FAIRBANKS, Alaska The Midnight Sun game is like most baseball games except here the shadows are still creeping across the infield at close to 11 p.m.
"Nobody here knows if the lights have ever been turned on or not," Alaska Goldpanners manager Ed Cheff said, squinting through the golden sunlight at the light towers at Growden Park. "The rumor is that they might not even work. I know they've never been on in the four years I've been here. You talk to the locals about the lights and they just laugh and say, 'Yeah, we don't know about them, either.'"
Cheff said this Tuesday night around 10 p.m., as his team warmed up for the 100th annual playing of the Midnight Sun game, held in Fairbanks on each summer solstice and always without artificial lights. The game starts at 10:30 p.m. and has been known to end after 2 a.m. (And just think how long it would last if there were commercials!) While the sun officially sets at 12:47 a.m., it really just dips below the horizon for an hour or so. There's a rosy glow near the horizon but it never really gets dark enough to stop the game.
Not that you would want to face Randy Johnson in these conditions.
"My guys used to yell, 'Turn on the lights!' and I'd say, 'No way,'" former Goldpanners manager Red Boucher said. "So they would yell, 'Then how are we going to see the ball?' And I would say, 'Listen for it. If you hear it humming real loud, you're too close.'
"No other city in the world has this tradition so there is no way we're turning on those lights."
And just in case someone tried, Boucher said it wouldn't matter. "I pulled out all the fuses."
The Midnight Sun game is one of baseball's greatest and oldest traditions, dating back to 1906, or nearly to Julio Franco's birth. That was so long ago that they couldn't sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch because the song hadn't been written yet.
Or just think about it this way: Alaskans were playing this game 50 years before Alaska even became a state.
"Baseball was the big thing to do in Fairbanks back then because there was nothing else to do in Fairbanks," said Bill Stroecker, whose father played in the very first Midnight Sun game. "There were no automobiles here, no planes, no trains, no roadways. The only way to get here was to come up the river by boat."
Kind of puts a whole new spin on a long weekend in Detroit, doesn't it?
"I got off the plane to join the Goldpanners in 2001 and said, 'Where the [expletive] am I?" former Goldpanner pitcher Zak Basch recalled. "Then we won the National Baseball Congress championship in 2002. And I got drafted when I never should have. And I had a minor league career I never should have. And I tell you, winning the NBC World Series for the Goldpanners trumps anything I did in my pro career. I'd give up my entire pro career to get back one second of playing here, that one second throwing the last pitch to win the NBC series."
Basch is one of the hundreds of collegiate players to have made his way from the Lower 48 to play summer ball with Fairbanks in the amateur Alaska League following a line that includes Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Jason Giambi, Alvin Davis and Bret Boone. The players live with host families, work the field in the morning and play each night. Some, such as Basch, love the experience. Others, such as Boone, were well, less thrilled.