During the fourth inning of the Everett Merchants’ game against the Alaska Goldpanners on June 21, Everett pitcher Jared Maxfield found himself reluctant to attempt a pickoff move because the sun was shining straight into first baseman Brody Ponti’s eyes.
Normally this is nothing unusual in the baseball world. What made it different in this instance, however, was that the clock was on the verge of striking midnight.
The Merchants spent the summer solstice partaking in one of baseball’s most unique experiences with their participation in the 116th Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks, Alaska, an event that takes night baseball to a whole other level.
“I turned and asked someone, ‘Is it close to midnight?’” Merchants shortstop and recent Arlington High School graduate Cole Cramer recounted. “Actually, it was 1:30 in the morning.
“I definitely had not experienced anything like that before.”
Fairbanks is located just 140 miles from the Arctic Circle, meaning that on the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — the sun doesn’t set until 12:48 a.m., and it never gets fully dark. To celebrate that, Fairbanks’ Growden Park has played host to the Midnight Sun Game every June 21 since 1906, without the use of artificial light. The game typically begins at 10 p.m. and is timed to end about the time of solar midnight. Since 1960 the Midnight Sun Game has been hosted by the Goldpanners, a powerhouse summer college team, with future Major League Baseball stars like Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield and Harold Reynolds among those who played in the game. ESPN writer Jim Caple included the Midnight Sun Game in his list of ultimate baseball experiences.
This year it was the Merchants’ chance to experience the phenomenon. The Merchants, a summer collegiate team comprised mainly of junior college and small college players with Snohomish County ties, first played in the game in 2012 thanks to manager Harold Pyatte’s connections. Everett was originally scheduled to make its second appearance in the 2020 edition before the coronavirus pandemic forced travel restrictions, but the Merchants were invited back again this year to take part in what is one of Fairbanks’ biggest events of the year.
“Walking up on the first day I stopped and waited back for a second, looking at all the banners of major-league players, quite a few who are Hall of Famers,” Cramer said. “All these dudes played in this game, too, so you know this is special.”
The Merchants played a six-game series against the Goldpanners, with 500-700 fans in attendance for most games. But the Midnight Sun Game was a different story.
“There were close to 4,000 people there and they had everything going on,” Pyatte said. “The national anthem was just incredible, it was sung by a young lady with a wonderful voice, and just when she finished two F-35s from the Air Force base flew over the stadium. It was spectacular.”
So what was it like playing in the game?
“It was odd,” said Maxfield, a Mountlake Terrace High School graduate who now plays at Indiana Tech. “Just playing in twilight, it never got quite dark enough where we needed the lights on, but it got pretty close. It had a different feel to the game, a little feeling of dusk. I definitely enjoyed it, and it was an honor being chosen as the starting pitcher for that game.”
Said Cramer: “If I were back here in Washington I feel I would have been thrown off (by the 10 p.m. start time). But at 10 the sun wasn’t even setting. So it didn’t throw me off that much until I started thinking about it.”
As for the game itself, Maxfield struck out the side in the first inning and finished with five solid innings, allowing two runs and striking out seven. Offensively Everett was led by Cramer, who went 2-for-4. But it wasn’t enough as the Merchants succumbed 3-0.
Pyatte added a little spice to the game as he was ejected in the bottom of the seventh inning after arguing a balk call against reliever Shane Melrose.
“It’s really intense in that game because the fans are of course rooting for the Goldpanners, and every pitch is intensified by their reaction to it,” Pyatte said. “You always feel that when you’re in an event like that you’re not going to get the calls, and it was evident they weren’t going to go our way, so I had to battle against that.”
The Merchants didn’t have much success in the win/loss column during their trip to Fairbanks. The Goldpanners, loaded with NCAA Division I players, swept the six-game series. And the Merchants weren’t helped by the 24 hours of daylight, which made sleeping a challenge. But none of that took away from the experience of playing in the Midnight Sun Game.
“If I got the chance to do it again I 100% would,” Cramer said. “I knew it was going to be a cool experience and it did not disappoint.”