By Dennis Clark
When people ask Nick Ciolli what he did this summer, he will have answers aplenty. Ciolli, a former Terre Haute North, Wayne Newton Post 346 and Indiana State sophomore-to-be baseball player, could answer:
“I played a lot of baseball”, which would be true.
“On an off day my host family went fly fishing on a river in 40-degree weather - also true.
“I played baseball at midnight “” without lights.” Strange, but true.
Ciolli, despite a freakish injury prematurely ending his season, had an enjoyable summer playing baseball with the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks “” located just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle “” in the Alaska Summer League.
“Coach [ISU coach Lindsay] Meggs had played out there back in the 1980s,” Ciolli said of how he got to play baseball in the 49th state. “He helped me out, talked to a couple guys and got me to play for the Goldpanners.”
For people unfamiliar with the history of the Goldpanners, they have sent nearly 200 players to the majors, including such notables as Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield and Barry Bonds “” the latter a teammate of Meggs in 1983.
“Right when you walk in, they have about a wall full of guys that played pro off the team,” Ciolli noted. “You walk in there and they expect 5.5 of us will go pro when you play for the Goldpanners, which is pretty cool.”
Fairbanks is a long way from Terre Haute, in more ways than just distance (with layovers, about 12 hours flying time).
“Wasn’t a fun flight,” Ciolli admitted. “Chicago to Anchorage wasn’t a bad flight, a direct flight, but seven hours on the plane isn’t too fun.”
Speaking of travel time, the road trips are a bit lengthy too.
“Closest team to us was Mat-Su, about six to seven hours,” Ciolli said. “Anchorage about nine hours. Then Kenai was about 12-13 [hours]. Mountains the whole way. They gave us a big speech about that, this will be probably the best experience you’ll go anywhere in the nation to get ready for the minors.
“Interesting part was when we traveled where we stayed. Kenai we stayed in a bingo hall, four guys to a little, like a closet pretty much. The guys that stayed at our place stayed in a trailer park. Sometimes they’d have to sleep on the bus. It was interesting.”
The ABL has six teams, two in Fairbanks, two in Anchorage, plus one each in Kenai and Mat-Su.
“Competition” – pitching is from the high-80’s to low 90’s about every day,” Ciolli added. “A lot of good relief and closing pitching. [Rosters] are diverse, people from everywhere.
“I was hitting the high .300s most of the year, ended up .330, the second highest on the team. I think I was like the seventh highest in the league. But I tried to come back a little too early after I strained my shoulder. Dropped my average about 50 points. Wasn’t too happy about that.”
Ciolli described his injury (he’s fine now), saying, “It was on the first day of an 11-day road trip. I went to check-swing a pitch up and in on me. It hit the [bat] handle right above my hands and knocked my shoulder out of place.
“It was a sublex of the shoulder. A minor dislocation, didn’t totally dislocate. I took off running, it popped out again. I got checked out by the doctors out there. I had strained a couple of muscles, it was just inflamed. We just shut it down to be safe for the fall.”
The Goldpanners have hosted the Midnight Baseball Game since 1960, an annual tradition celebrating the summer solstice.
“We had about 5,000 attendance for the Midnight Sun Game,” Ciolli said. “That was real exciting, play baseball at midnight. It probably gets sunset out there for about two hours a night, but other than that, sunlight. Kind of messed up my sleeping though.”
Ciolli stayed with a “real nice” host family while in Fairbanks, that took him fishing and sightseeing.
“I [fish] a lot,” Ciolli said. “A bunch of us would go Arctic grayling fishing, pike fishing, all kinds. Our host family would take us out on our off days, about once every two or three weeks. Went to sightsee a couple times, saw moose and bear. It was pretty cool.”
Ciolli got off to a slow start in his freshman year at ISU, uncharacteristically hitting under .200 early in the season, but ended on a high note. He finished third on the team in batting average (.307), while leading ISU in home runs (7), RBIs (35) and slugging percentage (.480).
“[ISU] was what I expected,” Ciolli stated. “I knew it was going to be a lot tougher [than high school], the pitching a lot better. Once [pitchers] find your weakness, they’ll just eat at it.
“That’s one of the big reasons Meggs sent me out [to Alaska] is Tim Gloyd, the coach of the Goldpanners, was a first-round draft pick [Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977] back in the day. He’s a really good hitting coach.”
Ciolli confirmed big changes are coming for his sophomore season with the Sycamores.
“We have a lot of new players coming in, we’re going to have a big roster in the fall. It will be fun to see the new team. Excited.”
Oh by the way, when Ciolli is offered hitting advice from Meggs in the future, he will readily listen knowing the following tidbit of information he learned in Alaska.
“Back in “˜83, when [Meggs] played out there with Bonds,” Ciolli laughed. “[Meggs] was hitting .321, Bonds was hitting like .222. I saw that out there. Made a note of that.”