The Fairbanks Goldpanners are going solo next summer, and the rest of the Alaska Baseball League isn't too happy about it.
In an email to other league members, the Goldpanners said they will play as an independent next summer rather than as a member of the six-team league, which also includes two teams in Anchorage, one in Chugiak, one in Palmer and one in Kenai.
"We feel it's unfortunate and they're shafting us as a league," said Shawn Maltby, general manager of the Anchorage Bucs.
Maltby said he and the general managers from the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Mat-Su Miners, Peninsula Oilers and Chugiak Chinooks will discuss options for the coming season in a conference call a week from Thursday.
The conversation may also determine whether the Goldpanners will be allowed back in the league after next summer.
"That's a very good question, and I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion about it," Maltby said.
To longtime fans, an ABL without the Goldpanners might seem like a baseball game without peanuts and hot dogs. The Goldpanners have been around longer than the Alaska Baseball League -- their first season was 1960, and they were the state's only summer-league team until the Glacier Pilots started playing in 1969, leading to the formation of the league in 1974.
But the ABL may decide not to welcome back the Goldpanners.
"We have to talk about it and do what's best for the league," Mat-Su general manager Pete Christopher said.
"I know some of the general managers, including me, are just unhappy. I'm disappointed. It's bad for the league, but the Goldpanners have always done what they've wanted to do. A couple years ago they did the same thing."
In 2011, citing financial difficulties, the Goldpanners took a year off from the league. They played a shortened, 30-game schedule that included 19 games at Growden Memorial Park, six road games in Alaska and five in Canada.
This time around, the Goldpanners are motivated by a desire to compete in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas.
Todd Dennis, the Fairbanks general manager, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that an independent schedule will allow the Goldpanners to get to Wichita in advance of the tournament. This year, the NBC ran from July 31-Aug. 8, and the ABL season wrapped up with the Aug. 3-4 Top of the World Series.
The Goldpanners own a record six NBC championships (1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1980 and 2002). Challenging that record are the Santa Barbara Foresters, who have won five NBC titles since 2006 and placed second this year.
Dennis told the News-Miner the Goldpanners hope to play 30 games next summer at Growden, a schedule that will be highlighted by the iconic Midnight Sun Classic, the annual game played without artificial light on the night of the summer solstice.
But it's unlikely many of their games will be against Alaska teams. Maltby said the Bucs won't make the trip to Fairbanks, and Christopher said the Miners won't either.
"I can almost guarantee three teams won't go up there," Maltby said. "The Oilers might, but (Fairbanks) won't have us to fall back on."
The league survived the 2011 season without the Goldpanners, but since then it has created two three-team divisions, which creates the potential for more pennant-race drama leading up to the Top of the World Series.
Among the options that will be considered are eliminating the two divisions and reducing the number of games from 45 to 35, Maltby said.
Another possibility is replacing the Goldpanners with a team from Anchorage's Adult Baseball League – a solution that could bring other problems. While the ABL teams consist of college players from the Lower 48 who come to Alaska specifically to play every-day baseball, teams in the Adult League consist of players who live and work in Anchorage, many with full-time jobs. That could make a multi-day trip to Kenai difficult for an Adult League team, but Maltby said perhaps those trips could happen on weekends.
About the only upside to the departure of the Goldpanners is the economic gain for teams that choose not to travel to Fairbanks.
"Teams will save money, no doubt," Christopher said, "but we all prefer to have the Panners in the league."