A rugged, no-frills league in the Last Frontier State has funneled almost 400 college players to the majors and kept fans in Fairbanks up late each June with its quirky Midnight Sun Game
By Luke Winn
“Remember to never take the game home with you.”
— Former major league closer Lee Smith, on how a reliever can maintain his sanity
What, however, is a pitcher to do when his team’s bullpen is closer to his bed than it is to the dugout? That was the conundrum facing Kevin Camacho last summer on college baseball’s last frontier. At 2 a.m. on June 22, not long after the conclusion of the 102nd Midnight Sun Game, many of Camacho’s Alaska Goldpanners teammates mounted bicycles and rode off, still in full uniform.
They receded like a gang of supersized Little Leaguers into Fairbanks’s Arctic glow, which had made the game — a 6-1 loss to the visiting Oceanside Waves that had begun at 10:36 p.m. under a cloudy tapestry of blues and pinks — possible without the aid of artificial lights. On the summer solstice the natural light never dies out in Fairbanks, 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and on this night Camacho, a California-raised righty, would never leave the confines of Growden Memorial Park, where the centerfield backdrop is the eight-starred Alaskan flag and Take Me Out to the Ballgame is forsaken during the seventh-inning stretch in favor of the Beat Farmers’ 1985 country-punk song Happy Boy. Out with the peanuts and Cracker Jack, in with lyrics about a dead dog in a drawer, as well as the most guttural refrain ever to blare from a stadium speaker: “Hubba hubba hubba hubba hubba!”
While his teammates biked a mile or two to their host families’ houses, Camacho had a shorter trip home. He made a left at the batting cage down the leftfield line, then a hard right at the Port-o-Lets. He passed through a chain-link gate, climbed four wooden steps and unlocked a door, marked D4, on a 50-foot white trailer. Camacho tossed his equipment bag on the floor of the 9-by-12 room with a view… of the back of Growden’s third base bleachers. “Welcome to the O.V.,” he said. “This is how we live.”
O.V. is short for Olympic Village, 13 weather-beaten trailers in which visiting teams in the Alaska Baseball League often bunk when in Fairbanks. The vehicles are so named because Goldpanners general manager Don Dennis, a thickly bespectacled 68-year-old who lives in his office at the park, has leased them in the past to actual Olympic teams — U.S. skiers and lugers, and the Taiwanese and Korean baseball teams — which have occasionally trained in Fairbanks. During the 2007 season, however, the trailers housed four Goldpanners players, all of them from NAIA national champ Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho, who had chosen not to live with host families. In its previous life the four-decade-old O.V. fleet harbored some of the men who built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline near Atigun Pass, 300 miles to the north. Dennis bought the trailers for $125,000 in 1986 and relocated them to an asphalt lot adjacent to leftfield. The amenities are few and dated — wood-grain paneling, vintage ’80s TVs and no AC, which means players often wake up drenched in sweat — but there is a Last Frontier State authenticity to the spartan quarters that the players appreciate.
“It’s kind of like camping,” explained one of Camacho’s D-block neighbors, pitcher Brad Schwarzenbach. “But I’ll tell you this: I’ve never been late to the field.”
The only latecomer to last year’s Midnight Sun Game was the sun itself, which in the end never showed at all. A sellout crowd of about 4,000 had filled the park, but the sun stayed tucked away behind a horseshoe of clouds beyond the leftfield foul pole. Camacho threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run relief in the dusk before making the trek to his trailer. When a visitor described his digs as “pretty rugged,” Camacho corrected him: “It’s pretty Alaska.”
The term Alaskans use for the Lower 48 is Outside, and the six-team, four-city ABL is stocked with college standouts who are primarily Outsiders. The league — founded in 1969 but with roots going back more than a century — bills itself as an unvarnished version of the more prestigious Cape Cod League, another wood-bat summer league that serves as a showcase for top U.S. college players; last spring Dennis took a jab at the Cape circuit, calling it a “show league” for scouts and tourists compared with the “down and dirty competition among the cities” in Alaska. The ABL is best known for its alumni; it has produced almost 400 major leaguers, including Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield and stars such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Randy Johnson and J.D. Drew. The league’s character, however, is shaped more by things uniquely Alaskan: pipeline trailers, perpetual summer light and that signature tradition, the Midnight Sun Game, which grew out of a 1906 bet between two Fairbanks bars, California’s Saloon and the Eagles Club. Their patrons formed teams called the Drinks and the Smokes.
