The Alaska Pipeline

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
June 08, 2008

"Remember tonever take the game home with you."
—Former major league closer Lee Smith, on how a reliever can maintain hissanity

WHAT, HOWEVER, isa pitcher to do when his team's bullpen is closer to his bed than it is to thedugout? That was the conundrum facing Kevin Camacho last summer on collegebaseball's last frontier. At 2 a.m. on June 22, not long after the conclusionof the 102nd Midnight Sun Game, many of Camacho's Alaska Goldpanners teammatesmounted bicycles and rode off, still in full uniform. They receded like a gangof supersized Little Leaguers into Fairbanks's Arctic glow, which had made thegame—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 ofartificial lights. On the summer solstice the natural light never dies out inFairbanks, 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and on this night Camacho, aCalifornia-raised righty, would never leave the confines of Growden MemorialPark, where the centerfield backdrop is the eight-starred Alaskan flag and TakeMe Out to the Ballgame is forsaken during the seventh-inning stretch in favorof the Beat Farmers' 1985 country-punk song Happy Boy. Out with the peanuts andCracker Jack, in with lyrics about a dead dog in a drawer, as well as the mostguttural refrain ever to blare from a stadium speaker: "Hubba hubba hubbahubba hubba!"

While histeammates biked a mile or two to their host families' houses, Camacho had ashorter 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 50foot whitetrailer. Camacho tossed his equipment bag on the floor of the 9-by-12 room witha view ... of the back of Growden's third base bleachers. "Welcome to theO.V.," he said. "This is how we live."

O.V. is short forOlympic Village, 13 weather-beaten trailers in which visiting teams in theAlaska Baseball League often bunk when in Fairbanks. The vehicles are so namedbecause Goldpanners general manager Don Dennis, a thickly bespectacled68-year-old who lives in his office at the park, has leased them in the past toactual Olympic teams—U.S. skiers and lugers, and the Taiwanese and Koreanbaseball teams—which have occasionally trained in Fairbanks. During the 2007season, however, the trailers housed four Goldpanners players, all of them fromNAIA national champ Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho, who had chosen not tolive with host families. In its previous life the four-decade-old O.V. fleetharbored 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 andrelocated them to an asphalt lot adjacent to leftfield. The amenities are fewand dated—wood-grain paneling, vintage '80s TVs and no AC, which means playersoften wake up drenched in sweat—but there is a Last Frontier State authenticityto the spartan quarters that the players appreciate.

"It's kind oflike camping," explained one of Camacho's D-block neighbors, pitcher BradSchwarzenbach. "But I'll tell you this: I've never been late to thefield."

The only latecomerto last year's Midnight Sun Game was the sun itself, which in the end nevershowed at all. A sellout crowd of about 4,000 had filled the park, but the sunstayed 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 thetrek to his trailer. When a visitor described his digs as "prettyrugged," Camacho corrected him: "It's pretty Alaska."

THE TERM Alaskansuse for the Lower 48 is Outside, and the six-team, four-city ABL is stockedwith college standouts who are primarily Outsiders. The league—founded in 1969but with roots going back more than a century—bills itself as an unvarnishedversion of the more prestigious Cape Cod League, another wood-bat summer leaguethat serves as a showcase for top U.S. college players; last spring Dennis tooka jab at the Cape circuit, calling it a "show league" for scouts andtourists compared with the "down and dirty competition among thecities" in Alaska. The ABL is best known for its alumni; it has producedalmost 400 major leaguers, including Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and DaveWinfield and stars such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, RandyJohnson and J.D. Drew. The league's character, however, is shaped more bythings uniquely Alaskan: pipeline trailers, perpetual summer light and thatsignature tradition, the Midnight Sun Game, which grew out of a 1906 betbetween two Fairbanks bars, California's Saloon and the Eagles Club. Theirpatrons formed teams called the Drinks and the Smokes.

The ABL has noHall of Fame, but much of its history resides in the head of an 87-year-old wholives six hours south of Fairbanks, in Anchorage. On the day after last year'ssolstice Henry Aristide (Red) Boucher, the de facto Godfather of AlaskanBaseball, was convalescing from a stroke in his three-bedroom town house. Hiswife, Vicky, who's 22 years his junior, apologized to a visitor that herhusband's trove of memorabilia was in storage because of a recent flood in thebasement.

