Tim Barto: Play ball!!! But without Fairbanks … again

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Fairbanks' new turf infield. Photo credit: John Lohrke

By TIM BARTO

Opening Day for the Alaska Baseball League  is this Wednesday, June 5, as the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks host the defending champion Anchorage Glacier Pilots, while the other Anchorage team, the Bucs, host the Mat-Su Miners. On Sunday, the 9th, the  Peninsula Oilers open up their season in Palmer as guests of the Miners. The ABL season will then be underway with the five teams that make up the league.

What about the Fairbanks Goldpanners? Well, they haven’t been in the league since 2015. That’s right, the team that started Alaska summer college baseball is not a part of the Alaska Baseball League. The Goldpanners still exist (although, for the sake of accuracy, their official name is the “Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks” – kinda’ like the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim”) , but they play teams from the Lower 48, both in Fairbanks and during extremely expensive trips outside. They will play the ABL teams during exhibition games in the revived “Scout Showcase,” which takes place in Anchorage from June 14-16. 

The idea of the Showcase is to make it convenient for Major League scouts to analyze the talent of all six Alaska teams in one location during one three-day period. It will be interesting to see if the scouts actually show up in person, as much of scouting to remote areas these days is done via video feeds. There was a time when Alaska was the top echelon of college summer baseball, but that is no longer the case. It is still a widely respected league, but the appeal of other summer college programs, such as the Cape Code and Northwoods Leagues as well as Major League Baseball’s own sanctioned leagues, have cut into Alaska’s popularity and ability to draw top tier Division One talent.

The reasons for the decline in the ABL’s appeal are many. A major factor is that today’s college coaches put short leashes on their pitchers, limiting the number of pitches thrown or innings on the mound during the summer. Some coaches would rather send their pitchers to intensely focused clinics, known as “arm farms,” where pitchers’ mechanics and conditioning programs are analyzed and revamped without emphasis on live-game throwing.

So, back to Fairbanks and why they’re not in the Alaska Baseball League. The reason for Fairbanks’ omission is not clear, and becomes even less clear the more people you talk to about it; that is, if you can get people in the know to open up about the matter. One person who does not mince words about it all is Goldpanners’ president and general manager John Lohrke, who was interviewed by telephone for this article.

Lohrke loves baseball, particularly Alaska baseball, and he not only wants his team to rejoin the ABL, but he wants the league to be robust; two goals, in his mind, which are mutually beneficial. 

John’s Alaska baseball resume is impressive and goes back to 1980, when he came to Alaska for a summer on a lark (or Uncle Sam’s request) and, like many of us, ended up staying. He worked for the now defunct North Pole Nicks from 1980 until 1987, then ran the Kenai Peninsula Oilers from 1999 to 2001. In 2005, the Goldpanners elected him to their board of directors. He hosted players in his home, supported the program in every way he could, and was rewarded for his dedication in 2016 when he was given the reins to the historic ballclub. 

Lohrke had his work cut out for him. The stadium and field were in disrepair, sponsorships were lacking, money was tight, attendance was dismal, and (as previously mentioned) the team was no longer a part of the Alaska Baseball League. It looked as though the team may not survive, which is especially distressing because not only were the Panners the inaugural Alaska summer college team, but the franchise’s success in recruiting outstanding baseball players was unparalleled. 

Over 210 former Panners went on to play in the big leagues. The list is quite impressive: Rick Monday, Graig Nettles, Andy Messersmith, Tom House, Dave Kingman, Dave Roberts, Bob Boone, Ken Phelps, Terry Francona, Harold Reynolds, Bret Boone, Jason Giambi, and Bill “The Spaceman” Lee. Hall-of-Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield also played for Fairbanks, as did another certain Hall-of-Famer, Barry Bonds . . . had he not embroiled himself in a steroid scandal.

Fairbanks’ new scoreboard. Photo credit: John Lohrke

Lohrke explained that the league bylaws set out the requirements for a team that was once a part of the league and wants to re-enter. The team must pay a $5,000 fee and be voted back in by a majority of the general managers of the other teams; in this case, three of the five current ABL teams must approve the re-entry, a tally that has yet to be attained.

Chip Dill, who served one year as ABL commissioner in 2023, strongly supported the Panners’ return but, in an ironic twist of fate, Dill himself is not returning as commissioner this season. As with the issue of Fairbanks not being in the league, reasons for Dill’s departure are unclear. Dill invited Lohrke to attend the end-of-season league meeting last year, and it seemed like things were headed in the direction of Fairbanks returning, if not in 2024 then almost certainly in 2025; however, with Dill out of the picture, the future is all but certain. 

Lohrke is disappointed. He feels the Goldpanners should be in the league, and he feels the league will be stronger with a Fairbanks team in it, but he has not allowed their absence to deter him from making the moves to improve all those issues that plagued the franchise when he took over in 2016. 

His ballpark sports new infield turf and a beautiful new scoreboard with video features, the latter of which none of the five ABL franchises have. The Panners will hold 31 home games this season (as opposed to 20 for each of the five ABL teams), and all but three of those games are sponsored by local businesses or individual supporters. Attendance is up, as evidenced by the 140 season box seats that have been purchased to date. 

Appealing to the entertainment aspect of baseball, last season Lohrke brought the Phillie Phanatic (the comical and loved mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies) to Fairbanks, and was able to schedule an F-35 flyover for military appreciation game. The F-35 is scheduled to return this season, as is Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield, who will throw out the first pitch at the annual Midnight Sun Game (played on June 21st with a start time of 10:00 pm and no artificial lighting – a true Alaska classic). 

Lohrke acknowledges mistakes on his team’s part that have soured relations with the league. There was a behavioral incident with one of the Goldpanners that resulted in the team’s eviction from the UAA dorms during a 2015 series in Anchorage, and the near exposure of Covid-positive players to another team in 2021. But his team is heading in the right direction. They’re organized, they’re making money, and they’re drawing fans. 

The truth is that the same cannot be said about few of the five ABL teams. In early May, the  Peninsula Oilers, whose home field is in Kenai, made dual public announcements: 1) Their dire financial situation put the 2024 season in doubt, and 2) They were parting ways with their general manager.

In Anchorage, where midtown decaying Mulcahy Stadium is home to both the Bucs and Glacier Pilots, the stands are frequently emptier than filled. During one game last season, nearly half the first base dugout was ankle deep with rainwater. A Chinooks player and I used buckets to literally bail the muck and make it so players could pass through the dugout without getting soaked. 

The truth is that what was once the premiere summer college baseball league in the country is struggling. Lohrke believes that a unified league – willingly led by a strong commissioner – is the best way to not only survive but thrive,  and he want the Alaska Goldpanners to be a part of it.

The league can do itself a favor and look north to see how a near-defunct Alaska baseball organization can turn itself into a successful and popular operation. 

Tim Barto is a former president and coach of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks of the Alaska Baseball League. His full-time gig is as vice president of Alaska Family Council.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately Anchorage is not the sports town it use to be when I first moved here almost 30 years ago. To a lesser extend the same can be said for much of the state now. We almost lost Junior Hockey complete, UAA attendance for all sporting events including the Great Alaska Shootout has dropped, We lost the Aces, Arena Football, and the ABL attendance has been shrinking for years. People will ask “What Happened ?” and the answer is simple. WE the population of Alaska failed to support our sports teams across the state. I for one would love to see the teams of the ABL put their bickering aside and let the Goldpanners back in. It’s hard enough to attract kids to play here in the summer now, and it’s even harder with sub standard facilities. Alaskans we need to do our part and support our local teams an events. Otherwise we wont have anything

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