The road to the 2011 Alaska Baseball League championship might pass though Kenai, but it won’t go through Fairbanks.
Just don’t expect any complaints from the Peninsula Oilers, who last season went 4-6 in Fairbanks but were 29-15 overall in the ABL.
“To be honest with you, not going to Fairbanks is a great thing for a human being,” Oilers coach Dennis Machado said Wednesday. “That’s a tough place to play, a tough environment to be in for eight days up there. So I was really excited when I heard we didn’t have to go back.”
The Oilers host the Lake Erie (Mich.) Monarchs in a nonleague game at 7 p.m. tonight at Coral Seymour Memorial Park in the season opener. But even before the first pitch, the season feels different.
The storied Fairbanks Goldpanners, who host the annual Midnight Sun game every solstice and have been a mainstay atop the ABL standings, won’t compete in the league for the first time in about 50 years.
Instead, the cash-strapped organization will play a modified schedule featuring 19 homes games and 11 road games — six in Alaska.
The league drops from six to five teams — the Oilers, Anchorage Bucs, Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Mat-Su Mariners and Fairbanks Athletes in Action Fire.
The Fire will play some home games at away venues since the Goldpanners aren’t competing in the league, sparing teams from making costly — and tiring — road trips north.
“Fairbanks is, what, the founding member of the Alaska League and has been playing the Midnight Sun game for 106 years and is one of the most prestigious and historical programs there is in summer baseball?” Machado said. “It’s unfortunate that they are not going to play in the league, but it’s out of our control. You just kind of move on and do what you need to do.”
In previous seasons, the Oilers played a series against the Goldpanners and a series against the Fire during each visit to Fairbanks. This season, those games will be played in Kenai.
Of the Oilers’ 46 games, 32 are at Coral Seymour Memorial Park. That includes the first 13 and 24 of the first 28.
“That will be a good thing for our guys, just to get in the routine of being in the same place,” Machado said. “Just the comforts of being at home, not being on the road, you’re able to maintain your routine and get familiar with your surroundings a little bit.”
The Oilers, who placed third in the ABL last season, have 17 athletes available for today’s opener. Three of them were scheduled to arrive early this morning. The team is made up of college athletes, many of whom still have obligations to their schools.
Machado said the unit should be at full strength by Sunday — three games into the season. Until then, the Oilers will operate with a skeleton crew as the coaching staff tinkers with the lineup.
“We have been looking at the roster since September and these guys up to this point have just been a name on a piece of paper,” Machado said. “You follow up with them all year, check their stats to see how they are doing, but none of that really means anything until you get them here and put a face to the name.”
One player who has arrived is James Mannara, 20, a junior-to-be at the Florida Institute of Technology. The left-handed reliever is among nine pitchers who will see action during the opening series.
Mannara is new to the ABL, arriving to the central Kenai Peninsula on Monday. He is staying with a host family near Coral Seymour, living in a cabin adjacent to the house. Without curtains on the windows of his room, Mannara wasted little time finding ways to shield his eyes while trying to sleep.
“I just put a hoody on and put it over my eyes and pass out,” he said. “It’s been a culture shock.”
Mannara is one of two Florida Tech athletes to join the Oilers, the other being catcher Ryan McChesney. Familiar with McChesney’s style, Mannara hopes the chemistry translates to success on the field.
Machado doubles as the pitching coach, something which Mannara also sees as a benefit.
“Just to improve and tighten up my game as a pitcher, get my work done,” Mannara said of his goals for the season. “Learning new things from different coaches is always nice.”
Jordan Mills, a 6-foot-5, 190-pound left-hander at St. Mary’s College in California, will receive the start on opening night.
Machado said Mills will throw between three and five innings because the coach wants to give reps to multiple pitchers during opening weekend.
Fresno State University right-hander Justin Haley, also 6-5, will start Friday. Kellen St. Luce of Nova Southeastern University in Florida will start Saturday.
“We are going to break up all the innings and give everybody an opportunity — for them to get their feet wet in pitching in Alaska and for us to be able to see them and see them in an actual game instead of a practice,” Machado said.
Two players return from last year’s squad — first and third baseman Patrick Wisdom and shortstop Mike Miller. Right-handed pitcher Taylor Garrison was slated to come back, but he was recently drafted into the major leagues.
Rounding out the pitching staff are Reese McGraw, Creighton University; Mark Winkelman, Creighton University; Ben Griset, St. Mary’s; Gabriel Asakura, California State University, Los Angeles; Tyler Blum, University of Iowa; J.D. Salles, Fresno State; Jon Maciel, Long Beach State University; Cameron McVey, Biola University; and Brandon Kizer, Seattle University.
Additional position players include Jeff Yamaguchi, Long Beach State; Manny Acosta, Cal State, Los Angeles; Brent Peterson, Army; Chris Mallory, Fresno State; Troy Channing, St. Mary’s; Alex Fuselier, University of Louisiana-Lafayette; Drake Fages, Biola University; Tanner Rust, New Mexico State University; Eric Paulson, Bradley University; and Nate Ring, California State-Northridge.
Machado said the roster can change at any time. Yet expectations are high. The assistant coaches are John Kennedy, John Stevens and Kyle Richardson.
“Once we get everyone here, we will be able to assess a little better,” Machado said. “Obviously, the Oilers want us to win the Alaska League and go on to the NBC World Series and be the team that dog-piles on the last day of summer baseball.
“From the coaching staff side of it, our expectations are that these guys keep getting better and improve and go back to school better than they were when they arrived.”