By TIM BARTO
Sports stories today, especially at the professional level, seem full of bad behavior.
- A 39 million-dollar-a-year-quarterback awaits suspension for abusing women.
- A young baseball star tests positive for performance enhancing drugs, forcing his team to make a post-season run without him.
- Basketball’s most famous player focused his leadership skills on maligning police officers instead of his teammates.
Professional sports in our country have devolved into chest-thumping and trash-talking, but there are still positive stories dealing with sports. And this is one of them.
In 2001, Chris Beck proposed bringing an Athletes-In-Action (AIA) baseball team to compete in the Alaska Baseball League (ABL). Spreading the Gospel through athletics is AIA’s mission. The organization had sent traveling teams to Alaska in previous years, but Beck wanted to have a team be part of the league all summer long. His proposal was accepted, and the AIA Fire baseball team was founded with their home field in Fairbanks.
Despite a 2007 league championship, the team did not fare well in the interior, so Beck shopped for a new location and was eagerly courted to Chugiak-Eagle River by a group headed by the late Lee Jordan. In 2012, the team moved south and became the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks.
As with the other ABL teams, the Chinooks’ roster is filled with college players from the Lower 48, looking to play competitive baseball in the country’s most unique setting. What sets the Chinooks apart is the aforementioned connection to AIA. Unlike the other teams in the league, Chinook players are required to raise support to help fund their summer in Alaska, and they are required to attend 90-minute discipleship meetings every game day.
The inherent difficulty for such a team is recruiting top tier Division I ballplayers. The highly talented prospects tend to be guys who are focusing on a future at the professional level . . . and less so on Bible study. Beck understood this, and accepted it. In fact, he expected it.
That’s not to say he was giving up on winning. In fact, he went out and found the team a national championship head coach. Jon Groth was the architect of a very successful college baseball program in Tyler, Texas, only to find himself resigning shortly after winning it all. Coach Groth had a feeling the Lord had something else in store for him, and that something else was to be the Chinooks’ field manager, which he has been since the team moved south in 2012.
Beck and Groth had very impressive college careers; impressive enough that they were both drafted by Major League organizations (Beck by the Seattle Mariners, and Groth by the Cincinnati Reds), and they both toiled in the professional minor leagues for a few years before coming to the same realization that 97 percent of professional baseball players have to reach: they weren’t going to The Show. Their big league dreams would have to remain just that, but their love of the game kept them in the game and eventually brought them together in Alaska.
Each summer, Beck and Groth taught two dozen college baseball players about the game but, more importantly, about what it means to be good sons, husbands, fathers, and men. They still wanted to win games, but they concentrated even more on winning souls for the eternal kingdom.
The Chinooks have had one winning season on the field. That was in 2021 and, let me tell you, it was fun. As a suffering Chinook fan and a former adherent to the adage that “winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing,” I was able to stop pacing so much during the games and I didn’t have to drive home despondent after yet another loss so often.
“You’re going to give yourself a heart attack,” Chris’s wife, Danielle, used to admonish me, “there are more important things at stake here, you know.” Yes, I knew that, but I really didn’t appreciate it until, ironically, that winning season.
And that realization came just in time, as 2022 would prove to be an extraordinarily tough season on the field for the fish. We finished with a record of six wins and 32 losses. That’s a .158 winning percentage. As a batting average it would be downright awful, but as a win percentage it’s painful – a statistical anomaly at the college level.
But despite the dismal record, the 2022 season was a success. Four young men committed their lives to the Lord, five players chose to get baptized in chilly Mirror Lake, and several of the guys expressed their desires to return next season. Attendance kept pace with 2021’s record turnouts, and concession and merchandise sales were up as families came out to Loretta French Park to support the fellas and the program.
After a six and 32 season.
Watching my friends Chris and Jon maintain their calm and work diligently to help mold those young athletes into good men was a joy, and it taught me much. Giving up my lifelong obsession with Major League Baseball in 2020 after the league went woke, I learned I could still love the game of baseball. The game, like other sports, can bring out the good in people and reveal true champions; people worthy of our attention and respect.
Tim Barto is president of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Booster Club, and Vice President of Alaska Policy Forum.