ANCHORAGE, Alaska–Inside Mulcahy Park the proud history of the Anchorage Glacier Pilots team of the Alaska Baseball League is well-documented.
The recently renovated ball park celebrates the lengthy list of college players who have passed through Alaska’s largest city during an off-season or two when they were playing ball as undergraduates. Each summer since the early 1960s many of the nation’s top players spent a couple of months honing their skills before they became professionals.
Sometimes even the most ardent of fans don’t know how their pro heroes spent their formative years, but over the decades hundreds of players who went on to Major League careers represented the Glacier Pilots, the Anchorage Bucs (the other team that shares Mulcahy), the Mat-Su Miners, the Fairbanks Goldpanners (the oldest team in the circuit), the Peninsula Oilers, or more recently the Chugiak Chinooks.
Among the biggest stars that matriculated in Alaska ball are Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield, Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire, J.D. Drew, Aaron Boone, Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, and many, many more.
I witnessed my first Alaska League game 30 years ago and it involved a now-defunct team called the North Pole Nicks. The team symbol was Santa Claus swinging a bat and yes indeed I bought a T-shirt. Among the Nicks’ alumni is Mark Grace. Within months after seeing that game as a tourist I was living in Alaska and I attended hundreds of games over the next 17 years.
However, whether the players had a big reputation when they came to town or not, it was impossible to accurately gauge who was going to make it big. Randy Johnson didn’t show his true potential with the Glacier Pilots. McGwire was a relief pitcher when he hit Anchorage and became a first-baseman that summer when other recruits didn’t show.
A few nights ago my daughter and two grandsons attended a Glacier Pilots game with me. No names on the roster meant anything to me, though there were players from Southern Cal, West Virginia, San Diego State, Cal, UNLV, Wichita State and other major universities. At one point early in the season (which lasts from early June into the first week in August), Glacier Pilots hurlers threw five straight shutouts. The Chinooks were off to a terrible 1-11 start.
So of course the game turned into one of the worst performances in a half century of Glacier Pilots baseball. Chugiak won 17-2. It was a good night to reminisce about the past because the present wasn’t very pretty. As part of the park’s renovation there are entire fences decorated with the faces of ex-Pilots who went on to big things, including J.T. Snow, Bobby Thigpen, Jeff Francis, Randy Jones, and Ryan Ludwick.
Ludwick is currently an outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds and we have regularly talked about Alaska fishing. One of the best memories Ludwick has of his summer stay in Alaska was fishing for salmon on the Kenai River, the world’s greatest salmon stream. Ludwick has even told me he has a relative who owns property along the river and the first thing he plans to do when he retires is go fishing for big fish in Alaska.
I have been trying to make my grandsons into baseball fans, but with limited success–too much video game competition. They have been to a couple of other Alaska games and a couple of minor league games in the Lower 48. Still, for them the best part of a ball park trip is the food. Sure enough they went for the special, a hot dog, chips and drink, with a bonus snack, and still were clamoring for ice cream.
Each got a souvenir. Malachi, 11, chose a Pilots baseball. Britain, 6, chose a “clapper,” a plastic do-hickey that when you wave makes noise. Originally our seats were on the right-field side just past third base, but later we moved behind the plate. That brought the boys closer to the action and Britain was impressed with how loud the fastballs were when they hit the catcher’s mitt.
“It sounds like a gun,” he said.
Malachi seemed perplexed by some of the basic rules.
“Isn’t there a halftime?” he asked. When informed he had the wrong sport, he said of the players, “They must be tired.”
I explained to Britain that the best time to wave the clapper was when Pilot batters were introduced, so he got into root, root, rooting for the home team.
“I don’t want to see Anchorage lose,” he said of his hometown team.
It was one of those nights, though, when the home team fell behind early and kept falling behind by more and more as each inning passed. In lieu of actual victory, Britain theorized that perhaps the Pilot radio announcers would tell the world that they won anyway.
Ah, the innocence of youth.