Minor League Spotlight: 49th State Hardball

This post first appeared on BaseballDigest.com

For many fans of minor league baseball, the first league that comes to mind when they want to see the rising baseball stars at the collegiate level before they’re drafted by major league clubs is the Cape Cod Baseball League. If you’re looking for baseball talent that includes players that will go on to have Hall of Fame careers later on, the CCBL is a great place to start. However, there is a another league nearly five thousand miles away fielding similar teams under the Midnight Sun.

While this league has flown below the radar for some fans, there are a few websites dedicated entirely to the teams, players, and long history that make up the Alaska Baseball League. 49th State Hardball is an incredible resource that keeps tabs on players that are currently on Alaskan rosters, and former players that have gone on to have recent success. One such example is the New York Mets’ own Ike Davis, who had a strong debut when he went two for four with a run batted in. Davis played with the Anchorage Bucs in 2006, and continues the trend that has been long established in the north.

Since the 1960’s, Alaska has quietly been home to the earliest careers of many players that have gone on to have success in the big leagues. Before Dave Winfield’s Hall of Fame career started when he was drafted by four teams in three different sports, he played two seasons with the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, Alaska. Several years after Winfield left Alaska for the big leagues, Barry Bonds took the field as a member of the same team. The current all-time leader in home runs is another in a long line of talent that have traveled far and long to join Alaskan baseball teams. Jesse Jack of 49th State Hardball took a look at the roster of the Goldpanners last week, and noted a few players to keep an eye on when the season gets underway early next month.

Alaska is the only state in the entire country that experiences a sun that never fully sets during the summer months. For more than 100 years, there has been a Midnight Sun baseball game played in the northernmost reaching state on June 21st, the Summer Solstice. Since 1960, the Alaska Goldpanners have hosted the annual Midnight Sun baseball game traditionally held long before the ABL even existed.

This year’s Midnight Sun game may include a first hand account of the festivities surrounding the celebrated event by a long time Alaskan baseball fan who doubles as a prolific writer at 49th State Hardball. We asked Jesse if he would take a few minutes to tell us about his website and the ABL, and he was happy to oblige!

Baseball Digest.com: Can you tell us a little about how you were drawn to baseball, and which MLB team you follow?

Jesse Jack: I grew up in Alaska, and like a lot of kids I was always playing ball, starting in Little League and continuing up through high school. Baseball’s just always been part of my life. Growing up in Alaska, which is pretty much off the map — sometimes literally — you really get a sense of pride when your state does something to make the rest of the world take notice. Naturally I became really enthusiastic about the league when I learned about the superstars and Hall of Fame players who came north to start their careers. There isn’t as much of a buzz online, especially from a fan perspective, so that’s how I was inspired to start paying more attention and writing about the league.

As far as MLB teams that I follow, I’ve always been into the Atlanta Braves. I grew up on an island, really isolated even by Alaskan standards, but I remember having cable TV as a kid and having the Braves piped into our living room several nights a week. Our family kind of adopted the Braves as our “home team”, despite the fact that we were about as far away geographically as possible. Other than that, I keep track of teams that have a lot of former ABL players in their organizations, particularly high-level prospects who are right on the verge of making the jump to the major leagues. This season I’m keeping an eye on teams like Kansas City, Oakland, and the Mets. But I also check in with all the MLB teams, a few dozen college teams that are sending up players this year, and even the independent league teams. Basically everywhere baseball is played!

BD.com: There are six teams in the Alaska Baseball League. How do you spread out your coverage?

JJ: My priorities for choosing games to attend will shift as the season goes on. For the first couple weeks of the season my goal is to see every team at least once, and get as many photos and first impressions as possible. This really sets the stage for the rest of the summer. I’m fortunate to live within an hour’s drive of three teams, so I always have options and on any given night there is probably at least one road team in town. I can get a look at everyone within a week or two if I plan my schedule carefully.

My next task is to see every team’s home game. The rush to catch every team as quickly as possible means that I may end up at one stadium three times in a week and never set food inside another, just because that’s how the schedule falls out during the first couple weeks. I try to make sure I’ve been to all the parks within a reasonable amount of time. This does include traveling to Kenai and Fairbanks. I can’t make this happen as often as I would like, so I try to make it out for days when I can cover something special (for example, the Midnight Sun Game in Fairbanks) or catch a doubleheader. At that point I feel like I’ve got all the major things covered, and then I can focus on matchups, getting another look at a draft prospect, etc.

BD.com: How would you compare the Alaska Baseball League to other well known leagues such as the Cape Cod Baseball League?

JJ: Compared to other amateur summer leagues, I feel confident in saying that the Alaska League offers something unique that the others don’t. To their credit, the Cape is consistently stacked with the biggest amateur prospects in the country. Along with some of the other solid summer leagues that have come up over the past decade or so, it also seems like they are a little more upscale than the ABL. But whether or not the Cape or other leagues are better because of this is a matter of perspective.

BD.com: If a baseball fan visits Alaska, what level of talent should they expect if they attend an ABL game?

JJ: When you go to an ABL game, you’re going to see guys who will be drafted very early in the MLB draft, probably even a few first-rounders. In the past we’ve had guys like Boston Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew, players who get drafted early and command huge signing bonuses. In the 2010 draft class we’ll have a couple alumni who go very early as well. But the the teams in Alaska also have hard-working staff who know how to dig a little deeper and find some seriously talented prospects who, for whatever reason, don’t have the same hype about them.

It results in an interesting mix, and it’s really nice to me as a writer because I get to cover some players that the mainstream prospect-watching crowd might have missed. I have the opportunity to write about players who have tons of potential but haven’t already been smothered in media attention, and it’s rewarding to me to “get in on the ground floor” so to speak.

BD.com: Are there advantages for ballplayers who have the opportunity to play in the Alaska Baseball League that they may not otherwise have at their level of talent?

JJ: Life in the low minors is not glamorous and the Alaska League helps players get acclimated to the minor league lifestyle because it has a unique Alaskan ruggedness about it. The bus rides are long, the schedule is grueling, and the facilities aren’t scaled-down version of big-league parks. Players are housed out with local families, bunked in the back of bingo halls, and sheltered in mobile construction camps leftover from when they built the pipeline in the 70’s. It sounds pretty wild up here, and maybe it is. But on the other hand, I think a lot of players who do four years in Division 1 and maybe a summer or two in the Cape might be in for a shock when they get drafted and end up somewhere like the Pioneer League, especially the ones who don’t have a seven-figure signing bonus to take to the bank. The players I’ve talked to tell me that a season in Alaska really puts a player ahead of the curve as far as making the adjustment to pro ball, both on and off the field.

Though the ABL season is another month off, Jesse is busy monitoring roster moves and player news for 49th State Hardball. In addition to checking out his website, you can follow Jesse and 49th State Hardball on twitter and facebook.

Each of the six teams that make up the ABL have made efforts to reach their fans using the internet and social networks. The folllowing are links for each of the teams:

A big thank you to Jesse Jack of 49th State Hardball for providing a great resource for baseball in Alaska, and for contributing to the Minor League Spotlight article. We will check in with Jesse throughout the ABL season and keep fans informed of any new MLB/ABL connections that arrive on the scene in 2010!

Previous Spotlights:

Bus Leagues Baseball

Birmingham Barons

Pittsfield Colonials

Rochester Red Wings

Next Week: Fielding teams from Canada to Mexico and even in Hawaii, the Minor League Spotlight will feature the Golden Baseball League. The league is primed for their upcoming fifth season in existence and though relatively young, this league is full of a rich history that encompasses all the great things about the minor and independent leagues!

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