Red Boucher, inhis peculiarly raspy voice, is a charming storyteller, and he explained that hehad come to Alaska in 1958 at the urging of U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. JFKwanted the former naval officer and fellow Massachusetts Democrat—who'dassisted with Kennedy's '56 campaign—to get involved in politics in the vastterritory that in 1959 would become the 49th U.S. state. Boucher met his firstwife, an Icelandic Air flight attendant, in the early '50s at a wrap party forName That Tune, on which the two had been contestants, and persuaded her tomove to Fairbanks, where in 1966 he was elected mayor. Five years later hebecame the state's lieutenant governor.

Boucher foundedthe Goldpanners in 1960. He ran the franchise—which mostly played exhibitionsagainst competition from Outside until the ABL's founding—out of hissporting-goods store. Boucher was manager, fan entertainer and Alaskan baseballevangelist; he happily recalls how, during the 'Panners' 1963 trip to theNational Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kans., he had a black beartranquilized and flown in from Fairbanks as a promotional stunt. (Boucherproceeded to parade the animal, which was named Midnight, around the field on achain, "until he started chasing me and nipping at my rear end. I rantoward the dugout, and it cleared out fast.")

He is most proudthat the ace of the '64 and '65 teams used his stint with the Goldpanners as astepping-stone from Fresno City College to USC and later a major league careerin which he won 311 games. Twenty-eight years after combining on a no-hitter inthe NBC World Series in Wichita, Tom Seaver invited Boucher to his inductionceremony in Cooperstown.

"Red was acharacter cut from a different cloth," says Seaver, who now runs his ownvineyard in Calistoga, Calif. "I remember my first flight into Alaska. Iwent from San Francisco to Seattle to Fairbanks, and when I landed, they had auniform waiting for me. I changed in the car and met Red—in mid-game—in thedugout. He said, 'Go to the bullpen. Somebody get him ready.' I got called inand 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 fromBoucher's home to Anchorage's Mulcahy Stadium is 10 minutes, spitting distanceby Alaskan standards. The facility is home to two ABL teams, the Bucs and theGlacier Pilots, and has become familiar to millions of Outsiders thanks to asurreal YouTube clip. Through May 31, footage of a Cessna Skywagon crashingbehind Mulcahy's leftfield fence in mid-inning of an '03 ABL game had beenviewed 2,402,436 times. (Although the plane flipped as it skidded, none of itsfour passengers were killed, and two escaped unscathed.)

Seventy-five-year-old Pilots general manager George (Lefty) Van Brunt, anotherof the ABL's elder statesmen, is living proof that dive-bombing an outfield ina single-engine Cessna can be less dangerous than warming up Randy Johnson. VanBrunt 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 fewhours before the start of a game against the Bucs last June 20, he waxednostalgic about the Big Unit's Alaskan summer of '84. Van Brunt liked to goadthe 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 haveticked him off." Soon after, in a bullpen session at Mulcahy, Johnson brokeVan 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 wasjust a beach bum who loved his guitar," Van Brunt says. "He playedcountry western, but we always told him, 'Don't sing. You ain't worth a darn asa singer.'"

IT IS a 3 1/4-hourdrive south from Anchorage to Kenai, where the Peninsula Oilers occupy theABL's southernmost outpost. En route, innumerable signs warn of moosecrossings, and drivers are likely to spot Dall sheep on fjordside cliffs aswell as anglers battle-fishing for salmon in the Russian River. There is anabundance of wildlife, but a dearth of wild life—there's a desperate shortageof college-age women in Alaska, which forces ABL players to find other forms ofentertainment; one Oiler said that by summer's end, he might "be willing tohave sex with a moose." Former Goldpanners southpaw Bill (Spaceman) Lee,who won 119 games in 14 big league seasons, met his first wife, airline greeterMary Lou Helfrich, as he got off a plane in Fairbanks in '66. The Spacemanrecalls that he wooed her in a typically Alaskan way. "I had a pickup truckfrom my host family, and after games I'd court Mary Lou by taking her out tothe city dump," he says. "We'd watch the wolves and bears in thetwilight."

