Well-worn path to the majors starts in Alaska League

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Alaska league has decades-long tradition of helping amateurs become All-Stars

June 8th, 2008 02:37 AM

The other night in Arlington, Texas, Cleveland Indians outfielder Ryan Garko drove in six runs. Rangers shortstop Michael Young banged out three hits and drove in two runs.  In Chicago, Mark Teahan homered for the Kansas City Royals.  In San Francisco, Rich Aurilia, who recently played his 1,500th game in Major League Baseball, furnished a pinch-hit single.

In Oakland, A’s shortstop Bobby Crosby provided two RBIs and two hits, including his 20th double, which tied him for the American League lead.

In Seattle, Angels right-hander Jered Weaver earned his fifth win of the season.

In Boston, Red Sox outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, baseball’s leader in stolen bases, and J.D. Drew each slashed a couple of hits for manager Terry Francona. Rays first baseman Eric Hinske bagged two hits too.

And in San Diego, Padres right-handed reliever Heath Bell, who last season led major-league relievers in innings pitched and strikeouts, pitched a scoreless eighth to get the win over the Cubs.

What links these men — beyond exorbitant salaries and the joy of playing a kid’s game for a living — is that before they went pro, they played here as college kids in the Alaska Baseball League.

Scan any day’s Major League box scores, and you’ll find a dozen or two former Alaska Leaguers. Back several years ago, there were days when seven of nine Giants in the starting lineup had ABL ties.

Nearly 400 guys who played in the ABL dating back to the 1960s have gone on to Major League Baseball. Many became household names — Tom Seaver (Fairbanks Goldpanners), Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson (Anchorage Glacier Pilots), Jeff Kent (Anchorage Bucs), to name a few.

Each summer, major league scouts flock to Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Kenai and Palmer, to sniff out talent. The ABL merited a long story in this week’s edition of Sports Illustrated.

Mulcahy Stadium, where the Glacier Pilots or Bucs — or both — play nearly every day during June and July, really is a field of dreams.

That’s where current St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick, off to a sizzling start, bashed home runs for the Glacier Pilots in 1997. And it’s where Weaver (2002) and Colorado Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis (2001) flummoxed hitters while dominating for the Bucs.

At Mulcahy, fans can see a player before he becomes somebody. That’s part of the fun of going to the park — trying to sniff out which players you may be watching on television a few years from now. You can see them when they’re accessible — autographs are easy to come by before and after games … even during games (visit the boys in the bullpen).

You can see players do humble work like chalk the baselines and batter’s box before the game. You can see them when they retain some innocence — before the fat salaries, the postgame clubhouse spreads and the chartered flights of the major leagues.

You can go to the ballpark and see some of the nation’s finest developing talent, and do it for peanuts — speaking of which, crack open a few shells during the game and enjoy the national pastime. You can often do it from seats so close to the action you can see the dirt flying from beneath cleats and hear every word between manager and umpire when things get hot.

And because the ABL long ago rid itself of aluminum in favor of wood bats that give a truer indication of skill at the plate and on the mound, you can enjoy the crack of the bat while you savor the boys of summer.

You could do a lot worse than spending nine innings at Mulcahy, or at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, where the Mat-Su Miners play. Same goes up north for Growden Park, which the Fairbanks Goldpanners and Athletes In Action call home, and Coral Seymour Memorial Ballpark in Kenai, home to the Peninsula Oilers.

All those ABL diamonds are links to baseball’s past — and its future.

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