The Peninsula Oilers canceled their season, the Fairbanks Goldpanners hope to preserve the century-long tradition of the Midnight Sun Game and other Alaska baseball teams are in wait-and-see mode as baseball contends with the curveball that is the new coronavirus.
For the most part, uncertainty reigns. What’s known for sure is the Oilers won’t field a team and there will be no American Legion regional or national tournaments this summer.
“We’re at the mercy of the governor and the airlines,” Goldpanners general manager John Lohrke said Wednesday. “We’ll try to make a decision at the end of the month.”
The five-team Alaska Baseball League said it will make a decision May 1, although the Oilers have already said they won’t play.
“(W)e cannot ask players, coaches and staff members to travel up to Alaska,” the Oilers said in an announcement on their Facebook page. “We will not ask our sponsors and host families for financial support at this time when they have their own employees, customers and families to support.”
The Oilers announced their decision two days after Kenai’s Old Town Bingo closed along with other nonessential businesses in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus. The bingo hall is the primary source of funding for the Oilers, who nearly skipped last season because of financial concerns.
“When they shut down all the bingo halls, that was it for them,” Pete Christopher, general manager of the Mat-Su Miners, said Wednesday.
Christopher said the four other ABL teams — the Miners, the Anchorage Bucs, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots and the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks — still hope to play at some point this summer.
It all depends, he said, on whether there are changes to current restrictions against travel between Alaska communities and gatherings of more than 10 people.
“We’ll do everything we can to get the season in,” Christopher said. “People need this, I think. They need baseball. During World War II, FDR insisted that they go on playing. People need something to feel good about.”
Christopher said the league has asked him to make two league schedules — one for a season that would run from June 15 to Aug. 2, and another for a season that would run from July 1-Aug. 6.
The ABL, founded in 1974, draws college players from across the country. Players live with host families, and Christopher said whether those families would still welcome players during a pandemic is “the million-dollar question.”
“We’ll find out when we start contacting our families,” he said, adding that measures would be taken to ensure players are healthy before they come to Alaska.
Chris Beck, the ABL president and Chinooks general manager, said the health of all involved — players, staff and fans — is paramount, “so all decisions will be made through that grid.”
“As for right now, we are preparing for the summer with baseball,” he said by email. “We will be abiding by (government) standards and most if not all of this will work itself out.”
The ABL is one of many summer leagues in the country, and a couple have already made the decision not to play this year. Between that and the cancellation of the college baseball season, the ABL has heard from many players who are looking for a summer team — so many that the league decided to expand rosters from 26 players to 32, Christopher said.
“We’re looking at it as a developmental season," he said. “Winning doesn’t matter as much when these kids need at-bats and innings.”
Among the ABL’s founding members are the Goldpanners, who started playing in 1960 but have not belonged to the ABL for the last couple of years, opting instead to play an independent schedule.
Lohrke, the team’s general manager, said the plan for now is to go forward with a season while knowing those plans may be foiled if restrictions to limit the spread of the virus remain in place.
The biggest goal, he said, it to maintain the tradition of the Midnight Sun Game, one of baseball’s — and Alaska’s — most storied events.
The game dates back to 1906 and has been played every year on the night of the summer solstice. The game begins at 10:30 p.m. at Growden Memorial Park in Fairbanks and is played without the aid of artificial lights.
Making sure there is a 115th annual Midnight Sun Game is this summer’s top priority, Lohrke said.
“It predates the Goldpanners,” he said. “It’s bigger than the Goldpanners.”
Right now, the Goldpanners are scheduled to play the Everett Merchants in the solstice game. If that can’t happen, the Goldpanners will look for two other teams. One idea already being considered is a game between an Air Force team and an Army team.
“We’re sure going to try to put something together that night,” Lohrke said.
While the ABL is for college players, American Legion baseball is primarily for high school players. On Tuesday, the national program canceled eight regional tournaments and the American Legion World Series.
In response, the chairman of Alaska’s Legion baseball program said he hopes there will be a statewide season but nothing is for sure.
“At this time there has not been a final determination regarding games played within Alaska,” Russ Baker said on the Alaska Legion Facebook page. “We will continue with our ban on any official Alaska American Legion activities. This means no practices, no gathering in groups, no organized workouts of any type are allowed. As an organization we will abide by all City, State and Federal Government regulations and recommendations in an effort to keep our players safe.”