Sam Thompson, of the Mat-Su Miners, takes some practice swings before Wednesday's game with the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Back home in Oklahoma, the days are getting hot and humid, which makes Aaron Brooks happy to be in Alaska.

Brooks, a right-handed pitcher for the Oklahoma Sooners, is here for the summer to play baseball for the Mat-Su Miners of the Alaska Baseball League. And to be cool.

“I like hoodie weather,” Brooks said earlier this week. “I like when it’s a little bit chilly because I don’t like when it’s really hot.”

Conditions were perfect for Wednesday night’s season-opening game at Palmer’s Hermon Brothers Field: a warm evening, a beautiful ballpark and the optimism that accompanies the first pitch of any season.

Fans filled most of the seats, and some sat in lawn chairs beyond the bleachers. Several kids watched the game by peeking through the chain-link fence at the base of the right field wall, getting a view that included Matanuska Peak and puffy clouds beyond the field.

Chinooks head coach Jon Groth talks to his team from the dugout Wednesday. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Miners coach Tyler LeBrun slaps hands with pitcher Randy Abshier, right. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Miners pitcher Evan Floyd suits up before the first game Wednesday in Palmer. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Chinook's infielder Paddy McKermitt eats in his team's dugout about an hour before game time. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Miners, the three-time defending league champs, didn’t get the start they wanted — the Chugiak Chinooks left with a 10-2 triumph.

The game marked the debut of one of three new managers in the five-team league, which for decades has been a destination for college baseball players.

Leading the Miners is Tyler LeBrun, who spent the offseason coaching at Sunnyslope High School in Phoenix, Arizona. In Anchorage, there are two new managers — for the Bucs, longtime assistant coach Grant Palmer was promoted to manager, and for the Glacier Pilots, Jeff Pritchard is in charge, back in Alaska for the first time since leading the Miners in 2007.

“The ABL just has such a rich tradition here,” LeBrun said. “You can look at it on paper how strong it is and (see) the guys that have come through here and have gone on to play in the major leagues.”

Miners shortstop Kaden Hogan, of Long Beach State, stretches before the game. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Chinooks batter Haden Keller is greeted by teammates after he hit the ABL season's first home run. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Miners players tend to the field before the season opener. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Major League stars like Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt and James Paxson are all recent ABL alums. Scores are in the minor leagues, battling for a shot at The Show.

LeBrun was introduced to the ABL when his older brother, Calvin, played for the Miners. He’s 30 and has been coaching for nine years. He joined the Miners last summer.

“He’s familiar with our program,” Mat-Su general manager Pete Christopher said. “And he knows what kind of winning culture we have here.”

The Bucs have been nipping at the Miners’ heels for the last three years. The two teams have squared off in the Top of the World Series championship for three straight summers, and Palmer has been a part of the rivalry as both a player and as an assistant coach.

“Nothing has really changed,” said Palmer, a member of the Bucs that that beat Mat-Su for the ABL title in 2015. “The way we communicate with the players and the way my role is on the team has been the same the last couple of summers. I coached third (base) and ran the offense, and I’ll be doing the same now.”

Counting this summer, Palmer has spent five of the last six summers in the ABL. He played for the team in 2014 and 2015 and was an assistant coach in 2017 and 2018.

“I like to keep it within the family,” Bucs general manager Shawn Maltby said, “especially as they develop and get better as coaches and or players.”

Miners coach Tyler LeBrun, second from right, walks to mound to make a switch at pitcher. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Miners volunteer Michelle Heun works at the entrance booth at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Kids watch the game from beyond the right field wall Wednesday night. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Miners pitcher Blake Peyton warms up in the bullpen. (Marc Lester / ADN)
Miners outfielder Justin Kirby takes the field. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Pritchard joins the Pilots from Cabrillo College, a junior college in California, where he’s an associate coach in charge of the offense and an adjunct professor who teaches English.

Right now fewer than half of his players have made it to town. “By Sunday we should have all the symptoms of a good team,” he said.

College players have their pick of summer leagues across the Lower 48, but Alaska still has a unique appeal.

“My coach told me about it, and I’ve had other players that have been here, and they all loved it,” said Mat-Su catcher Victor Cerny, who is coming off of his sophomore year at Cal State Northridge.

“I’ve always wanted to come visit here. I love the scenery, that’s a big one for me.”

Early arrivals for the Pilots spent the week helping at the Lefty Van Brunt Memorial Youth clinics, which wrapped up Thursday at Mulcahy Stadium.

“I told them ‘You’re here for two months but there are people who have been working on this for 12 months. It’s a gift to you guys,’ " Pritchard said.

In return, he said, players are expected to get involved in the community — and expected to give their all on the playing field.

“You don’t come up here to have a soda and have a good time,” Pritchard said. “You have a responsibility to put on a good show.

“… But it’s also a kid’s game, and it’s meant to be passed along.”

ADN photojournalist Marc Lester contributed to this story from Palmer.


This week in the Alaska Baseball League

Wednesday's game

Chinooks 10, Miners 2

Thursday’s games

Peninsula Oilers at Anchorage Bucs, 7 p.m., Mulcahy Stadium

Glacier Pilots at Chugiak Chinooks, 7 p.m., Loretta French Field

Friday’s games

Peninsula Oilers at Anchorage Bucs, 7 p.m., Mulcahy Stadium

Glacier Pilots at Mat-Su Miners, 7 p.m., Hermon Brothers Field

Saturday’s games

Peninsula Oilers at Glacier Pilots, 7:10 p.m., Mulcahy Stadium

Anchorage Bucs at Mat-Su Miners, 4 p.m. (doubleheader)

Sunday’s games

Peninsula Oilers at Glacier Pilots, 2 p.m., Mulcahy Stadium

Anchorage Bucs at Chugiak Chinooks, 2 p.m, Loretta French Field

(The Fairbanks Goldpanners no longer play in the ABL. They open their season next Tuesday against the Fairbanks men’s league all-stars, followed by a seven-game series against the San Diego Waves.)

A young fan watches the action near the Miners dugout. (Marc Lester / ADN)