Alaskans love baseball.
On long summer evenings and weekend days, everybody, it seems, plays softball. And when they're not at bat or fielding, Alaskans fill hometown grandstands to watch the teams of the Alaska Baseball League play some of the best amateur hardball in the West.
Six teams make up the Alaskan league, which is associated with the National Baseball Congress - the nation's oldest amateur baseball organization, now in its 55th season. Two teams play in Anchorage- the Glacier Pilots and the Bucs. Fairbanks' Alaska Goldpanners were the 1985 state champions; in Palmer, you'll find the Mat-Su Miners; Kenai supports the Peninsula Oilers; and the town of North Pole (13 miles south of Fairbanks) has a new stadium for the Nicks.
Each summer, many of the nation's best players from such perennial collegiate powers as Arizona State and California come to play baseball. They team up with former professionals to play a highly competitive - and highly regarded - level of ball reminiscent of the minor league heyday in the 1950s.
Since the league's start in 1960, Alaskan teams have won eight championships in the 1,400-member National baseball Congress. More than 150 Alaskan league players - including such current stars as Chris Chambliss, Dave Kingman, Graig Nettles, Tom Seaver, and Dave Winfield - have continued on to careers in the major leagues.
The call of the wild: play ball!
Why is Alaska such a hotbed of baseball activity? in 1960, the strongest amateur league was South Dakota's Basin League. Young ballplayers saw the new Alaska league as an alluring, adventurous alternative to "badlands baseball," and frontier wages were higher than elsewhere.
Amateur players can't be paid to play; instead they're guaranteed at least 28 hours of work each week. Dave Winfield, now with the New York Yankees and one of the highest-salaried players in the major leagues, worked in a Fairbanks furniture store during his 1971 and 1972 seasons with the Goldpanners.
When to see a game
From the first weekend in June to the end of the season, each team plays about 70 league games, plus a few games against teams visiting from the Lower 48 or other countries, such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
In early August, the "Top of the World" series determines the league champion. It's followed by the state's tournament that decides who goes to the national competition held each year in Wichita, Kansas.
Throughout the season, games are played most evenings - usually starting at 7:30 - though games are occasionally rained out. Local newspapers print the schedules. Admission varies; it is usually $3 for adults, $2 for ages 13 through 17, and $1 for ages 12 and under.
On June 21, the summer solstice, nearly continuous sunlight will illuminate the Fairbanks landscape; the city will host a "Midnight Sun" game starting at 11P.M. and played without lights. Last year, some 3,500 fans crowded the city's Growden Stadium to cheer on their team. The last pitch of this quintessential Alaskan baseball game came as 2 A.M. approached and the sun began to climb from the horizon.