By Aaron Swaney Herald Writer
It’s a baseball game that begins when most end.
It’s played on a field that has lights but also a disclaimer: They’ve never been used during this unique late-night affair.
The annual Midnight Sun Baseball Classic is played on or around the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — in Fairbanks, Alaska, the furthest north a ballplayer can drag his bat before running into polar bears and the Arctic Circle. Fairbanks is a place where a catcher’s mitt would freeze nine months out of the year.
This year’s game is Thursday, the day after the solstice, and features the Everett Merchants against one of the most prestigious amateur baseball teams in the country: the Alaska Goldpanners. It’s part Everett’s four-game series with the Goldpanners, which began Tuesday night and continues through Friday.
The series is in the middle of a nine-game road trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun, ending next Tuesday with a game against the Peninsula Oilers.
The Midnight Sun Baseball Classic is centerpiece of the Merchants’ trip. The game begins 10:35 p.m. (Alaska time) and is considered one of the most unique baseball games in the world.
At first pitch, the sun is beginning to set in the north, but with Fairbanks just 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, it begins to rise again in the north as the game nears its conclusion three hours later. The game is stopped after the half-inning nearest midnight for the singing of the Alaska Flag Song.
Until last year, one of the game’s most cherished distinctions — besides having never used lights — was the fact it had never been postponed or delayed due to darkness. However, last year the game between the Goldpanners and the Oceanside Waves was called after the bottom of the 10th inning on account of “darkness and a fast-approaching storm,” according to a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner story.
“Sure, it’s a little dark, but I don’t know why we couldn’t keep playing,” Alaska Goldpanners designated hitter Mac Acker told the News-Miner after the game was postponed. “Those guys (the Oceanside Waves) and the umps left, but we wanted to keep going.”
It wasn’t the first time a game didn’t have a conventional finish. In 1979, trailing 2-1 in the eighth inning, the Goldpanners went on to win the game by forfeit after the Chinese Taipei Olympic team refused to send a batter to the plate at 2:08 a.m.
Before birth of the Goldpanners baseball club in 1960, the Midnight Sun game was played by a rotating list of local semi-pro all-star teams, including the Fairbanks All-Stars, Tanana All-Stars and a team called the Van Dycks, who won four of seven Midnight Sun games between 1912 and 1920.
But since their inception, the Goldpanners have become nearly as famous as the Midnight Sun Baseball Classic. The brainchild of local basketball coach Ray Wheeler, the Goldpanners were founded by H.A. “Red” Boucher, a Navy man who arrived in Alaska in 1958 and eventually became mayor of Fairbanks and Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, shortly after Alaska became a state.
Wheeler, who coached the University of Alaska-Fairbanks men’s basketball team, ordered a set of uniforms from a local sporting goods store owned by Boucher. But Wheeler’s efforts didn’t pan out, and Boucher, now stuck with the uniforms, decided to push on, giving birth to the Goldpanners in 1960.
Made up mainly of college baseball players, the Goldpanners have seen a number of All-Star and Hall of Fame baseball players pass through Fairbanks en route to the big leagues. With names like Tom Seaver, Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield and Bob Boone, the list of the 50 Greatest Goldpanners of All Time reads like a Hall of Fame ballot (For a photo gallery of some of the greatest Goldpanners, visit www.heraldnet.com/sports).
A number of current and former Mariners have played on the Goldpanners, including Alvin Davis and Harold Reynolds. Davis, then a hot-hitting Arizona State sophomore, and Reynolds played on the 1980 squad, which went on to win the National Baseball Congress Tournament championship, and some consider it to be the best amateur baseball team ever. A number of other Mariners have played in Fairbanks, including Bret Boone, Brendan Ryan, Greg Dobbs and former manager Don Wakamatsu.
Although the Goldpanners have had number of great players don their uniforms, the most memorable moment in the team’s history didn’t even come on the field. It happened just beyond the left-field fence, where a plane crashed into a fiery ball duing a game against the Anchorage Bucs.
If it had been the Midnight Sun Game there’s little doubt the teams would have kept playing.