Jeff Barnhart, a man for all sports seasons, died in his sleep and was found at his home Sunday afternoon, minutes before his American Legion baseball team took the field for its final game of the summer.
Barnhart, 57, was the executive director of the Alaska Golf Association, a former sprint musher who contributed to radio coverage of the Fur Rendezvous World Championship race, and an assistant coach for East’s high school and American Legion baseball teams.
East played Fairbanks in a 1 p.m. game Sunday at the Matson Invitational at Bartlett High. Barnhart, an assistant coach who is typically the first to the park, wasn’t there as game time approached.
Head coach Kurt Solberg hastily filled in a lineup card — a task usually performed by Barnhart — and then drove to Barnhart’s home, where he found his friend, still in bed. “He was as peaceful as you could look laying there,” Solberg said.
When Solberg called tournament official Don Winchester with the news, play had just started. The game’s first batter: Zack Barnhart, Jeff’s teenage son, who just graduated from East High.
Winchester got in touch with Kathie Barnhart, Zack’s mom, and told her what had happened. She headed to Bartlett and arrived in the third inning. Officials brought Zack out of the dugout, and his mother told him what happened.
“We asked him, ‘Do you want to keep playing?’ ’' Winchester said. “He looked at his mom and just said yes. His mom even said ‘Your dad would want you to do that.’ ’'
The game stopped so tournament officials could tell umpires and the teams what had happened, and Winchester spoke to the East crowd.
Among the spectators was recently retired East High principal Sam Spinella, whose grandson plays for East. The game resumed, and Spinella spent the rest of it on the bench with East’s players.
“Sam sat in the dugout and we played ball,” Winchester said.
At Mulcahy Stadium, where the state tournament is being held, a moment of silence was held in Barnhart’s honor.
Barnhart grew up in Eagle River and graduated from Chugiak High. He had two children, Zack and McKenzie.
He was involved in numerous aspects of Alaska sports, as both a coach and an organizer.
He spent the last dozen years as the executive director of the Alaska Golf Association, where he helped put on Alaska’s state tournaments.
For years he was involved in sprint mushing, as a racer at Tozier Track and a radio broadcaster during Fur Rondy.
And he coached youth sports — lot and lots of youth sports.
“This guy did a lot of great things,” Solberg said. “Golf, baseball, basketball. He helped out with a lot of groups. I remember one year he coached three different basketball teams at Wendler (Middle School).”
On Friday of last week, Barnhart proudly posted a photo of Zack, smiling and holding up a certificate he earned for being named player of the game that day.
In Sunday’s game against Fairbanks, Solberg joined the team while the game was in progress.
“It was very quiet. Surreal. No one really got it yet, I think,” he said. “But they played through the game.”
Zack and his teammates trailed early and were down 15-7 after five innings.
In the sixth, the Thunderbirds won the game by pounding out six hits for nine runs. Zack hit an RBI single to make it 15-12 and scored the tying run on a single by Jacob Hulst.
“It was for Jeff,” Solberg said. “It was just a game, just a win, but they did it for him.”