Sunday, June 22, 2014

Baseball at midnight - without lights! The Midnight Sun Game, not too far south of the Arctic Circle

One of the advantages of a Summer Solstice visit to Fairbanks, Alaska is to see the Alaska Goldpanners play the Midnight Sun Game - a tradition that started in 1906. Last night, I got to see the 109th annual Midnight Sun Game, and the Goldpanners beat the Lake Erie Monarchs, 13-6.

The day before I had flown with four other passengers to Coldfoot, Alaska, about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and then we drove back to Fairbanks. We got back to town in time to see the sun set (only because the mountains provided a place to hide behind for a while. It never really gets dark; you can definitely sit outside and read a book 24 hours a day.

Last night, for the game, it was cloudy and there was a little spitting of rain that caused a delay of a few minutes before the Goldpanners themselves went out on the field to remove the tarps and get ready to start the game.

There were a few thousand people in attendance. The game is played with wooden bats and truly represents the highest level of amateur baseball in America. For those who have seen play in the Cape Cod League, it's a very similar experience - but there aren't any Cape Cod League games played at midnight without lights.

Two bits of information that provide a good idea of what a high level of play is represented:

More than 200 former Alaska Goldpanners have gone on to play in the major leagues.  Among them are (in no particular order): Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds, Rick Monday, Dave Roberts, Dave Kingman, and Adam Kennedy.

The very first player ever selected in the draft, when Major League Baseball instituted the draft in 1965 was Rick Monday, the #1 pick in the nation. The Kansas City Royals drafted Monday.

To date, 1,164 Goldpanners have been drafted by major-league teams.

Last night's game at Growden Park in Fairbanks began about 10:37 PM and ended at about 1:14 AM.

I was pleased to spend dinner beforehand with Evan Petty, a Newburyport, Massachusetts recent graduate of Syracuse interning with the team this year as a sports journalist. Then it was a pleasure to climb two flights of wooden stairs and join Evan in the press box for an inning, and then spend a couple of innings talking about SABR and baseball in general with GM Todd Dennis, in between him announcing players. The GM is also the PA announcer.

Partway into the game I had asked Evan who was selecting the music because I thought it was first-rate. That turned out to be Todd, too.

A base on balls in the later innings prompted Patsy Cline's, "Walking After Midnight."  You don't often get to hear Bo Diddley sing, "I'm A Man."  The seventh-inning stretch song was "Happy Boy" by the Beat Farmers.

Todd's father Don Dennis talked before the game. He's been running the game since 1967. He talked about the history, letting us know this was personally his last year. The game, of course, will continue.

The game itself paused in the half-inning closest to midnight for a rendition (by Hurricane Dave) of the Alaska state song, and a second ceremonial first pitch.  This was thrown by a dedicated traveler whose thing was to make first pitches in as many ballparks as he could - he's over 200.  The ball made it most of the way to the plate.

The earlier first pitch was from Allan Simpson, founder of Baseball America and former sports editor of the Fairbanks News-Miner.

At age 61, Bill Lee (no longer a college student, admittedly) won that year's game. He himself had first pitched in Fairbanks in 1967.

I'm hoping Evan will write a book on the history of baseball in Alaska, and the Midnight Sun Game in particular. It would be a good complement to Lew Freedman's Diamonds in the Rough.

Now, for me, time to head to Denali National Park for two nights.

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