Nine months ago, the future of the Peninsula Oilers baseball organization was in serious doubt.
Years of funding and gaming revenue had slowly dried up or greatly fallen, fairly standard employment positions were being cut, and to make matters worse, the roof was literally blown off the grandstand bleachers at Coral Seymour Memorial Park just weeks before the season was due to start after high winds ravaged the area.
Today, the first pitch of the Alaska Baseball League summer season will be thrown at Coral Seymour Park to begin the 42nd season of the Oilers, which hopefully will help to ease any remaining tensions.
In the intervening months, a lot of scrimping and saving was done in an effort to keep the club afloat, but as the offseason rolled along, the financial squeeze really began to be felt.
In a meeting late last summer, Oilers president of the board Michael Tice said that $170,000 was needed in order to play a full summer season. By early December, Tice said the Oilers made significant changes to lower than number to $80,000 to $90,000.
Tice said the team has received numerous small donations and sponsorships from local businesses in recent months that have helped, but not the expected “magic bullet,” the big money donor for which Tice was hoping. In February, the Oilers hosted the “Lucky 7” Gusher Gala at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, a night in which folks paid $100 for a ticket that bought prime rib dinner and a chance to win big prizes. Tice said that event ended up bringing in about $20,000.
But it was at a board meeting in early November that they decided to proceed with another season.
“We made that decision out of sheer determination,” Tice said. “The money wasn’t there when we made the decision, it was either go for it or shut it down now.”
Faced with what Tice guessed was a 60 percent chance of not seeing a summer season for the first time in franchise history — the only ABL club that can lay claim to that statistic — the Oilers decided to play ball. Tice added that the club is still about $30,000 to $40,000 shy of its goal, but the Oilers are closer than they thought they would be.
“At this point, we’re happy to make it through, regardless of money,” Tice said.
One of the many cuts included the general manager position, which was held by James Clark in 2014. This year, a volunteer GM has stepped up in Mike Baxter, who has been a part of the Oilers organization for many years.
With the decision behind them and opening day finally arriving, the Oilers can take a moment with the fans and enjoy America’s Pastime.
Tonight’s game is a nonleague exhibition between the Oilers and the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, and is set to start at 7 p.m. The official start of the ABL season is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Coral Seymour against the Goldpanners, and will continue with games Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Of course, the instinct to win now is always on every player’s mind, and new head coach Kevin Griffin is looking to improve upon the 11-22 record that the Oilers posted in the ABL American League last season. The Oilers were 20-25 overall.
“We have a group of 27 really good baseball players,” Griffin said. “It’s not like we have two or three guys head over heels better than the rest. We have a group of really solid players.”
During the academic year, Griffin is an assistant coach at Texas A&M International University, a Division II school in Laredo, Texas, that is affiliated with the Texas A&M University system. Griffin holds seven years of coaching experience, three at the collegiate level and four at the professional level.
Griffin took the Oilers coaching job in December, a time in which Tice said the organization was behind the curve in picking the upcoming season’s coaching staff. Another coach was originally selected, but later backed out, but not before leaving the Oilers with the tip to hire Griffin.
Griffin said before he made the decision to come up to Alaska for the first time in his life, he was well aware of the financial hardships that the team was going through, but after talking to Baxter, he felt confident he was joining a standup organization.
“I really appreciate (Baxter’s) hard work to try and get this thing going for the town, but also for the players to get this opportunity,” Griffin said. “I think it’s good for the city to continue the team after (42) years. They really stepped up to the plate to get it going.”
Griffin will be joined this summer by pitching coach Brian Daly and hitting coach Eli Silverman.
While Silverman is a late addition to the Oilers, Griffin and Daly have a friendship that goes back much further. Griffin played against Daly in 2006 in the United League, a now-defunct independent professional league. Griffin played for the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings in Harlingen, Texas, while Daly played for the Laredo Broncos. By 2008, the duo found themselves teamed up with the renamed Harlingen WhiteWings.
It was those years — along with his playing days as a catcher at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, and Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia — that helped shape his perspective on how to lead a successful team.
“It forces you to see the whole field,” Griffin said about being a former catcher. “You’re forced to communicate with the pitching staff, and you’re kind of like a coach on the field. You’re looking at the game from a different perspective.”
Griffin said that while today’s exhibition will see several pitchers on the mound in efforts to shake down the bullpen, Friday’s official opening game will have David Diaz starting. Diaz hails from Fort Worth, Texas, and is a right-handed senior from Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
With 29 players on the current roster — including 15 pitchers — Griffin said the Oilers are shaping up to be a deep team, albeit without any real superstar players. He added that he shares two goals with the squad: One is to prepare the players for their college teams when they return in the fall; and two is to prepare them for the next level, the long-term future that will hopefully see them continue to successful careers.
Two of the players on the current roster share local roots; Hector Rivera, a freshman infielder at Central Christian College in McPherson, Kansas, is a 2013 graduate of Kenai Central High School, and Mitchel Daugherty, a 6-foot-6 right-handed sophomore pitcher from Southwest Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, Oregon, is a 2013 graduate of Soldotna High. Both players played on the 2012 Alaska Legion Post 20 Twins squad that won the state championship.