As possible future professionals took to the turf at Mulcahy Stadium to begin the Alaska Baseball League season Sunday, the league's past was being honored all around them.
Prior to the Anchorage Bucs sweeping the Anchorage Pilots in a non-league doubleheader, taking the first game 3-2 and the second 9-6, the Bucs said goodbye to an old friend and Pilots fans had an opportunity to stroll down memory lane.
During a pre-game ceremony, tears were shed at home plate by family and friends of the late Dennis Mattingly, the Anchorage Bucs' general manager of more than 30 years who died in January after an 11-year fight with multiple myeloma cancer.
A banner with Mattingly's picture was unveiled over the door of the Bucs' clubhouse, just above the spot where Mattingly liked to sit during games.
"He'll be here for me every day, and I'll miss him every day," said Bucs' director of baseball operations Gary Lichtenstein, a close friend of Mattingly's since 1985. "We're gonna dedicate the season to him."
The Bucs will wear Mattingly's initials on their caps this season, a tribute to the man who founded the Bucs and did everything from teaching pitching mechanics to fixing popcorn machines.
"Dennis, I called MacGyver, because he just loved to get down there and fix things and was able to do it," Lichtenstein said.
Pilots general manager Jon Dyson was busy Saturday night, hanging a set of 12 murals along the fence behind the Pilot's clubhouse, creating what he called a wall of fame of sorts. The giant pictures of current and former Major League Baseball players who once played for the Pilots attracted the gaze of many meandering toward their seats on the first-base line.
"We've had a lot of fans coming up and saying how cool it was," Dyson said. "A lot of people know about the big names, but they always see other people and say, 'Wow, I didn't know he played here.' "
Some of the MLB stars depicted were Randy Johnson, who played for the Pilots in 1984, Aaron Boone (1992) and Steve Howe (1978). There are also some more recent recognizable players, like Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Ludwick (1997) or New York Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey (2003).
It's easy for ABL fans to forget some of the major league ball players who have spent time in Anchorage, Dyson said, and that's why he decided to create the wall of fame. He also wanted the current Pilots to sense the history they are part of, to understand how many MLB players spent time in the same locker room they'll hang out in this summer. As for which Pilots will stand out this summer, Dyson said it's a little too early to tell.
"A lot of these guys have pro potential," Dyson said. "Just about everybody looks the part."
Just watching the Bucs and Pilots handle the ball during warm-up drills can be enough to impress. Slick fielding, followed by high-velocity throws provides evidence of elite-caliber players. Of course, there are also the occasional bloopers inherent to the game, like Pilots first-baseman Matt Daugherty losing his grip during an at-bat in the first game and watching his bat fly into the fifth row behind the Bucs' dugout on the third-base side.
The bat avoided hitting anyone in the head and wound up in the hands of Valentin Gomez, a 27-year-old Army mechanic. Gomez, who said he watched about 30 ABL games last season and has visited every ABL field except Growden Memorial Park in Fairbanks, didn't hesitate to return the bat.
"It's not the major leagues," he said. "In the major leagues, sometimes they'll let you keep the bats."
Gomez, dressed in an orange and blue Mets jacket, said he had never caught a foul bat before, but the glove he wore on his left hand was ready for any baseballs that might come his way.
"I almost got hit with a foul ball last year," he said. "You gotta pay attention."
Along with bats and balls flying in the stands, there was plenty of extra entertainment for fans on an overcast afternoon. A Pilots bat boy outhustling a Bucs bat boy for a foul ball behind home plate elicited laughter from the crowd. Emphatic strike calls from the home-plate umpire and batters enduring harsh heckling from fans also gave reason to smile.
"Enjoying a game live, you can feel the crowd and hear the noise," Gomez said. "It's not the same watching on TV at home."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
Batter up MONDAY Elmendorf Eagles at Bucs, Mulcahy Stadium, 7 p.m. Pilots at Mat-Su Miners, Hermon Brothers Field, 7 p.m. Adult All-stars at Peninsula Oilers, Seymour Memorial Park, 7 p.m. TUESDAY Adult All-stars at Peninsula Oilers, Seymour Memorial Park, 7 p.m. Mat-Su Miners at Pilots, Mulcahy Stadium, 7 p.m.; Bucs at Chugiak Chinooks, Loretta French Field, 7 p.m.