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AIA Fire consider making Chugiak their new home

Posted: July 7, 2011 - 8:00am  |  Updated: July 7, 2011 - 9:30am

Bill Stoltze thinks Chugiak is on its way to becoming an Alaska Baseball League town.

"A lot of things are looking good," said Stoltze, who represents Chugiak and part of the Mat-Su valleys in the Alaska State House.

Rep. Stoltze was speaking of the very real possibility that the Athletes in Action Fire, a roaming team normally based in Fairbanks - but with no home stadium - could move to Loretta French Park in Chugiak next season.

It's an idea that has been kicking around for a couple years now, said Jon Dyson, the general manager of the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. Dyson said moving AIA closer to the rest of the ABL (the league also includes two teams in Anchorage and one each in Palmer, Kenai and Fairbanks) took on urgency this season when the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks announced they won't play a full league schedule this year.

"We really kind of tuned it up about possibly putting a team (in Chugiak)," Dyson said.

Having the Fire closer to Southcentral would make sense for the rest of the teams in the league because it would reduce travel costs significantly, Dyson said.

"It would be real convenient," Dyson said.

There are a number of hurdles that must be overcome to make the move a reality. First, the field at Loretta French must be able to stand up to the level of play in the ABL, one of the nation's premier summer collegiate leagues. That test will come Saturday, when the Fire and Anchorage Glacier Pilots hook up for a 6 p.m. exhibition game at the field, which is located on the Old Glenn Highway just south of the North Birchwood exit.

Aside from the obvious lack of bleachers, the park has most of the ingredients needed to host ABL play, according to Fire general manager Chris Beck.

"The playing surface is fine, which is a good place to start," Beck said.

The dimensions at the park, which currently serves as the home field for the Eagle River American Legion team, are on par with other stadiums in the league. The field measures 325 feet down the lines, 390 in the power alleys and is 400 to dead center with an 8-foot fence all the way around. There's also a 10-foot warning track around the outfield and an electronic scoreboard in left-center field.

By comparison, Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage is 325 down the lines and 398 to center.

Rep. Stoltze said he's been working with the Eagle River Parks and Recreation board to make sure the park could accommodate having a team at its field for a full season. And, he said, more community support - whether it be in the form of financial backing for the team, donations or housing for players - will almost certainly be needed if the area wants to host its own team.

"They'll need some community support," he said.

Former Chugiak High and Anchorage Bucs pitcher Bill Lierman is on the board of the Bucs and manages Chugiak's American Legion baseball team. As a longtime member of the area's baseball community, Lierman said he believes the Chugiak-Eagle River area is ready for its own ABL squad.

"I think our community as a whole would embrace them," Lierman said.

Also in favor of the move is Mat-Su Miners general manager Pete Christopher. Christopher said he's been behind the idea since he first heard it brought up in league circles a couple years ago.

"I think it's great," he said.

Christopher said AIA currently gets little support in Fairbanks, where the Fire must play second fiddle to the Goldpanners.

"I think they'd get a lot more support than they do in Fairbanks," Christopher said.

Because of the Goldpanners' decision not to play a full ABL schedule, the Fire have effectively been kicked out of Fairbanks for the summer, Beck said, and have been relegated to playing a schedule made up entirely of road games. He said having a community to call their own would be a welcome improvement for the Fire.

"We'd have our own identity there," he said.

The biggest bit of uncertainty over the move, said Jon Dyson, is the future of the Goldpanners. The team has not yet announced what its plans are for next season, meaning AIA's future is equally uncertain.

"Nobody really has a clue what they're going to do," Dyson said.

Ideally, Athletes in Action would like to know where it's going to play before the end of this season, Beck said. The Ohio-based team is run on a shoestring budget (Beck also serves as pitching coach, among other duties), meaning the sooner plans for next season are in place, the better.

"Some decisions have to be made in the next couple weeks," Beck said.

Beck said he's excited about the possibility of moving to the area.

"It could be a great thing for us," he said.

Not only because it would give the team some measure of stability, he said, but because it would give the Fire a place to call their own.

"Being the home team would be a nice thing," he said.

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