The Alaska Pipeline
A rugged, no-frills league in the Last Frontier State has funneled almost 400 college players to the majors and kept fans in Fairbanks up late each June with its quirky Midnight Sun Game
"Remember to never take the game home with you."
What, however, is a pitcher to do when his team's bullpen is closer to his bed than it is to the dugout? That was the conundrum facing Kevin Camacho last summer on college baseball's last frontier. At 2 a.m. on June 22, not long after the conclusion of the 102nd Midnight Sun Game, many of Camacho's Alaska Goldpanners teammates mounted bicycles and rode off, still in full uniform. They receded like a gang of supersized Little Leaguers into Fairbanks's Arctic glow, which had made the game -- a 6-1 loss to the visiting Oceanside Waves that had begun at 10:36 p.m. under a cloudy tapestry of blues and pinks -- possible without the aid of artificial lights. On the summer solstice the natural light never dies out in Fairbanks, 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and on this night Camacho, a California-raised righty, would never leave the confines of Growden Memorial Park, where the centerfield backdrop is the eight-starred Alaskan flag and Take Me Out to the Ballgame is forsaken during the seventh-inning stretch in favor of the Beat Farmers' 1985 country-punk song Happy Boy. Out with the peanuts and Cracker Jack, in with lyrics about a dead dog in a drawer, as well as the most guttural refrain ever to blare from a stadium speaker: "Hubba hubba hubba hubba hubba!"
While his teammates biked a mile or two to their host families' houses, Camacho had a shorter trip home. He made a left at the batting cage down the leftfield line, then a hard right at the Port-o-Lets. He passed through a chain-link gate, climbed four wooden steps and unlocked a door, marked D4, on a 50-foot white trailer. Camacho tossed his equipment bag on the floor of the 9-by-12 room with a view... of the back of Growden's third base bleachers. "Welcome to the O.V.," he said. "This is how we live."
O.V. is short for Olympic Village, 13 weather-beaten trailers in which visiting teams in the Alaska Baseball League often bunk when in Fairbanks. The vehicles are so named because Goldpanners general manager Don Dennis, a thickly bespectacled 68-year-old who lives in his office at the park, has leased them in the past to actual Olympic teams -- U.S. skiers and lugers, and the Taiwanese and Korean baseball teams -- which have occasionally trained in Fairbanks. During the 2007 season, however, the trailers housed four Goldpanners players, all of them from NAIA national champ Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho, who had chosen not to live with host families. In its previous life the four-decade-old O.V. fleet harbored some of the men who built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline near Atigun Pass, 300 miles to the north. Dennis bought the trailers for $125,000 in 1986 and relocated them to an asphalt lot adjacent to leftfield. The amenities are few and dated -- wood-grain paneling, vintage '80s TVs and no AC, which means players often wake up drenched in sweat -- but there is a Last Frontier State authenticity to the spartan quarters that the players appreciate.
"It's kind of like camping," explained one of Camacho's D-block neighbors, pitcher Brad Schwarzenbach. "But I'll tell you this: I've never been late to the field."
The only latecomer to last year's Midnight Sun Game was the sun itself, which in the end never showed at all. A sellout crowd of about 4,000 had filled the park, but the sun stayed tucked away behind a horseshoe of clouds beyond the leftfield foul pole. Camacho threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run relief in the dusk before making the trek to his trailer. When a visitor described his digs as "pretty rugged," Camacho corrected him: "It's pretty Alaska."
The term Alaskans use for the Lower 48 is Outside, and the six-team, four-city ABL is stocked with college standouts who are primarily Outsiders. The league -- founded in 1969 but with roots going back more than a century -- bills itself as an unvarnished version of the more prestigious Cape Cod League, another wood-bat summer league that serves as a showcase for top U.S. college players; last spring Dennis took a jab at the Cape circuit, calling it a "show league" for scouts and tourists compared with the "down and dirty competition among the cities" in Alaska. The ABL is best known for its alumni; it has produced almost 400 major leaguers, including Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield and stars such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Randy Johnson and J.D. Drew. The league's character, however, is shaped more by things uniquely Alaskan: pipeline trailers, perpetual summer light and that signature tradition, the Midnight Sun Game, which grew out of a 1906 bet between two Fairbanks bars, California's Saloon and the Eagles Club. Their patrons formed teams called the Drinks and the Smokes.