Arizona ballplayers learn self-reliance playing Alaska summer baseball
“It’s historic. It’s funny that they call it the Bingo Hilton when it is just a bunker, a hole-in-the-wall,’’ said Miners catcher Ryan Haug, a rising University of Arizona senior. “But you take it for what it is, and you appreciate it more, knowing that all these big leaguers a few years ago were in our shoes, doing the same thing, chasing that dream, playing summer ball in Alaska, and staying in the Bingo Hilton.’’
Paul Goldschmidt, Luis Gonzalez, Randy Johnson, Aaron Judge and Josh Donaldson are among dozens of major leaguers who honed their skills in the Land of the Midnight Sun, playing night games – sans lights – in the slowly fading sunlight. For the 2017 edition of the Miners, a recent road trip to the Kenai Peninsula transformed strangers from 19 different colleges, into teammates.
Over five days, they ate meals prepared by Miners volunteers and slept in bunk beds, four to a closet-sized portal. The three-man coaching staff, led by Ben Taylor, Chandler-Gilbert Community College’s associate head coach, hunkered down with the players, using the close quarters to play cards and talk baseball.
On the last night of the trip, the players walked down to the beach, a seemingly endless expanse of smooth sand with panoramic views of glacier-covered mountains book-ending the shimmering inlet waters. Around a bonfire they talked late into the night – a rare off-day awaited – literally and figuratively pulling together as a team. Currently, they are a first-place team, forging extra-inning wins on June 22 and June 30, to lead the Alaska Baseball League.
Along with the No. 1 rated Cape Cod League, the ABL provides a competitive, collegiate summer baseball experience in a unique setting.
“When you’re playing an extra-inning game at 10 o’clock, and there are no lights, and you don’t need lights, that is about as Alaska as it gets,’’ Taylor said.
Initially Haug could not fall asleep.
“It took me a couple of days to adjust, but playing in the light at night makes it fun,’’ he said. “You lose track of time. We get done at 10 or 11 and I think, ‘Is it really that late?’ ’’
Miners General Manager Pete Christopher and his wife, Denise, board members, and a crew of volunteers prepare a first-class field at the Alaska State Fairgrounds in Palmer, including a clubhouse for players, weight training facilities, Canadian maple bats, and the largest fan base in the league. On June 15, despite overcast skies and 55-degree weather, they drew 981 fans.
Although Taylor coaches from September to May at Chandler-Gilbert, he doesn’t hesitate to head north to Alaska.
“It’s the only way I know how to do it; I’m a lifer,’’ said Taylor, who misses the game if he’s away for even three days. As the winningest coach in Miners history, the sixth-year coach focuses on development on and off the field. They’re truly on their own, up in the last frontier,’’ Taylor said. “There’s no semblance of what they’re used to, in terms of school or the comforts of home, and it’s on them to figure out how to survive and make this work. It is up to them to get to the gym, to get their work outs in. It is up to them to get there for early work, to get their extra swings in. It is up to them to get to bed at a decent hour, and to get up at a decent hour.
“They learn self-survival skills that are going to help them once they get to professional baseball. They have nothing else to focus on but baseball – maybe a little bit of fishing or some moose sighting. But there’s nothing to get in the way of them becoming the ballplayers, and the men, they want to become.’’
Seventeen former Miners were selected in the MLB draft last month; a member of the 2014 Miners, Nick Senzel, was the second overall pick in 2016. Progress is evident on campus, too, as former Miners Corbin Martin and Brigham Hill were the top starters for Texas A&M in its run to the College World Series in Omaha last month. They were drafted in the second and fifth rounds, respectively.
“You have to be tough to get through two months up here without seeing family, without taking a break from baseball,’’ he said. “I was more mentally and physically mature after my first summer here. Ben Taylor does that, he kind of grinds you down and makes you tougher.’’
With pitching coach Matt Greeley, LeBrun is working on his change-up and four-seam fastball.
“The summer is the best time to work on your craft,’’ he said. “We have so much time. So when you go into the college season, you know exactly how a pitch feels.’’
Along with Haug and LeBrun, the Miners have Zach Hardy, a former Phoenix Desert Vista High and Chandler-Gilbert CC standout; Rainer Ausmus, formerly of Chandler-Gilbert CC; Austin Bull from Gilbert Perry High School and Grand Canyon University; and his GCU teammates Preston Pavlica and Quin Cotton. Players with Arizona connections are sprinkled throughout the ABL, including Anchorage Bucs right-hander Logan Boyer, a Chandler Hamilton High grad who did not allow a hit and struck out 10 against the Miners over five innings on June 21.
Like Boyer, a rising sophomore at San Diego State, Hardy has used the summer as a measuring stick.
“Coming up here, I didn’t think I was going to be ready, but after the first couple days of practices, and playing in games, I can hang in there with guys in my conference and all over the country,’’ said Hardy, who will play for New Mexico State next season.
The support from his teammates is palpable.
“All of us knew we were in the same position together,’’ he said. “We all are thousands of miles away from home, and for some of us, this is our first summer away from our families, so all we really have is each other and our coaches, and luckily we are playing really good baseball, and that brought us together even closer.’’
Arizona-Alaska baseball connection
- Rainer Ausmus, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Mat-Su Miners, infielder
- Austin Bull, Chandler Perry High School; Grand Canyon University, Mat-Su Miners, shortstop
- Quin Cotton, Grand Canyon University, Mat-Su Miners, outfielder
- Zach Hardy, Phoenix Desert Vista High School; Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Mat-Su Miners, pitcher
- Ryan Haug, University of Arizona, Mat-Su Miners, catcher
- Calvin LeBrun, Phoenix Sunnyside High School, Mat-Su Miners, pitcher
- Daniel Padilla, Assistant coach South Mountain Community College, Mat-Su Miners, assistant coach
- Preston Pavlica, Grand Canyon University, Mat-Su Miners, outfielder
- Ben Taylor, Associate head coach Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Mat-Su Miners, head coach
- Logan Boyer, Chandler Hamilton High School, Anchorage Bucs, pitcher
- Billy Clemens, Tempe Corona Del Sol High School, Peninsula Oilers, pitcher
- Cuba Bess, Grand Canyon University, Anchorage Glacier Pilots, catcher
- Ian Evans, Grand Canyon University, Anchorage Glacier Pilots, first baseman
- Griffin Barnes, Grand Canyon University, Fairbanks Goldpanners, catcher
- Nick Ames, Tucson Canyon Del Oro High School, Fairbanks Goldpanners, infielder
- Caleb Duarte, Grand Canyon University, *Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks, broadcaster
*College students work on their broadcasting skills by livestreaming games. One or two students are assigned to each team.