Peninsula Oilers fans display encouragin signs for Oilers’ pitcher Bryan Woo, Friday, June 28, 2019, at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Peninsula Oilers fans display encouragin signs for Oilers’ pitcher Bryan Woo, Friday, June 28, 2019, at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in Kenai. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Opinion: Alaska collegiate smmer baseball — Divided we fall

The Alaska Baseball League risks demise

  • Rick Boots
  • Friday, November 11, 2022 9:22pm
  • Opinion

By Rick Boots

The Alaska Baseball League (ABL) risks demise due to external threats and internal division. Reintroducing to the league the legendary Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, a predecessor to and founding member of the ABL, is a paramount step for the league’s survival.

Alaska collegiate summer baseball began with the Goldpanners in 1960 as a barnstorming team fielding future Major League stars and hall-of-famers. In 1969 the Anchorage Glacier Pilots began operations, providing a cross-state rivalry. Both teams won multiple National Baseball Congress World Series. In 1974 the ABL formed when Kenai’s Peninsula Oilers launched. The Mat-Su Miners joined in 1976, Anchorage Bucs in 1980 and Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks in 2011. The ABL earned nationwide reputation as the league to be seen by pro scouts while highlighting the country’s finest prospects.

With more teams came differing agendas. The path to common ground is not always paved. Multiple restructures occurred, some due to economic conditions, others due to visionary differences. For some, resentments and divisions last years.

The most conspicuous ongoing division developed in 2015 when the Goldpanners announced they were leaving the league for a year to participate in the 2016 NBC World Series. This tournament is not financially or schedule feasible for current ABL teams. The move angered some in the ABL. The Goldpanners have been locked out of the league since.

As an objective baseball-connected voice in Anchorage, I was encouraged by fans and multiple teams to mediate the Goldpanners’ ABL re-entry. In 2018 and 2019 I met with leadership from the Pilots, Oilers, and Chinooks. I did not meet with the Miners. The Bucs would not discuss the Goldpanners. Deeper issues surfaced, including housing, field conditions, and the economics of traveling to Fairbanks. All valid concerns. Not concerns shared by all. Many ABL personnel recognized the importance of the Goldpanners rejoining the league. Regardless, year after year, the headline reads, “Alaska Baseball League denies Goldpanners bid to rejoin the league but leaves the door open for [next year].”

Fact Check: Housing. The Goldpanners provide dignified visitor housing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, minutes from Growden Park. The ABL, with three teams in the Anchorage Municipality, house visiting Oilers only in Palmer, a 45 to 75 minutes’ drive to the three other teams’ fields.

Fact Check: Field Conditions. The Goldpanners secured funding for field resurfacing in 2023 and are on path for facility upgrades. In 2018 Minor League Baseball contacted me, interested in flying professional teams to Alaska to play a nationally televised game. The deal breaker was Mulcahy stadium, which required field repairs and facility upgrades.

Fact Check: Travel. The Goldpanners and Pilots barnstormed in the early 1970’s travelling to multiple states and Japan. Their opponents travelled to Alaska where ballparks were packed. Outside travel continued with the ABL into the next two decades and then waned, except for the Goldpanners who still barnstorm. And prosper. Kudos to the Oilers for traveling to Fairbanks in 2022 for non-ABL games.

Fact Check: Unity. The Goldpanners welcomed the Glacier Pilots in 1969. Yet, in 1981, the Pilots fought the Bucs’ entry into the league. In 2018-19, the Oilers were on the brink of extinction. Some ABL personnel raised concerns about Kenai. Not concerns about their survival, concerns about, you know, housing, field conditions, and travel.

The end of logic. This fall the ABL presented an offer to Fairbanks for re-entry into the league in 2023. The offer was vague with unspecified probationary compliance requirements. The Goldpanners responded enthusiastically, requesting clarification. The ABL interpreted the request for clarification as a rejection. The Goldpanners returned a signed agreement. The ABL rescinded their offer and stated the league will later review for the 2024 season. How is a request for clarification interpreted as rejection? Why go through the motions? Was there sincerity in the offer?

While the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown. The ABL faces considerable challenges from new leagues outside Alaska. ABL’s ranking among top summer college leagues dropped from 3rd place to 7th place between 2019 and 2021, according to College Summer Baseball News. Many sites do not list ABL as a top league. The MLB affiliated West Coast League is drawing players and fans and moving up the ranks. Ballpark Digest attendance figures report a WCL 2022 season total of 538,815 fans with an average game attendance of 1,298: up 39% over 2021. The Goldpanners independently report 23,029 attendees in 2022 with an average game attendance of 743. That places Fairbanks 90th out of 170 summer college teams listed by Ballpark Digest. ABL teams were not listed. I attended games at Mulcahy Stadium pre and post pandemic where attendance was catastrophically low.

The ABL is a league with special history, and now with special challenges. Overcoming today’s challenges requires concessions and in-person collaboration, managed through an objective league commissioner with authority to hold all equally accountable to league bylaws.

The Goldpanners is a proven successful program. Their inclusion adds needed value to the ABL, its fan and sponsor experience, and to the players who come to see the larger Alaska.

ABL GM’s and Boards, for the survival of the league, for the benefit of fans, sponsors, players, and kids, please, tear down this wall. Divided we fall.

Author Rick Boots is an Anchorage based marketing consultant and baseball advocate. He played and coached youth baseball in Anchorage. He has been a player host and season ticket holder for the Glacier Pilots. He was invited by team founder Dennis Mattingly to play on the 1981 Cook Inlet Bucs, where his mediocrity was on full display for half the season, mostly as a bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher.

Author Rick Boots is an Anchorage based marketing consultant and baseball advocate. He played and coached youth baseball in Anchorage. He has been a player host and season ticket holder for the Glacier Pilots. He was invited by team founder Dennis Mattingly to play on the 1981 Cook Inlet Bucs, where his mediocrity was on full display for half the season, mostly as a bullpen catcher and batting practice pitcher.

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