The sun was still struggling to win the battle over cloud cover and rain Monday afternoon as I pulled into a near-empty parking lot in front of Mulcahy Stadium.
For those unaware of it, Mulcahy is the not-so-slowly deteriorating ballpark nestled behind the Sullivan Arena, the former home of the Alaska Aces – Alaska's most prominent and popular sports team. Recent years have been kind to the Sully. In 2014, it scored a new LED system and an electronic scoreboard transplanted from the Cow Palace in California's Bay Area. Over 6,000 seats wrap around an Olympic-sized skating rink. On any given game night, the arena would be awash in blue jerseys deafened by cowbells. Alaska loves hockey. It was a match made in heaven.
But heaven had budget cuts and the Aces went away. A big chunk of Anchorage's soul went with them. Our sports team was gone.
When break up finally releases us from it's ugly clutches and it's warmed enough to remove a Winter's worth of dog poop from our yards' icy prisons, if you listen closely to that crumbling infrastructure behind the Sully, you can hear the distant crack of the bat and the sound of children cheering on players who might be the heroes of their tomorrow. And a foul ball brought to you by UBS Financial.
Baseball has had a home in Alaska dating back to 1893 – on a makeshift diamond on an island in the Beaufort see, during Winter, at 38 degrees below. Because of course. Nearly a century later, the Alaska Baseball League was established in 1974 as a Summer collegiate baseball league. Every year, young athletes representing dozens of colleges flock north to hone their skills and up their stock value (the ABL season begins a week before Major League Baseball's first-year players draft).
Mulcahy Stadium, built ten years earlier, is home to two teams: the Anchorage Glacier Pilots and the Anchorage Bucs. Greats like Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Mark McGwire, Tom Seaver, and Dave Winfield have all played on its turf. Current Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt and Blue Jays phenom Josh Donaldson swung their sticks here. Current State House Rep. Jason Grenn even logged five years serving as the Bucs mascot.
Fifty-two marathon games will be played between June 5 and July 31 to offer Alaskans a fleeting glimpse of their fantasy league team roster of the future; the faces that will be on posters hung on their sons' and daughters' bedroom walls someday.
Jake Vieth hopes to be one of them. The 5'11” southpaw first baseman enjoyed All-Region and All-Conference honors atop a Northwest Athletic Conference Most Valuable Player award for his 2016 season at Tacoma Community College. He batted a stunning .405 with seven home runs and 41 runs batted in. That was enough for Gonzaga University to pick him up for his sophomore season. But, he struggled in the West Coast Conference. His average dropped to .229, his dingers dwarfed to just five and his RBIs were nearly cut in half. So, his coaches told him to pack his bags for Alaska.
And we get treated to great baseball. Before the agents and contracts and cable deals.
It also allows players to fine tune their game and work on mechanics. Behind a bushy beard and a pinstriped Bucs jersey, Vieth told me he wanted to work to get his strikeout ratio down. Last year, he struck out over 30 percent of the time.
Monday night, he hit a fifth-inning bullet into right field netting him a base hit and bringing two Bucs across the plate. His first hit of the season, his first two RBIs, and a Bucs lead that would last. The Eagle River-Chugiak Chinooks fell, 5-2. Summer is back.
Baseball is a game of inches, they say. But, it's also the game of a lifetime. Prospects devote the entirety of their waking minutes, from before they know who they are through to the moment when they figure out who they've become, and then they make adjustments accordingly to stay relevant. When the rest of us went to party, get drunk, or smoke pot, they were working on their swing, their pitches, their fielding, their mindset – just in the hopes that they might afford themselves some major league scout's half-second thought that they may be be viable in the bigs.
This is where they work out the kinks and we get to watch. They isolate themselves on this island Alaska and figure out what they need to do to make sure this year's collegiate statistics will prove better than last year's. There's something honest, pure, and beautiful about that.
When I first moved here over a decade ago, a coworker welcomed me to the “Refugee camp for the Lower 48.” That's as true on the diamond, too.
Alaska is where people end up because they're looking for a second chance. If they put the work in and prove themselves, they get it – along with the most beautiful summers, backdrops, and off days in these United States. But it's that meritocratic system that makes the 49th estate a unique place for summer league baseball. All these kids are looking for a chance in The Show. It will take most all of them a second chance to prove it, and they get that shot here.
That makes for some amazing baseball.
Scouts with their clipboards and radar guns. The hotdogs. The smell of the hotdogs. The beer. The Chugach mountains behind the stadium lights. Kids bustling about frantically with baseball mitts in pursuit of every foul ball that they can rescue from a windshield in the parking lot. A men's bathroom that completely exposes the buffet-style stall to the view of oncoming traffic.
Mulcahy is, admittedly, a bit of a hot (albeit beautiful) mess. Our world is a mess. Our state is a mess. Everything is a staggering, freaking mess. But baseball is there to timelessly argue: “What a time to be alive!” Even in Alaska, buried behind the Sully.