sixth championship, more than any team in NBC history. A variety of factors led to the Panners’ decision not to play in Wichita from 1987-99.
But, they’re baaaack.
After a 24-hour tournament in 2000, when Fairbanks lost two games in the blink of an eye to be eliminated, the Goldpanners put together a great team this summer under Ed Cheff, the highly successful NAIA coach at Lewis-Clark (Idaho) State College.
Among their best players is Robinson, who graduated two months ago from Rancho Benardo High near San Diego. He was chosen in the seventh round of the June draft by the Houston Astros, but negotiations broke off.
He hit No. 4 in the Fairbanks batting order Sunday and drove in two runs with two hits, including a double.
“My dad told me all kinds of stories about Fairbanks,” Robinson said. “About how moose would wake the players up in the morning, standing outside their doors. He loved playing in Fairbanks.”
Bruce Robinson played three seasons in the big leagues with the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, batting .228. He, like his son, put on a Fairbanks uniform during his first summer out of college.
In that regard, though, Scott did his father one better. He played in 10 games with the Goldpanners last summer.
“He was just such a good hitter,” said Fairbanks general manager Don Dennis, who has been with the Panners throughout their glory years, starting with their first NBC World Series appearance in 1962. “Now Scott has become a really fine all-around player.”
The NBC trudged ahead without Fairbanks for all those years, but it wasn’t the same tournament. The Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Kenai, Mat-Su, North Pole and the Anchorage Bucs have always represented Alaska well in Wichita — the Pilots were attempting to win their sixth championship Sunday, as well.
But no team has ever had a more impressive run than Fairbanks. You can argue that the 1970s were the best years of the tournament, and it was then that the Panners won four of their titles and played in seven consecutive championship games from 1971-77.
“It feels good to be back here and to win,” Dennis said.
But there are no guarantees that Fairbanks will be back in 2003 to defend its championship. The Alaska League has a strict policy, enacted mainly by Dennis, that only the top two finishers in the regular season are eligible to come to Wichita for the World Series.
It’s a good policy, one the Jayhawk League should look into. This year, all six members of that league qualified for the tournament in one way or another, making the regular season mean less than it should.
Of course, resources are the biggest reason the Alaska League has adopted such a policy. But it’s also a huge factor in the strength of the teams it sends to Wichita every summer. The two teams that play in the World Series are able to pick up quality players from the rosters of other Alaska League teams.
“A lot of our success this year is because we hired a savvy coach,” Dennis said. “He was able to get the most out of these players.”
Dennis, probably the most successful figure in NBC history, didn’t join his team for a jubilant postgame celebration on the field. Instead, he remained stationed behind a camera above the bleachers behind third base, helping with the Fairbanks Web cast.
He’s an encyclopedia of Goldpanners knowledge, able to recall an individual player in a blink, to rattle off the performance of a team in a given year.
Fairbanks has now played in 23 World Series, and won 26 percent of them. The Panners also have six second-place finishes, so they have played in the championship game in 52 percent of the tournaments they have entered.
The Panners are the New York Yankees of the NBC World Series. Their roots dig deep into the tournament’s vast tradition. It’s good to have them in Wichita, winning championships. It only makes the NBC that much stronger.