I watch a lot of sports. I mean a lottttttttttt of sports. Replays of blow out bowl games? I’m there. Bowling on Sunday afternoons? You better believe I’m skipping church. If there’s anyone in a uniform or a chubby guy breaking a sweat, I’m usually locked in, remote control in hand.
One of the things that I’ve grown to accept about sports is that rarely does the hype match reality. We long to see upsets in the NCAA Tournament, but almost always on cue, the better team wins. Heck we have to go back almost a full decade to find a National Champion that wasn’t favored heading into the Big Dance.
We spend two weeks dissecting every angle of the Super Bowl, up to what the starting right tackles are eating for breakfast. Then the game is played and we quickly become more engrossed by what the food spread is at the party we’re attending, than anything happening on the field.
And finally there’s the Masters. You can’t go anywhere during the month of March without seeing commercials previewing golf’s premiere event. You know the one’s, “A Tradition Unlike Any Other. The Masters on CBS.”
Now listen, I’m not a golf enthusiast and am by no means trying to bash the sport and certainly not CBS. But what exactly makes the Masters different from the other three majors and every other tournament that takes place over the course of the season? Whenever I turn on golf I see a bunch of pale white guys, a little lefty and a Tiger, with a lot of mismatched polo shirts and too tight khaki pants mixed in. What exactly makes the tradition unlike any other again? The Green Jacket? The azaleas? Augusta National?
If you want a tradition unlike any other I’ll give you one. Skip Augusta and drive north, really north. And when you get there, keep driving. Better yet, you just may want to take a plane.
For a tradition unlike any other go to Fairbanks, Alaska on June 21 of any year. Go to the Midnight Sun game.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Midnight Sun Game, let me give you a quick Readers Digest breakdown of the event.
Every year on the summer solstice (June 21), the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks of the Alaskan Baseball League (a summer wood bat league composed almost entirely of college players) play a baseball game that starts at 10:30 p.m. I know, I know sounds simple enough, but let me continue.
Because Fairbanks is just 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the sun never truly sets, meaning that artificial light is never used during the Midnight Sun Game. Ever. And just to be sure of it, Goldpanners General Manager Don Dennis doesn’t actually plug in the lights until at least June 22 (And the rumor floating around Fairbanks is that they don’t even work at all. Let’s put it this way, the lights at Growden Park are like the fine China your Grandma has but never uses. Visually pleasing, but mostly for show).
Despite the allure of starting a game at 10:30, what makes the game truly unique beyond the pomp and circumstance is the history behind it.
Over 500 future Major Leaguers have played in the game, with Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Tom Seaver taking the field with local Alaskans, mingling like meatheads at a Jose Canseco pool party. Amongst others, Jason Giambi, Michael Young, Bill Lee and Harold Reynolds have taken part in the event.
While you may have not known many of the players in the 2009 game, it wasn’t much different than years past. Sacramento State’s Jesse Darrah was the victorious pitcher, his college teammate Derrick Chung providing a 2-run homerun in a 6-3 Goldpanners win.
And while the names on the jerseys change, the cache remains the same, as baseball fans from all over the world converge on the land of the Midnight Sun to take in their own part of baseball history.
There was the woman from Pennsylvania who misread the Goldpanners schedule, and had to stay in Fairbanks for two days longer than planned. Of course it was her 77-year-old mother who insisted on the stay, refusing to miss out on baseball’s most unique tradition.
There was the couple from Vegas, fresh off a wedding in which they took their vows in “Bride,” and “Groom,” baseball caps. Part of their honeymoon included a trip to Fairbanks to take in the Midnight Sun spectacle.
And looking around Growden Park on Sunday night, it was hard to find a Major League team that was not represented by a fan wearing his or her favorite team’s jersey or hat. The Midnight Sun Game has almost become baseball’s equivalent of a family reunion, Yankees and Red Sox fans, Dodgers and Giants uniting as one to cheer for the Goldpanners. Which is exactly what happened.
Despite most of the 4,000 spectators having no affiliation with the home team, they quickly adopted them as their own. Inside pitches to Goldpanners batters were met with uproarious boos from the crowd, gap hits from the home team greeted with cheers. Beach balls flew onto the field several times, the event almost taking on the feel of a World Cup soccer match.
And when Sean Timmons got the final out of the game securing a Goldpanners victory, the crowd went wild, several thousand individuals rising to cheer for a group of players that just a few hours before were complete strangers.
After the last strike, the Goldpanners themselves quickly ran onto the field, embracing Timmons- a Goldpanner lifer now in his 8th season with the team- and hugging each other like long lost spouses reunited after a war. Just a few weeks earlier these players from colleges across the country were a group of strangers themselves, now they too were united as one, each with their own place in the Midnight Sun history books.
Ultimately the game didn’t matter, the exhibition against the Monarchs not even counting towards the Alaskan Baseball League standings.
But you couldn’t tell that to the 4,000 players, coaches and fans leaving Growden Park with baggy eyes and huge smiles early Monday morning.
They had just taken part in baseball history. They had just experienced the Midnight Sun Game, a tradition unlike any other.