The Alaska Baseball League will play a five-team, one-division schedule next summer and hope for the return of the Fairbanks Goldpanners in the summer of 2017, league president Pete Christopher said Thursday.
The Goldpanners told the league last month they will play an independent schedule next summer that culminates with an appearance in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Kansas.
In a conference call Thursday, general managers from the league's other five teams – the Anchorage Bucs, Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Chugiak Chinooks, Mat-Su Miners and Peninsula Oilers -- scrapped the two-division format used in recent seasons.
The top two teams from the regular season will advance to the Top of the World Series and play for the ABL championship, Christopher said.
Abandoned was the idea of replacing the Goldpanners next summer with a team from Anchorage's Adult League.
"We'll play 36 to 40 league games, so we'll play each other nine times or 10 times. We haven't decided yet," Christopher said.
"We'll be fine."
Christopher, who on Thursday replaced Chugiak general manager Chris Beck as the ABL president, said everyone would rather have a six-team league that includes the Goldpanners.
"We would have preferred the Panners stay in the league and play a league schedule," Christopher said. "We can't force them to stay in the league."
The Goldpanners predate the ABL by more than a decade. They began play in 1960 as a barnstorming team, 14 years before the creation of the league.
But for at least next year, Fairbanks will return to its roots and play an independent schedule.
"We'll do a tiny bit of barnstorming," said Don Dennis, the former longtime general manager of the Goldpanners who turned over team operations to his son Todd a couple of years ago.
Fairbanks will open the season with several games in Seattle and then come to Alaska for a 31-game home schedule, Dennis said.
With the exception of the Oilers, who will travel to Fairbanks for a five-game series that will include the iconic Midnight Sun Classic the night of the summer solstice, all of the Goldpanners' home games will be against Lower 48 teams like the San Diego Stars and Everett Merchants.
"The offer was made, but those (ABL) teams today decided not to play Fairbanks," Dennis said. "That's their decision. We had offers on the table for the Bucs, for the Pilots for the Midnight Sun series, and Eagle River and Mat-Su. They chose not to do them."
Not playing a league schedule will allow the Goldpanners to leave Alaska in time to be in Wichita for the start of the NBC World Series, which this summer started about a week before the ABL season ended.
Going to the NBC tournament used to be a goal for all of Alaska's teams, but in recent years interest has waned for just about everyone but the Goldpanners and Oilers.
"It's diluted," Christopher said of a tournament field that has gotten smaller while the cost of playing in it has increased.
The Goldpanners own an NBC-record six championships, and protecting that record is a significant reason why the team wants to focus on returning to Kansas next summer, Dennis said.
Two teams have won five championships – the Pilots, who haven't gone to Wichita in years, and the Santa Barbara Foresters, who have won five titles since 2006 and placed second this year.
"There is some motivation there," Dennis said. "Santa Barbara continues to go every year. When the Pilots got up to five in 2001, that's what motivated us to go back in 2002.
"You gotta play for something."
The other big topic in Thursday's conference call was the need for a disciplinary policy for fighting, Christopher said.
The league made national news this summer when the coaches from the Bucs and Oilers exchanged punches during a game, a fight captured on a video that made the rounds on social media.
Christopher said league bylaws don't specify punishment for coaches or players who fight during a game. A committee formed Thursday will attempt to change that, he said.
"Some college coaches were saying, 'What the hell is going on up there?' We were embarrassed by what happened," Christopher said.
Bucs manager Mike Grahovac, who threw the first punch and later returned to the field after his ejection, was suspended for four games. Kevin Griffin, the Oilers manager, was suspended for two games.
Those punishments were determined by Beck, the league president at the time who did not have specific bylaws to guide him. The goal is to draft specific and harsh consequences for any future fights, Christopher said.
Less than three weeks after the July 8 fight, Grahovac resigned as the head coach at Concordia University in California to "pursue other professional opportunities," according to a press release from the school.
Griffin is still on Texas A&M International's online roster of assistant coaches.