When the New York Mets needed a pitcher to close out their National League playoff series with the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, the Mets turned to one of the many players with Alaska League ties in this year's playoffs.
That pitcher, former Anchorage Bucs pitcher Bobby J. Jones, didn't disappoint. Jones threw a complete-game one-hitter to lead New York to a 4-0 victory that clinched the series for the Mets.
Over the years, college baseball players have made the Alaska League one of their stops in their pursuit of the major leagues. Since former Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks first baseman Dave Dowling became the first Alaska Leaguer to reach the majors in 1963, nearly 500 others have followed in his footsteps, passing through Alaska on their way to "The Show." The list of former Alaska Leaguers to reach the majors includes Hall-of-Fame pitcher Tom Seaver (Panners), outfielder Dave Winfield (Panners), first baseman Mark McGwire (Anchorage Glacier Pilots), pitcher Randy Johnson (Pilots) and outfielder Barry Bonds (Panners), just to name a few.
The list of Alaska League alumni includes a pair of three-time Cy Young Award winners (Seaver and Johnson), a member of the 3,000-hit club (Winfield), three members of the 400-homer club (McGwire, Winfield and former Panner Dave Kingman, with all three arriving in Alaska as pitchers), a three-time MVP (Bonds) and numerous others who have garnered baseball's awards.
The Alaska League has had an impact on the majors, and now on the Olympics. One of the key members of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team was former Kenai Peninsula Oiler and Mat-Su Miner first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who twice hit game-winning homers in extra innings during the Olympics.
Putting Jones on the mound might have been the only way the Mets could have countered the Giants, who feature a roster loaded with former Alaska League stars. The Giants nearly fielded a complete team of Alaska League alumni, with an outfield featuring Bonds, Marvin Benard (Mat-Su Miners) and Calvin Murray (Bucs). The Giants also had three-quarters of an infield with two-team alum J.T. Snow (Kenai Peninsula Oilers and Pilots) at first, Jeff Kent (Bucs) at second and Rich Aurilia (Oilers) at short. Mark Gardner (Pilots) started for San Francisco against Jones and took the loss.
But the Mets also had their share of former Alaska Leaguers. Besides Jones, the Mets had relief pitcher Dennis Cook (Oilers and Panners), outfielder Darryl Hamilton (Pilots) and first baseman Todd Zeile (the now-defunct North Pole Nicks).
I'm sure one of the reasons the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Atlanta Braves was because of the Alaska League factor. The Cardinals have McGwire, outfielder J.D. Drew (Oilers) and pitcher Alan Benes (Pilots). The Braves only had two former Alaska Leaguers, first baseman Wally Joyner (Bucs) and reserve infielder Steve Sisco (Pilots).
The Alaska League factor also played a role in the Seattle Mariners' sweep over the Chicago White Sox in the American League playoffs.
The Mariners had two former Alaska Leaguers in prominent roles -- first baseman John Olerud, a two-teamer who played for both the Oilers and the now-defunct Palouse Empire Cougars of Pullman, Wash., and pitcher Aaron Sele, who also played for the Cougars. The White Sox only had one Alaska Leaguer on their playoff roster, relief pitcher Keith Foulke (Bucs), while two others didn't make the playoff roster, injured pitcher Cal Eldred (Oilers) and rookie outfielder Jeff Liefer (Pilots).
In the other American League playoff series, the Oakland Athletics should have beaten the New York Yankees for the Alaska League factor to hold true. The A's have a former Alaska Leaguer in first baseman Jason Giambi (Panners). Giambi's brother, outfielder Jeremy, was signed to play with the Oilers but never made it up to play with the team.
A's outfielder Ryan Christenson did make it to play with the Oilers, and he was a fishing buddy of current Peninsula manager Aric Thomas on the Oilers' NBC championship team of 1993.
Pitcher Mike Magnante (Bucs) and pitcher Gil Heredia (Miners) also play for the A's.
The Yankees don't have any former Alaska Leaguers on their playoff roster, although pitcher Roger Clemens was signed to play for the Oilers before shoulder surgery prevented his arrival in Alaska that summer. I guess the Yankees had an advantage because their main Alaska League alumnus is hitting coach Chris Chambliss, who helped lead the Anchorage Glacier Pilots to the 1969 National Baseball Congress World Series title, the first of 14 NBC championships won by Alaska teams over the years.
The Yankees also have an Alaska League connection in Mark Newman, who led the Oilers to their first NBC crown in 1977 as a manager. Newman is the president of baseball operations for the Yankees.
The Alaska League is one of the great secrets of baseball. Many people outside Alaska don't realize its distinguished history, and even some Alaskans don't know about it to judge by the attendance at some games. Where else can a fan spend less than $5 to watch future major leaguers, and sometimes even get in for free?
In July I was covering a Little League tournament at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park in Juneau when I happened to run into Red Boucher, the founder of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks in 1960 and the person who first brought college players to the state for summer baseball. Boucher, who now lives in Anchorage but was videotaping his grandson playing for Juneau's Gastineau Channel Little League All-Stars, is still one of the Alaska League's biggest boosters. He feels Juneau could support a team in the league, which currently has two teams in Anchorage, one in Fairbanks, one in Palmer, one in Kenai and one in Hawaii.
"Let's get Juneau an entry into the Alaska League," said Boucher, who is one of nine people with Alaska League ties honored in the National Baseball Congress Hall of Fame in Wichita, Kan. "With apologies to my former hometown of Fairbanks and my current hometown of Anchorage, Juneau's the best sports city in the state. It's all about creating opportunity.
"My project this year is to get Cooperstown (the New York home of baseball's Hall of Fame) to recognize Alaska baseball. We deserve an exhibit in the Hall of Fame."
Charles Bingham is the sports editor of the Juneau Empire and a 30-year fan of Alaska League baseball. Besides covering the Alaska League for several newspapers in the state, Bingham also supplied regular notes on the league to Baseball America.
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