Kenai is also hometo a bayside Hilton, albeit an unofficial one attached to a bingo hall, with asign inside that reads, ABSOLUTELY NO CLEATS ARE ALLOWED TO BE WORN IN THEHILTON AREA. In addition to supplying bunks to visiting players and raisingmoney for the Oilers through weeknight bingo games, the so-called Bingo Hilton(which the team owns and runs) features a storefront that displays Oilerstrophies and sells "pull tabs"—gambling tickets with perforated flapsthat reveal whether the purchaser has won a cash prize. On a Sunday at 12:30p.m., 90 minutes before an Oilers-Bucs game, two diehards sat at the Hilton'sU-shaped counter, surrounded by clear-plastic boxes of tabs.

Jim Petterson, a58-year-old retired Unocal loader, explained almost apologetically, "Alaskadoesn't have casinos, so this is the only way we can gamble." He and his46-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 probablypaid for a few jerseys by now." To which Betsy interjected, "More like,we could have bought the stadium a couple of times."

THE VISTAS beyondthe outfield fences at most ABL stadiums are relatively subdued—there are nocalving glaciers or salmon jumping out of rivers—but the field in Kenai isringed by 80-foot-high spruce trees, Anchorage's Mulcahy Stadium looks out on alovely cluster of additional athletic fields, and a curling club flanksFairbanks's Growden Memorial Park. The state's famed peaks almost always loomin the distance, though at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, the home of theMat-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'sballpark is situated off a road leading to the Alaska State Fairgrounds, markedonly by a couple of small wooden signs. The field is dwarfed by the presence ofa 6,400-foot crag—Pioneer Peak—that seems to rise just beyond the leftfieldcorner. It is a mere taste of what William H. Seward, who as Lincoln'ssecretary of state negotiated the purchase of the Alaskan territory from Russiain 1867 for $7.2 million, once described as "scenery which surpassed insublimity that of either the Alps, the Apennines, the Alleghenies, or the RockyMountains."

It is said thatAlaska has but two seasons: winter and day. Taking advantage of the latter,Miners assistant coaches Conor Bird (now the head coach) and Nate Thompsonheaded 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 apower station outside Palmer that is a hot spot for king salmon.

Bird, adry-witted, soul-patched San Franciscan who was serving as the Miners' pitchingcoach, rigged up rods with proper weights and baited egg-loops with globs ofreddish roe. "The person who does the least preparation is the one mostlikely to catch something," he lamented, and when the reporter accompanyingthe two coaches hooked the lone king (and failed to reel it in), Bird's axiomwas proved correct. The party went on to earn the angler's equivalent of aGolden Sombrero—four hours of only nibbles and whiffs—while tantalizing noises,some melodious, others primal, emanated from up- and down-river. Splashes fromleaping salmon. Whoops from more fortunate fishermen. Strangest of all, thudsfrom the impact of wood against the heads of fresh catch. The salmon must bekilled this way and resubmerged in the river; if left out in the open, they areessentially homing beacons for hungry grizzly bears.

The coaches werein little danger, seeing that the only thing submerged nearby was a bottle ofJagermeister, which provided periodic solace. The white flag finally got wavedat around six that morning. They had to have some sleep before batting practicebegan that afternoon. They had come here nearly straight from the fieldfollowing last night's game and should have been exhausted. But the Alaskan sunover the river was already so bright that it buoyed the spirits of sportsmenwho, today, took nothing home with them.

When a visitor described his digs, a weatherbeatentrailer, as "pretty rugged," Camacho corrected him: "IT'S PRETTYALASKA."

Dennis calls the more prestigious Cape Cod circuit a"show league" for scouts and tourists compared with the "DOWN ANDDIRTY" ABL.

The state's FAMED PEAKS always loom in the distance,though at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, they appear close enough totouch.

The Ultimate Road Trip

The Midnight Sun Game is just the start of the fun;flip open the gatefold on the next page for a dream baseball odyssey

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PHOTOPhotograph by Sam Harrel/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/APLIGHTS OUT Born out of a bar bet in 1906, the Midnight Sun Game has been played on the summer solstice every year since. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSPARTAN LIFE The ballpark trailers where players like Camacho bunk offer few amenities, but the commute can't be beat. PHOTOALASKA GOLDPANNERS/APNORTHERN EXPOSURE (Clockwise from top left) Seaver, Winfield, Terry Francona, Giambi and Bonds each spent a summer or two honing their skills in the ABL. FOUR PHOTOSALASKA GOLDPANNERS/AP[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANSPOINT OF VIEW At 6,400 feet, Pioneer Peak dwarfs the ballpark in Palmer, the smallest of the league's four cities. MAP

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)