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Baseball in the Last Frontier

Austin Baird

On a summer afternoon in Anchorage, tourists who stumble across Mulcahy Stadium -- a decades-old structure with the picturesque Chugach Mountains to the east, an orange-and-green artificial turf infield that creeps onto the browning grass of the outfield behind second base, and rickety stands that could seat a few thousand but are more likely to hold a number of fans closer to a few dozen -- have at least one of the following reactions: There's baseball in Alaska? Of course. Are these guys professional, or what? Eventually. How much does the beer cost? Not much.

Yes, there's baseball in Alaska

The baseball history of the (very) far north reaches back to at least March of 1894, according to Albert Spalding's "America's National Game." The founder of the sporting goods manufacturing firm that bears his name, Spalding describes a story from Gen. Frederick Funston. Funston was part of a few baseball games between military officers and Native Alaskan guides that had led the group of American soldiers on a 20-day snowshoeing trip to the Yukon's Herschel Island while they waited for ice drifts to clear so they could return home. The participants wore comically thick fur coats and crafted balls and bats out of anything they could find, and the game was played on an ice sheet.

That's the first record of America's pastime reaching the Arctic, at least the first that Lew Freedman was able to track down for his excellent book about Alaska baseball, "Diamonds in the Rough."*

One of the early baseball names to help the cause for a more organized incarnation of baseball in Alaska is the all-time great Satchel Paige, who spent most of his career barnstorming around the United States and pitching around the world in various Negro leagues. Satch participated in an exhibition series against local Alaskans in 1965. By the time Paige arrived at Anchorage International Airport, he was already 59 years old, but he looked many years younger and was enough of a generational icon that he caused a significant local stir over the course of four games.

Those are some of the early, informal bouts with baseball, but thanks to H.A. "Red" Boucher and others, there eventually came into being a full-fledged Alaska Baseball League, which locals and tourists can watch in stadiums like Mulcahy around the state during the summer months. The old stadiums and the laid-back attitude of everyone around the game might distort the fact that the league has grown into one of the elite programs for college baseball players that hope are working on mechanics and staying in shape during the summer, enough so that it is often mentioned in the same breath as the storied Cape Cod League.

What makes the Alaska summer league special is something of a recurring storyline that crops up every year: players with raw talent and endless potential that grow into themselves during a summer in Alaska. That's a well-documented phenomena, but few of those players stand out more than a lanky pitcher from the University of Southern California that played for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots in 1982.

That kid, who intended to work on his pitching form for a few months, was tossed into a position at first base for opening day because of an injury-depleted lineup. It turned out that he did a better job hitting and fielding than he ever would have imagined: he hit .404 with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs that summer in Alaska. It comes as a surprise to many that that kid from SoCal was Mark McGwire.

Joining McGwire is a laundry list of hall-of-fame caliber players that have spent a summer or two in Alaska: Barry Bonds, Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Randy Johnson and Jason Giambi, to name a few. Obviously, not everyone that plays in the summer league goes on to that level of success, but it's a safe bet that you'll see a few future major leaguers if you watch a couple of games.

How much does it cost? Where are the games?

Shane Mattingly, part of the Mattingly family** that has owned and operated the Anchorage Bucs for decades, offers an honest assessment of the cost to get into a game: "If you can't find a free ticket to a game, you're not looking very hard."

That's a recurring theme for other six teams in the league: the Mat-Su Miners, Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, Anchorage Bucs, Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Kenai Peninsula Oilers and Fairbanks Fire. Check the league's official website for the league schedule and the locations of the stadiums.

At Mulcahy Stadium, where the Bucs and Glacier Pilots play home games, there is a slew of free tickets on everything from a Veteran's appreciation day to a day celebrating insurance brokers, and it's pretty easy to snag a ticket or two if you linger around the front gate for a few minutes before any game. If you're in the mood to be a big spender of sorts, you could always go ahead and drop the $5-10 it costs to get through the turnstiles -- throw in a beer ($5 on a regular night, cheaper on occasion) and a hotdog (also $5) and you're looking at less than $20 per person for an afternoon of baseball. Try finding that in the Lower 48.

* Most of the historical information mentioned in this article is found originally in Lew Freedman's "Diamonds in the Rough." Freedman's book is an excellent read for any fans of baseball and anyone else with a general interest in Alaska. His other books cover a range of sports and Alaska topics.

** Yes, there is supposedly a relation between Alaska's Mattinglys and the Yankees' Don Mattingly, though no one in the family seems sure exactly what that relationship is.

Contact Austin Baird at austin(at)alaskadispatch.com