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Alaska Baseball League has new look for new season

Beth Bragg
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

The old ballgame has a new look this summer in Alaska.

The Fairbanks Goldpanners are back in the Alaska Baseball League full-time after an abbreviated season last year, new general managers are running the show for the Anchorage Bucs and Kenai Peninsula Oilers, and new field managers are calling the shots for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Mat-Su Miners and Oilers.

And there's a team in Chugiak.

The Chugiak Chinooks debut Tuesday night in a game at Loretta French Sports Complex. The team isn't new -- it's the Athletes in Action team that once went by the name AIA Fire -- but just about everything associated with it is: New name, new uniforms, new ballpark, new fans.

"I can't believe it," said Lee Jordan, president of the booster club and a longtime businessman in Chugiak/Eagle River. "I've been involved in baseball out here since the early '60s and we've always been supportive of our youth sports, but the excitement here, you just can't believe."

The team is part of the six-team ABL, a wood-bat league that for more than four decades has brought some of the nation's top collegiate players to Alaska for a two-month season. Players like Jacoby Ellsbury and Jered Weaver made stops in Alaska on their way to the major leagues.

The Chinooks are sponsored by Athletes in Action, a sports ministry based in Ohio that fields four baseball teams. AIA will pay most of the operating costs, including airplane tickets to get the players here, Jordan said, while the booster club hopes to raise $50,000 to help cover the cost of uniforms and some other expenses.

Upgrades have been made to Loretta French Field, a city-owned ballpark that is also home to Eagle River's high school and Legion teams. In order to bring the park closer to college standards, bleachers that seat 300 were added, a press box was built, bullpens were upgraded and a walkway around the park was paved.

There are no lights, so the 7 p.m. starts will be pushed to 6 p.m. late in the season as the days get shorter.

And although there will be a concession stand, don't count on washing down your salted peanuts with a cold beer. There won't be beer sales because of AIA's religious ties, Jordan said.

Capital budget money from the state Legislature helped fuel the renovations at the ballpark but make no mistake -- there's an awful lot of grassroots effort at work with the Chinooks.

Jordan's most recent newsletter includes a request: "If your weekend fish catch has been removed and the ice chest cleaned, the Chinooks could use it." It goes on to explain that potable water isn't available at the field, so the Chinooks are in need of ice chests for the dugouts so players have cold water to drink.

There's a waiting list of families eager to host players for the summer and there have even been a few sales of the $150 season tickets.

The latter of those things is notable, because Loretta French Field has no gated entrance, so the Chinooks don't charge admission.

"The people here have been awesome," said Chris Beck, who directs the Athletes in Action baseball program in Ohio and is the hands-on GM for the Chinooks.

Beck started the Alaska AIA team 12 years ago. For a decade, it was based in Fairbanks and shared Growden Memorial Park with the Goldpanners.

That arrangement was disrupted last year when the Goldpanners, citing financial reasons, played an abbreviated season in Alaska. That decision left AIA all alone up north, its closest rival more than 300 road miles away in Palmer.

AIA considered moving the Fire to a summer league in the Lower 48, Beck said.

But the rest of the Alaska Baseball League had a vested interest of helping AIA find a new home, said Pilots general manager Jon Dyson, who started working on a plan to keep AIA in Alaska as soon as he heard the Goldpanners weren't playing a full season last summer.

"It's important to have AIA up here, and the last thing we wanted was to have it down to four teams," Dyson said. "I threw out the idea, 'What if we can get you down here and based in Anchorage for the summer?' "

AIA decided to make the move, even though no home field awaited it. All of its "home" games were played in the parks of opponents with the exception of a single game at Loretta French during the Bear Paw Festival. This summer, for the first time in a dozen years, AIA has a distinct identity.

"The Panners have been around so long we were never gonna be the home team on their field," Beck said. "It's nice to have a town where we have our own field."

Even with the Goldpanners back in the fold, AIA's move to Chugiak is a good one for the league, said Mat-Su general manager Pete Christopher.

"Everyone saved money when AIA moved to Chugiak," Christopher said. "A 7- or 8-day road trip to Fairbanks runs $14,000 to $15,000 with meals, the bus and rooms at UAF. Now we go up for only two nights and we play four games in the three days."

Hello again

New in the ABL this summer: a number of familiar faces.

The Bucs and Oilers both have new general managers, but the man in charge of the Bucs, Shawn Maltby, is familiar enough.

Maltby spent six seasons at the Oilers' GM before coming to Anchorage to replace Bucs founder and longtime GM Dennis Mattingly, who died during the offseason after a long fight with cancer.

Replacing Maltby in Kenai is James Clark, who worked with the Boys and Girls Club and other nonprofits in Kenai before joining the Oilers.

Three teams have new field managers, but all three are ABL veterans.

New Oilers manager John Stevens was the team's assistant coach last season. He replaces Dennis Machado, a hometown product whose new assignments -- father to Tessa Noel (born in October) and pitching coach at Cal State Northridge -- will keep him from returning to Kenai this season.

New Miners manager Chris Gordon was the team's pitching coach last year. And new Pilots manager Conor Bird spent two seasons coaching the Miners.

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Batter up Tuesday's games in the ABL Mat-Su Miners at Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Mulcahy Stadium 7 p.m. Anchorage Bucs at Chugiak Chinooks, Loretta French Field Adult All-stars at Peninsula Oilers, Seymour Memorial Park, 7 p.m.

Photos: New ABL home in Chugiak
Anchorage Daily News