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HAVING A BALL AT MIDNIGHT
Richard W. Johnston
June 19, 1978
Be it high noon or the wee hours, baseball is a big hit in Alaska, especially in Fairbanks, where a rush of collegiate stars from the Lower 48 has turned the Panners to gold
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June 19, 1978

Having A Ball At Midnight

Be it high noon or the wee hours, baseball is a big hit in Alaska, especially in Fairbanks, where a rush of collegiate stars from the Lower 48 has turned the Panners to gold

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What "love" can do is not always measurable, but in the case of Alaska baseball it is inscribed in the record books. In the last seven years the Goldpanners have four times won the 32-team National Baseball Congress tournament, the equivalent of the U.S. championship for non-collegiate amateur teams, and have finished second three times. Twice they were runners-up to Anchorage, which won the tournament in 1969 and 1971; last summer the Panners ended up second to another Alaska team, the Kenai Peninsula Oilers. Larry Davis, the vice-president and general manager of the NBC, flew up from Wichita, Kans. to attend the 1977 Midnight Sun Game and present Jim Dietz of the Goldpanners with the NBC's Manager of the Decade award at a pregame ceremony. The Panners have been so successful under Dietz that he had the honor all wrapped up for the '70s, though two years remained in the decade. Boucher had won the same award for the '60s.

"We're always glad to see Fairbanks come to the tournament," Davis told the teams and the crowd. "In Wichita we have another name for the Goldpanners—'Money in the Bank.' " Earlier Davis had said, "When Red Boucher brought the Goldpanners to the tournament for the first time in 1962, he turned the National Baseball Congress around. We went from old ex-pros to college kids, and it revitalized the Congress." The growth of Fairbanks baseball under Boucher's guidance did not hurt the major leagues either. Minor leagues were dissolving right and left, and the intensifying of baseball fervor in Alaska gave young amateurs a place to play after the conclusion of their college seasons.

Fairbanks could not have accomplished any of these things if the Goldpanners had relied on local talent. The season is simply too short to develop advanced skills in Caucasians, and Fairbanks' small minority of Eskimos, Athabascan Indians and Aleuts do not find baseball all that interesting. Boucher's solution was to go to college—several colleges, in fact. His recruiting ventures into these unfamiliar venues were almost immediately rewarding, largely because he had something to sell that most college baseball coaches ardently desired: a summer amateur baseball program that would help season their players while not compromising the athletes' NCAA eligibility. Strong community support also was vital; summer collegiate ball was not a new idea, but established programs such as the Dakotas' once-famed Basin League were being withered by the same heavy fare of major league games on TV that was hurting the minors. There was no such problem in the near-Arctic.

One of Boucher's first converts was Rod Dedeaux, coach of the University of Southern California's highly successful baseball team. "Red was such a key man—the key man, really," Dedeaux says. "The majors were looking to the colleges for players, but even though we extended our seasons to 60 games or more, it still wasn't enough to really test the best prospects. The summer program Boucher envisioned would add another 60 games, which would give our kids the equivalent of a tough minor league season when you count playing both in college and Alaska. Well, Red did it, and today the quality of amateur baseball in Alaska is the finest in the country."

Even with the support of college coaches, recruiting players in the '60s could be difficult. "Nobody knew anything about Alaska," Boucher says. "A lot of the kids were surprised to find the sun shining when they got off the plane. Some of them thought they'd have to get an ice pick to clear the ground around home plate." Now Fairbanks' competition for the best college players comes mainly from other Alaskan teams. The Anchorage Glacier Pilots were founded in 1969, with a considerable shove from Fairbanks, which needed somebody to play. In 1974 Don Dennis, Boucher's handpicked successor as the Goldpanners' general manager, pushed the oil town of Kenai into founding a third team, and in 1976 Fairbanks money helped establish the fourth member of the league, Palmer's Matanuska Valley Green Giants. Any one of them can offer inducements—mainly summer jobs complete with Alaska's boom-time wages—not available in such Lower 48 summer leagues as the Cape Cod, Atlantic Collegiate, Valley of Virginia and Central Illinois.

Although none of the recruits look for ice picks these days, there are still unique aspects to playing in Alaska. On his second day in Kenai, Rich Hacker, the assistant manager of the Oilers, looked out his bedroom window and found himself eyeball to eyeball with a moose. Some Fairbanks players spend open dates bent over cold streams in the nearby hills, panning for gold only yards away from the site of Felix Pedro's historic 1902 strike and virtually alongside the oil pipeline from the North Slope. They find a little, but not much. Those who go fishing for trout, grayling, king salmon or northern pike do a lot better.

Part of the uniqueness is the love that Boucher talks about. Inured to playing before a few close friends and relatives in campus games, the collegians are thrilled to find large, passionate crowds. Fairbanks averages about 1,500 for its home games; for the Yankees to draw a similar proportion of New York's population, they would have to attract 12 million spectators a season. Fifty-two hundred fans, close to half of Fairbanks' population at the time, jammed Growden Memorial Park in 1967 for the Midnight Sun Game. And love does not stop with the last out of the ninth inning. "Every player lives with a family," Boucher says. "We call them the Midnight Sons. And they're not just housed and fed, they're loved. You put these big gorillas into a private home, and they become the best kids that family has. You think that isn't important?" The orphaned Boucher knows it is.

Even more important to the fans is the quality of the kids' play. Each Alaska team, including Palmer, which is in only its third year of competition, is loaded with amateur all-stars. There are soft spots in every college schedule. There are none in the Alaska League. "This is a place where a kid can test himself, find out if he's really ready to sign with the pros," Boucher says. Before they get to Alaska, the great majority of the players already have been chosen in professional free-agent drafts and declined to sign; some have been selected as many as three times. Bill Stroecker, a banker who is president of the Goldpanners, recalls, " Dave Winfield told me after his first season, 'Until I came up here from Minnesota I was the best I had ever run across, but I hadn't run into the kind of players the Panners have.' " Neither, it seems obvious, have most of the Lower 48 teams that compete in the NBC tournament.

Alaska's ability to attract top collegians from as far away as the East Coast is a tribute to the efficacy of word-of-mouth advertising. Intercollegiate baseball receives little national publicity and summer amateur ball even less. During Tom Seaver's career, it occasionally has been noted that he once starred at USC but there are rarely any references to his fairly crucial seasons in Alaska. Even The Sporting News , baseball's bible, does not cover the Alaska League or similar programs in the Lower 48. This annoys Boucher and his successors at Fairbanks, even though they have done very nicely without extensive publicity, and it also irritates Dedeaux, whose USC teams have won the NCAA championship eight times since 1961. But the explanation for all the press indifference seems fairly reasonable: The boys of spring and summer may become the stars of tomorrow, but until tomorrow, who cares?

Although Red Boucher retired as manager of the Goldpanners in 1969, he remains a celebrity at home, in Wichita and among certain college athletic directors, major league players and team officials. Mention his name in these circles and the response is predictable: "You can't say enough about Red Boucher!" The curious thing is that nobody has ever said much about Boucher in print or on TV.

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