Every once in a while, in our quest to research every avenue professional baseball has to offer, we come across something we’ve never seen before. I (Eric) will speak only for myself in revealing that I had no idea there was such a thing as the Alaska Baseball League
Bus Leagues Q&A: Jesse Jack discusses the Alaska Baseball League
Every once in a while, in our quest to research every avenue professional baseball has to offer, we come across something we’ve never seen before. I (Eric) will speak only for myself in revealing that I had no idea there was such a thing as the Alaska Baseball League – perhaps some of my colleagues are better informed. Regardless, I knew none of us could understand it the way Jesse Jack does. He’s the proprietor of the relatively new blog 49th State Hardball, which provides more than enough information to acquaint newbies like myself with the league.
I did a short email interview with Jesse so we could find out some basics about the ABL.
Bus Leagues: In the lower 48, we don’t hear much about the Alaska Baseball League – can you give us a brief overview of its history?
Jesse Jack: The modern Alaska Baseball League was formed in the 1970’s, although its roots run deeper into baseball’s barnstorming era and even further back into the 1900’s when teams of pioneers and soldiers squared off under the midnight sun. The league that evolved out of this quickly became recognized as one of the top collegiate wood-bat summer leagues, traditionally considered to be the west-coast counterpart of the famous Cape Cod League. Today the ABL still develops and showcases top collegiate and amateur players that make up six teams in four Alaskan cities.
How did you get interested in the league?
I became a fan of the league the same way that most fans do, I imagine. When hockey is in its off-season, the Alaska League is the only chance for Alaskans to see any sort of high-level athletic competition. Neither or our major universities put a baseball team on the field and we are totally out of the way of any professional baseball teams, major league or minor. The ABL is really the only game in town, and that’s enough to get a lot of casual fans to the ballpark. But for me, what’s really fueled my passion for the ABL into becoming more than a casual interest, is being able to see some of the top amateur players polish their games before signing their first professional contract.
We think of hot summer days when we think of baseball. What are game days in Alaska like?
To the best of my knowledge we have never had a game delayed due to snow, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility! But seriously, the Alaskan summers can be quite pleasant for baseball. The days are long and bright, and the weather is generally cooperative. A “hot” day up here is in the neighborhood of 70-80 degrees, which is comfortable for almost everyone. The colder days can be a little chilly; down into the 50-degree range. In fact, at least one team has installed heaters in their grandstand! But it’s very rarely too cold or too hot to take in a ball game, which is nice because Alaskans love to get out and enjoy the short summer while it lasts.
What kinds of promotions, mascots, food items do teams use to lure fans out to the ballpark?
One of the big draws of the ABL, like most leagues of this level, is that everything is very affordable. Concession and ticket prices are very reasonably priced as is, and on top of that, it seems like there is always a sponsor giving away free or discounted tickets. I don’t exaggerate at all when I say that it is entirely possible for a fan to get an ABL game, a dog and a beer for $10-12, which is significantly cheaper than going to a movie or a hockey game at the arena next door.
You mention on your page that some well-known ballplayers have passed through the ABL. Who are we talking about?
I won’t bore you with a long list, but I will give you a handful off the top of my head: Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Jason Giambi, Jeff Kent, Steve Trachsel, Craig Counsell, JD Drew, Jeff Cirillo, John Olerud, Rich Aurilia, and Randy Johnson have all done stints in the Alaska League. I listed these players because their careers are over or are winding down; there are still more younger ABL alumni just breaking into the major leagues or working their way through the minors as well.
What type of player usually ends up in the league?
ABL teams are composed of amateur players, mainly college-ball players, many of whom are only a step away from going pro. I would feel confident in saying that most of them will eventually be taken in the MLB amateur draft. Whether they know it or not, fans of minor league baseball are probably familiar with several recent ABL players who play for or against their favorite team. In addition, the teams usually carry one or two talented Alaskan players, showcasing some local talent that may otherwise go unseen.
Have there been some colorful players who became local legends rather than big league players?
The player who first comes to mind is Sean Timmons, pitcher for the Goldpanners of Fairbanks. He appeared briefly for the Panners in 1994. After finishing his degree, he returned to Fairbanks to work the 9-5 at an everyday job, and has kept his hand in the game by pitching for the home team ever since. The best part of all is that he’s not just a fan-favorite that they keep hanging around as a player-coach. He’s still an effective pitcher. At 35 years old Timmons can still go toe-to-toe with some of the best college batters and get them out. It goes without saying that he’s become kind of a “franchise player”, which is unusual in a league where players typically stick around for one or two seasons.
Are there any aspects of the league that are fundamentally Alaskan? Things you wouldn’t find anywhere else?
Summer days in Alaska are long; so long, in fact, that night games can be fit in with little or no use of artificial lighting. The classic example is the Midnight Sun Game in which the Goldpanners host a night game, usually an exhibition against a traveling team, on the summer solstice. The game continues past the midnight hour using only natural sunlight to illuminate the field of play. This has been an annual event in Fairbanks since long before the ABL even existed, and has become a time-honored tradition in baseball. There’s no other game like it played anywhere in the world.