By Jim Caple
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.
That’s the way it is when you’re the northernmost baseball team in the world. How far north? North Pole, Alaska is 10 miles to the south of Fairbanks. Of course, that’s not the actual north pole – merely a town that named itself North Pole to generate a cottage Santa Claus industry (the high school team is named the Nicks). But still. We’re talking way up there.
Red Boucher & Bill Stroecker
Red Boucher (who formed the Alaska League in 1960) and Bill Stroecker (whose father played in the first Midnight Sun game).
He didn’t plan on playing in the centennial, though. He is studying to be a physician’s assistant at a Savannah college and is only home for a two-week vacation. “I was going to call the team up to see whether I could sit in the dugout for this game because I knew how crazy the ticket situation would be,” he said. “But they called me about two and a half weeks ago and asked whether I could throw for them. I haven’t pitched since the end of the season last July but I said, all right.”
He said he began thinking Monday night about how the Midnight Sun game could be his last time on a mound. “I didn’t want to go out and disappoint anyone. I wanted to go out there and have one good last game.”
Timmons did, holding the Omaha Strike Zone to one run in five innings, and the bullpen took over from there. Given that the final innings were played in dusk with the umpire expanding the strike zone, Omaha didn’t have much chance for a comeback. The Panners won 3-1 and Timmons got the win in what may be his final game. The final pitch was at 12:55 a.m. and almost everyone stayed for the end, listening to “Midnight Special” playing over the loudspeaker. The “Alaska Flag Song” was sung at midnight before the start of the sixth inning.
Cheff joked afterward about using Timmons on 364 days rest until he turns 40, but the Hall of Fame has a better idea for preserving the pitcher. They asked for his cap and jersey for the museum. “That was awesome,” he said. “And I get a lifetime pass to the Hall of Fame.”
It’s a great exchange. Not only can Timmons visit Cooperstown anytime he wants, but the Hall will preserve the moment he stood precisely where so many players have lived out their midsummer night’s dreams over the past century- in the sunlight and on top of the world.