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The Alaska Pipeline
LUKE WINN
June 09, 2008
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
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June 09, 2008

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

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He is most proud that the ace of the '64 and '65 teams used his stint with the Goldpanners as a stepping-stone from Fresno City College to USC and later a major league career in which he won 311 games. Twenty-eight years after combining on a no-hitter in the NBC World Series in Wichita, Tom Seaver invited Boucher to his induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

"Red was a character cut from a different cloth," says Seaver, who now runs his own vineyard in Calistoga, Calif. "I remember my first flight into Alaska. I went from San Francisco to Seattle to Fairbanks, and when I landed, they had a uniform waiting for me. I changed in the car and met Red—in mid-game—in the dugout. He said, 'Go to the bullpen. Somebody get him ready.' I got called in and met my catcher for the first time on the mound. The discussion went, 'What's your name?' 'O.K., Marty.' 'O.K., Tom. What do you throw?'"

THE DRIVE from Boucher's home to Anchorage's Mulcahy Stadium is 10 minutes, spitting distance by Alaskan standards. The facility is home to two ABL teams, the Bucs and the Glacier Pilots, and has become familiar to millions of Outsiders thanks to a surreal YouTube clip. Through May 31, footage of a Cessna Skywagon crashing behind Mulcahy's leftfield fence in mid-inning of an '03 ABL game had been viewed 2,402,436 times. (Although the plane flipped as it skidded, none of its four passengers were killed, and two escaped unscathed.)

Seventy-five-year-old Pilots general manager George (Lefty) Van Brunt, another of the ABL's elder statesmen, is living proof that dive-bombing an outfield in a single-engine Cessna can be less dangerous than warming up Randy Johnson. Van Brunt keeps a desk in the windowless equipment room of the Pilots' first-base-line shed (which also serves as a clubhouse), and from there, a few hours before the start of a game against the Bucs last June 20, he waxed nostalgic about the Big Unit's Alaskan summer of '84. Van Brunt liked to goad the then USC pitcher about mechanics. "I'd say, 'One of these days, Randy, you'll learn how to bend your back,'" he recalls. "That must have ticked him off." Soon after, in a bullpen session at Mulcahy, Johnson broke Van Brunt's right big toe with an errant fastball. The Pilots' G.M. insists, however, that the incident belied the Unit's true temperament. "Randy was just a beach bum who loved his guitar," Van Brunt says. "He played country western, but we always told him, 'Don't sing. You ain't worth a darn as a singer.'"

IT IS a 3 1/4-hour drive south from Anchorage to Kenai, where the Peninsula Oilers occupy the ABL's southernmost outpost. En route, innumerable signs warn of moose crossings, and drivers are likely to spot Dall sheep on fjordside cliffs as well as anglers battle-fishing for salmon in the Russian River. There is an abundance of wildlife, but a dearth of wild life—there's a desperate shortage of college-age women in Alaska, which forces ABL players to find other forms of entertainment; one Oiler said that by summer's end, he might "be willing to have sex with a moose." Former Goldpanners southpaw Bill (Spaceman) Lee, who won 119 games in 14 big league seasons, met his first wife, airline greeter Mary Lou Helfrich, as he got off a plane in Fairbanks in '66. The Spaceman recalls that he wooed her in a typically Alaskan way. "I had a pickup truck from my host family, and after games I'd court Mary Lou by taking her out to the city dump," he says. "We'd watch the wolves and bears in the twilight."

Kenai is also home to a bayside Hilton, albeit an unofficial one attached to a bingo hall, with a sign inside that reads, ABSOLUTELY NO CLEATS ARE ALLOWED TO BE WORN IN THE HILTON AREA. In addition to supplying bunks to visiting players and raising money for the Oilers through weeknight bingo games, the so-called Bingo Hilton (which the team owns and runs) features a storefront that displays Oilers trophies and sells "pull tabs"—gambling tickets with perforated flaps that reveal whether the purchaser has won a cash prize. On a Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 90 minutes before an Oilers-Bucs game, two diehards sat at the Hilton's U-shaped counter, surrounded by clear-plastic boxes of tabs.

Jim Petterson, a 58-year-old retired Unocal loader, explained almost apologetically, " Alaska doesn't have casinos, so this is the only way we can gamble." He and his 46-year-old wife, Betsy, don't attend Oilers games. But given that they buy $200 to $300 worth of pull tabs a week, Jim estimated that "we've probably paid for a few jerseys by now." To which Betsy interjected, "More like, we could have bought the stadium a couple of times."

THE VISTAS beyond the outfield fences at most ABL stadiums are relatively subdued—there are no calving glaciers or salmon jumping out of rivers—but the field in Kenai is ringed by 80-foot-high spruce trees, Anchorage's Mulcahy Stadium looks out on a lovely cluster of additional athletic fields, and a curling club flanks Fairbanks's Growden Memorial Park. The state's famed peaks almost always loom in the distance, though at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, the home of the Mat-Su Miners, the mountains of the Chugach Range appear close enough to touch. Four hours northeast of Kenai and a half hour northeast of Anchorage, Palmer's ballpark is situated off a road leading to the Alaska State Fairgrounds, marked only by a couple of small wooden signs. The field is dwarfed by the presence of a 6,400-foot crag—Pioneer Peak—that seems to rise just beyond the leftfield corner. It is a mere taste of what William H. Seward, who as Lincoln's secretary of state negotiated the purchase of the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, once described as "scenery which surpassed in sublimity that of either the Alps, the Apennines, the Alleghenies, or the Rocky Mountains."

It is said that Alaska has but two seasons: winter and day. Taking advantage of the latter, Miners assistant coaches Conor Bird (now the head coach) and Nate Thompson headed out for a fishing marathon at sunrise—4:11 a.m.—after a win last June. Bird, 27, who coaches at the College of Marin, in California, and Thompson, 26, now at Nebraska, were perched on a muddy bank of the Eklutna Tailrace, near a power station outside Palmer that is a hot spot for king salmon.

Bird, a dry-witted, soul-patched San Franciscan who was serving as the Miners' pitching coach, rigged up rods with proper weights and baited egg-loops with globs of reddish roe. "The person who does the least preparation is the one most likely to catch something," he lamented, and when the reporter accompanying the two coaches hooked the lone king (and failed to reel it in), Bird's axiom was proved correct. The party went on to earn the angler's equivalent of a Golden Sombrero—four hours of only nibbles and whiffs—while tantalizing noises, some melodious, others primal, emanated from up- and down-river. Splashes from leaping salmon. Whoops from more fortunate fishermen. Strangest of all, thuds from the impact of wood against the heads of fresh catch. The salmon must be killed this way and resubmerged in the river; if left out in the open, they are essentially homing beacons for hungry grizzly bears.

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