Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alaska Goldpanners - The Northernmost Baseball Game on Earth

There is a very good reason that the word "fan" is the base of the word "fanatic" because most baseball fans are fanatic about their sport.  Most baseball fanatics have one team that is "theirs" and they follow that team through thick and thin. A former friend of mine once said that it was his goal when he retired to travel around the country for one season attending all 162 games played by the Boston Red Sox that year. Others, like Chicago Cubs fans, wait patiently for more than a century until their team can finally win a World Series. 

Baseball fanaticism isn't restricted just to the major leagues. Some minor league fans love the game and love their team so much that when the team can't win they write a novel in which the team becomes a winner knowing, as do all true baseball fans, that the umpires are typically to blame.

Although I love the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins my real passion is Minor League baseball.  Its a combination of minor league players not yet being tainted by money and fame, plus the very real fact that you can regularly buy a can of beer at a minor league game for $2.00 rather than $13.00 like at a Tampa Bay Rays game.  Minor League players attack the game with unbridled passion, each of them playing their hearts out for that one chance to make an impression and be promoted to The Show.  My passion for Minor League baseball is so intense that I have seen games in 92 different Minor League stadiums.  Maybe one day I will see them all.

I'm not sure how I found out about the Alaska Goldpanners  from Fairbanks Alaska but several years ago, probably in a conversation with my sadly missed baseball pal Bob Nolte, I learned that the Goldpanners played a game at midnight on the Summer Solstice and they did so without artificial lights.  I knew right then that one day I had to watch the Goldpanners play, preferably during their Midnight Sun game but if not that game then at least some game.

We traveled to Alaska in July 2015 to see my daughter and to pester my then almost two-year-old grandson Garrett.  They live an hour north of Anchorage and the closest team was the Alaska Baseball League's Mat-Su Miners.  We saw the Miners play in Palmer against the near by Chugiak Chinooks and I marveled at the lack of any artificial lights on the playing field.  Still, however, it wasn't the Goldpanners and it wasn't close to the Summer Solstice and I knew that I had to see the real team one day.

That opportunity presented itself in June 2017 when I had returned to Alaska again to see my daughter and to pester my now more than 3 year old grandson.  My plan was to spend time with my family then travel to Kotzebue (that I had not been to since 1989), Barrow (that I had never visited before) and then to Fairbanks so I could be on the same path Chris McCandless traveled in the fascinating book "Into the Wild" and then to watch a Goldpanners game.

When I put "Alaska Goldpanners baseball" into my Google Maps app, it sent me to a public park next to a prison on Wilbur Street far south of where I was supposed to be. Flummoxed I returned to Airport Way and stopped at a Denny's for dinner and to ask for directions to the field because Google Maps let me down.  The server at Denny's had never heard of the Goldpanners (even though, it turns out, their ball field was 2 blocks north of Denny's!).  However a couple who looked like they were part of the cast of the reality show Alaska: The Last Frontier,  graciously explained that I was only a minute or two from the ball park.

The Goldpanners are made up entirely of college students who want to retain their amateur status but still want to play competitive baseball all summer.  Their list of former players is pretty impressive including the likes of Tom Seaver and Barry Bonds not to mention Bill "Spaceman" Lee!  Like all other non-major league teams the Panners play with passion and most importantly they play on the most northerly baseball field in the world.  In my excitement to watch them I arrived at the field 30 minutes early (Cathy, or course, will ask why I was so late - normally I would be an hour early).

The box office was closed when I arrived

On June 15, 2017, the Goldpanners played the Northwest Honkers from Seattle.  Many of the Honkers are students at the University of Washington or Washington State University and just like the Panners they played out of a love for the game.

The view from my seat, June 15, 2017

I wasn't sure about the seating or the restrictions on seating so I grabbed a seat right behind home plate, in prime heckling territory, but because I didn't have a dog in the fight I said very little. However there were several instances where the home plate umpire had to be corrected on an obviously bad call (against the Panners of course) and I obliged.  I looked at myself as a "Consulting Umpire" in those situations.  

I guess because I'm used to the amenities of minor league baseball in the Lower 48 states I found it curious that there is no ground crew for Panners games. Well, actually there is but its not a grounds crew. Its the players and the coaches of the Panners who lime the baselines, and water down the bases and home plate, and who mark the boundaries of the batters box and catcher's box. It's not more elemental than that!  One amenity of the ball park that I liked was that my now-most-favorite Alaska-brewed beer "Panty Peeler" by the Midnight Sun Brewing Company, is available at Panners games.  If only it was available on draught.

The Honkers took a commanding 5 run lead early in the game and the prognosis didn't look promising.  However the immortal words of Yogi Berra "Its not over until its over" came through again, and by the end of the 9th inning the Panners were victorious, having beaten the Honkers into submission with a commanding 9-6 win.  You can watch the entire game at this link.

There were a lot of empty seats at the Panners game on June 14.  Local residents however said its a different story on the night of the Midnight Sun game when there isn't an empty seat in the stadium

Seated behind me at the game was a Season Ticket holder whom I overheard say something about watching a New York Mets vs Boston Red Sox spring training game.  That can only happen in Florida so I turned around to chat. This fellow and his wife are fanatic baseball fans and he told me about his first major league game ever - a spring training game involving the New York Yankees in Fort Lauderdale in 1964 when Mickey Mantle was drunk and was reprimanded by the Yankees manager for talking to fans before the game in his alcohol-induced state.

My local fan had been coming to Panners games for more than 30 years. He knew the history of the team, remembered now-famous players who had been there, and spoke about the Panners with as much pride as I talk about my Bradenton Marauders.  When I asked him (I never asked for his name) what it was about the Panners that he loved so much he said, simply, "Its baseball, its in Alaska, and they play in the middle of the night one game each year."  

He had a very good point and one with which there was no argument.   As he said to me at the end of the game as I stood up to leave "Next time you come to Fairbanks you better come for the Midnight Sun game.  Its the best game under the sun - all night long."

I now own an Alaska Goldpanners t-shirt so the next time I am in Fairbanks that is exactly what I will do.

1 comment:

  1. As a Consulting Umpire, much like yourself, I enjoyed your great and interesting read. Love the story about Mickey Mantle. Ralph Houk, the Yankee manager, was a real taskmaster. I do not doubt that he chewed The Mick's ass for drunken conversations with fans.