ABL's Chugiak Chinooks settling in during second season at Loretta French Park

jpeters@adn.comJune 21, 2013 

— When foul balls exit the playing field during a Chugiak Chinooks game at Loretta French Park in Chugiak, a curious and comical ritual occurs.

Dave Stroh, the park's public announcer uses a deep, polished voice to let fans know an Edward Jones financial advisor sponsored the stray orb. He includes the name of a specific advisor, like Bob Evans, and the home Alaska Baseball League crowd along the third-base line quickly responds in unison with a musical chant of, "Yay, Bob."

When the next foul ball exits the playing field, a different advisor's name is mentioned and another cheer fills the air with the new name. It's a routine that caught on last summer, the first season at Loretta French for the Chinooks, formerly the Athletes in Action Fire. Fans started chanting, "Yay, Bill," for legislator and Chinooks board member Bill Stoltze and eventually sponsor names were filled in.

"It went over well and that's what helps sell the sponsorships," said Lee Jordan, president of the Chinooks booster club. "I encourage it."

Jordan, donning a Chinooks cap, sat in the middle of the first row of bleachers and kept score during a game against the visiting Anchorage Glacier Pilots on Thursday. A lifetime baseball enthusiast and advocate of youth baseball in Chugiak for decades, Jordan barked out praise and encouragement for the Chinooks, adding to a cozy, familial fan base that softly chuckled after every foul-ball incantation.

It's all part of a fun, laid-back atmosphere at a ballpark that is a work in progress. A few white paper signs with red ink were taped conspicuously to the outer walls of the press box. They read: "Thank you for your patience, as we make improvements to the park."

New dugouts were built this spring and a foundation for a building that will house two locker rooms and a concession stand is in place about 50 yards behind home plate. Meanwhile, burgers and hot dogs are sold from portable tables set up under a portable tent.

Located at Mile 19 on the Old Glenn Highway, Loretta French is surrounded by trees and mountains in a relatively secluded nook that contains another baseball field, two softball fields and a basketball court. Contributing to a sense of isolation is an enormous hill behind the main field's outfield fence.

Games are alcohol-free and admission is free. An average of around 200 fans show up for each game, Stroh said, and they don't all come in cars.

"You'd swear they just got up from their dinner tables and walked in," he said. "They come right out of the woods. It's like 'Field of Dreams'."

Many fans make their residence in homes near the field, Stroh said, homes hidden from park view by surrounding trees. Some who enter the park through the wall of trees atop the giant hill behind the outfield don't make it all the way down to the bleachers. They instead opt for a bird's eye view of the game midway up the grassy slope.

There are no lights at Loretta French, so the first pitch gets bumped back from 7 p.m., to 6 p.m., to 5 p.m., as summer days shorten. The sun sets behind the third-base bleachers, creating a chain-link shadow that slowly creeps toward home plate as games progress.

"The best part is the scenery, I mean, you look and there's mountains to either side," said Chinooks catcher Daniel Salters, who will be a sophomore at Eastern Oklahoma State College. "This is a really nice park."

Salters and the other Chinooks aren't just honing their baseball skills this summer. They also help maintain the field. Things didn't look so good earlier this month, Salters said, with piles of dead grass and rocks begging for removal from the natural-grass playing surface. The grass is a dark green, now, and getting fuller each day.

"Coach (Jon Groth) mows it every day," Salters said. "We're always watering it, cause it's actually been really dry. Every day, it's just watering, raking, but that's what you get with every field."

The infield doesn't play too fast, not like some turf fields do, Salters said, and while home runs don't come easy, they are attainable. Center field measures 400 feet from home plate and the left and right foul poles measure 325 feet.

"The ball carries well, I mean, you gotta square it up," Salters said. "If you square up the ball, it'll go. It definitely carries out to either side pretty well."

Reach Jeremy Peters at jpeters@adn.com or 257-4335.

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