Last summer, our associate editor Tom Reale checked out some baseball when he profiled some of the college players’ experiences in the Alaska Baseball League. Reale caught up with a couple of the players’ outdoor adventures. Here’s a little taste:
“You go from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond,” says Conkle, who excelled both pitching (4-3, 3.28 earned-run average) and hitting (.328, 2 home runs, 37 RBI) at North Alabama in 2014 as a junior. He was batting .225 with 11 RBI for the Chinooks in mid-July.
His host family is very outdoorsy, and he’s been able to get out for some hiking trips. “We did a hike to Mt. Baldy and had a moose walk up to within 50 years of us! I was even able to get some video of it – very impressive,” he says. He’s also been able to spend some time at the family cabin near Talkeetna.
“There’s no electricity, no cell phone coverage, no running water, and an outhouse,” Conkle says. “It’s important to get away from everyday society, away from all of the modern conveniences and to just clear your mind once in a while.”
Shane Armstrong is a right-handed pitcher from Hillsdale College in Michigan, which, like Conkle’s North Alabama team, is a Division II school. He’s also been very impressed by the level of talent in the ABL.
“This is definitely the best league I’ve ever played in. It’s not common for guys from D-II schools to be able to play against players from the SEC and other D-I schools,” he says.
Armstrong’s been salmon fishing on the Kenai River and Russian River once apiece this summer. “We caught one fish, and we’re still working on eating it,” he says.
He’s also gotten out to go hiking on Baldy and Flattop, and learned on a hike on the Matanuska Glacier that “shorts and tennis shoes aren’t the best gear for hiking on ice.”
I also contributed the following sidebar about some of the coaches’ experience coming to Alaska (full disclosure: in my previous jobs as a sports reporter I was on the college baseball beat, so I have a lot of background covering the sport):
College baseball coaches are a pretty tight fraternity. I learned this firsthand being a college baseball beat writer at two newspapers, the Los Angeles Daily News and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Baseball coaches are rivals when they are in opposing dugouts and have every intention of beating the guy on the other side of the diamond, but unlike other college sports like football or basketball, feuds are rare. They get to know each other at conventions, camps, the recruiting trail, and in outposts like Alaska.
In 2009, Arkansas was scheduled to meet Cal State Fullerton in their opening game of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. It was a reunion of then Arkansas assistant coach Todd Butler and Cal State Fullerton head coach Dave Serrano. The two were once young coaches who worked together on staffs in the Alaska Baseball League in the 1990s.
Both grew up about as about as far away from the Last Frontier as you can get: Butler in Louisiana, Serrano in Southern California.
“It’s 20 hours of daylight and four hours of darkness,” Butler said that day in Omaha, just before he caught up a little bit with his fellow Alaskan alum, Serrano. “I remember when I flew into Kenai in 1991, we went to the field and we had no lights. How were we going to play night games? They said it’s never dark.”
Butler, who’s now the head coach at Wichita State University, quickly adapted to the summer in Alaska routine. After coaching a 6 p.m. game, he’d head out to the Kenai River and cast for sockeye salmon in 10 p.m. summer sunlight.
Butler’s Arkansas Razorbacks got the best of Serrano’s Cal State Fullerton Titans in Omaha, but they enjoyed meeting up again. Serrano is currently the head coach at Tennessee, where his son Kyle, a pitcher, just finished his freshman season for the Volunteers. The Alaskan connection has gone full circle; Kyle Serrano spent this summer playing with the ABL’s Matsu Miners.
“I was kind of leery going to Alaska,” Serrano told me back in 2009. “What am I going into? You hear Alaska and you think snow and think igloos. I left Alaska feeling like everybody in the world should experience Alaska one time in their life. It’s a beautiful part of the country.”
You may wonder why I’m bringing up all of this feel-good mumbo jumbo. Well, check out this report and video about camaraderie gone awry when two opposing managers duked it out earlier this week in a game:
From KTUU in Anchorage:
Peninsula Oilers head coach Kevin Griffin and Anchorage Bucs head coach Mike Grahovac ignited a benches-clearing brawl late Wednesday night when the two exchanged words and then blows in the top of the 14th inning of their Alaska Baseball League game
Grahovac was ejected for arguing balls and strikes, and as he approached the Bucs’ clubhouse on the third base side of the field, Grahovac and Griffin started their argument. Griffin was coaching third base for the Oilers, who were at bat at the time of the incident.
Such fights in the Alaska Baseball League, especially between coaches, are extremely rare. The umpires in the game gave a full report to the league office based on theiraccounts of the incident and video replay supplied by KTUU-Channel 2. There is no word as of yet from the ABL office on how severely any of the participants in Wednesday’s brawl would be disciplined.
So there is some fight in these guys, and let’s face it: these college players and coaches are simply following in the footsteps of the big-leaguers they want to emulate! Happy days on Alaskan diamonds!