The ABL has no Hall of Fame, but much of its history resides in the head of an 87-year-old who lives six hours south of Fairbanks, in Anchorage. On the day after last year’s solstice Henry Aristide (Red) Boucher, the de facto Godfather of Alaskan Baseball, was convalescing from a stroke in his three-bedroom town house. His wife, Vicky, who’s 22 years his junior, apologized to a visitor that her husband’s trove of memorabilia was in storage because of a recent flood in the basement.
Red Boucher, in his peculiarly raspy voice, is a charming storyteller, and he explained that he had come to Alaska in 1958 at the urging of U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. JFK wanted the former naval officer and fellow Massachusetts Democrat — who’d assisted with Kennedy’s ’56 campaign — to get involved in politics in the vast territory that in 1959 would become the 49th U.S. state. Boucher met his first wife, an Icelandic Air flight attendant, in the early ’50s at a wrap party for Name That Tune, on which the two had been contestants, and persuaded her to move to Fairbanks, where in 1966 he was elected mayor. Five years later he became the state’s lieutenant governor.
Boucher founded the Goldpanners in 1960. He ran the franchise — which mostly played exhibitions against competition from Outside until the ABL’s founding — out of his sporting-goods store. Boucher was manager, fan entertainer and Alaskan baseball evangelist; he happily recalls how, during the ‘Panners’ 1963 trip to the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kans., he had a black bear tranquilized and flown in from Fairbanks as a promotional stunt. (Boucher proceeded to parade the animal, which was named Midnight, around the field on a chain, “until he started chasing me and nipping at my rear end. I ran toward the dugout, and it cleared out fast.”)
He is most proud that the ace of the ’64 and ’65 teams used his stint with the Goldpanners as a stepping-stone from Fresno City College to USC and later a major league career in which he won 311 games. Twenty-eight years after combining on a no-hitter in the NBC World Series in Wichita, Tom Seaver invited Boucher to his induction ceremony in Cooperstown.
“Red was a character cut from a different cloth,” says Seaver, who now runs his own vineyard in Calistoga, Calif. “I remember my first flight into Alaska. I went from San Francisco to Seattle to Fairbanks, and when I landed, they had a uniform waiting for me. I changed in the car and met Red — in mid-game — in the dugout. He said, ‘Go to the bullpen. Somebody get him ready.’ I got called in and met my catcher for the first time on the mound. The discussion went, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘O.K., Marty.’ ‘O.K., Tom. What do you throw?’ “
The drive from Boucher’s home to Anchorage’s Mulcahy Stadium is 10 minutes, spitting distance by Alaskan standards. The facility is home to two ABL teams, the Bucs and the Glacier Pilots, and has become familiar to millions of Outsiders thanks to a surreal YouTube clip. Through May 31, footage of a Cessna Skywagon crashing behind Mulcahy’s leftfield fence in mid-inning of an ’03 ABL game had been viewed 2,402,436 times. (Although the plane flipped as it skidded, none of its four passengers were killed, and two escaped unscathed.)
Seventy-five-year-old Pilots general manager George (Lefty) Van Brunt, another of the ABL’s elder statesmen, is living proof that dive-bombing an outfield in a single-engine Cessna can be less dangerous than warming up Randy Johnson. Van Brunt keeps a desk in the windowless equipment room of the Pilots’ first-base-line shed (which also serves as a clubhouse), and from there, a few hours before the start of a game against the Bucs last June 20, he waxed nostalgic about the Big Unit’s Alaskan summer of ’84. Van Brunt liked to goad the then USC pitcher about mechanics. “I’d say, ‘One of these days, Randy, you’ll learn how to bend your back,’ ” he recalls. “That must have ticked him off.” Soon after, in a bullpen session at Mulcahy, Johnson broke Van Brunt’s right big toe with an errant fastball. The Pilots’ G.M. insists, however, that the incident belied the Unit’s true temperament. “Randy was just a beach bum who loved his guitar,” Van Brunt says. “He played country western, but we always told him, ‘Don’t sing. You ain’t worth a darn as a singer.’ “
It is a 3 1/4-hour drive south from Anchorage to Kenai, where the Peninsula Oilers occupy the ABL’s southernmost outpost. En route, innumerable signs warn of moose crossings, and drivers are likely to spot Dall sheep on fjordside cliffs as well as anglers battle-fishing for salmon in the Russian River. There is an abundance of wildlife, but a dearth of wild life — there’s a desperate shortage of college-age women in Alaska, which forces ABL players to find other forms of entertainment; one Oiler said that by summer’s end, he might “be willing to have sex with a moose.” Former Goldpanners southpaw Bill (Spaceman) Lee, who won 119 games in 14 big league seasons, met his first wife, airline greeter Mary Lou Helfrich, as he got off a plane in Fairbanks in ’66. The Spaceman recalls that he wooed her in a typically Alaskan way. “I had a pickup truck from my host family, and after games I’d court Mary Lou by taking her out to the city dump,” he says. “We’d watch the wolves and bears in the twilight.”
Kenai is also home to a bayside Hilton, albeit an unofficial one attached to a bingo hall, with a sign inside that reads, ABSOLUTELY NO CLEATS ARE ALLOWED TO BE WORN IN THE HILTON AREA. In addition to supplying bunks to visiting players and raising money for the Oilers through weeknight bingo games, the so-called Bingo Hilton (which the team owns and runs) features a storefront that displays Oilers trophies and sells “pull tabs” — gambling tickets with perforated flaps that reveal whether the purchaser has won a cash prize. On a Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 90 minutes before an Oilers-Bucs game, two diehards sat at the Hilton’s U-shaped counter, surrounded by clear-plastic boxes of tabs.
Jim Petterson, a 58-year-old retired Unocal loader, explained almost apologetically, “Alaska doesn’t have casinos, so this is the only way we can gamble.” He and his 46-year-old wife, Betsy, don’t attend Oilers games. But given that they buy $200 to $300 worth of pull tabs a week, Jim estimated that “we’ve probably paid for a few jerseys by now.” To which Betsy interjected, “More like, we could have bought the stadium a couple of times.”
The vistas beyond the outfield fences at most ABL stadiums are relatively subdued — there are no calving glaciers or salmon jumping out of rivers — but the field in Kenai is ringed by 80-foot-high spruce trees, Anchorage’s Mulcahy Stadium looks out on a lovely cluster of additional athletic fields, and a curling club flanks Fairbanks’s Growden Memorial Park. The state’s famed peaks almost always loom in the distance, though at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, the home of the Mat-Su Miners, the mountains of the Chugach Range appear close enough to touch. Four hours northeast of Kenai and a half hour northeast of Anchorage, Palmer’s ballpark is situated off a road leading to the Alaska State Fairgrounds, marked only by a couple of small wooden signs. The field is dwarfed by the presence of a 6,400-foot crag — Pioneer Peak — that seems to rise just beyond the leftfield corner. It is a mere taste of what William H. Seward, who as Lincoln’s secretary of state negotiated the purchase of the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, once described as “scenery which surpassed in sublimity that of either the Alps, the Apennines, the Alleghenies, or the Rocky Mountains.”
It is said that Alaska has but two seasons: winter and day. Taking advantage of the latter, Miners assistant coaches Conor Bird (now the head coach) and Nate Thompson headed out for a fishing marathon at sunrise — 4:11 a.m. — after a win last June. Bird, 27, who coaches at the College of Marin, in California, and Thompson, 26, now at Nebraska, were perched on a muddy bank of the Eklutna Tailrace, near a power station outside Palmer that is a hot spot for king salmon.
Bird, a dry-witted, soul-patched San Franciscan who was serving as the Miners’ pitching coach, rigged up rods with proper weights and baited egg-loops with globs of reddish roe. “The person who does the least preparation is the one most likely to catch something,” he lamented, and when the reporter accompanying the two coaches hooked the lone king (and failed to reel it in), Bird’s axiom was proved correct. The party went on to earn the angler’s equivalent of a Golden Sombrero — four hours of only nibbles and whiffs — while tantalizing noises, some melodious, others primal, emanated from up- and down-river. Splashes from leaping salmon. Whoops from more fortunate fishermen. Strangest of all, thuds from the impact of wood against the heads of fresh catch. The salmon must be killed this way and resubmerged in the river; if left out in the open, they are essentially homing beacons for hungry grizzly bears.
The coaches were in little danger, seeing that the only thing submerged nearby was a bottle of Jagermeister, which provided periodic solace. The white flag finally got waved at around six that morning. They had to have some sleep before batting practice began that afternoon. They had come here nearly straight from the field following last night’s game and should have been exhausted. But the Alaskan sun over the river was already so bright that it buoyed the spirits of sportsmen who, today, took nothing home with them.