FAIRBANKS, Alaska – At 9:16 p.m., the guest of honor disappeared.
Seriously, could the Midnight Sun have been any ruder? For the baseball game named after it, you'd think it would at least pop in for a hello Thursday night. But no. The sun retired to its comfy place behind the clouds and showed its face not once, and the dusk that hovered over Growden Memorial Park for the 102nd Midnight Sun Game lasted until 1:20 a.m. Friday, when something just as surprising happened.
The Alaska Goldpanners lost. For 14 consecutive years, the Goldpanners, the Alaska Baseball League's marquee amateur team consisting mostly of college players here for the summer, had won the Midnight Sun Game. One of the Alaska's – and baseball's – great traditions, the game starts at 10:30 p.m. every June 21, when the Summer Solstice is supposed to illuminate the sky through the night.
Throughout the 6-1 loss to the San Diego Waves, Goldpanners coach Tim Gloyd kept peering toward left field, where the sun sequestered itself among its stratus and cumulus protectors.
"I was looking for something, some sign," Gloyd said. "And I looked over that fence. I thought that was the sun right there.
"And then I saw the sumbitch wasn't moving and wondered what was wrong."
What Gloyd saw was actually a light pole beaming a similar orange glow. And nearly everything else was backward too, from the hitting to the pitching to the fielding to the national anthem, when the girl singing it substituted "Mmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm" for "the bombs bursting in air."
"There are strange things done 'neath the Midnight Sun," poet Robert W. Service once wrote, and no one here would accuse him of spreading falsehoods.
Such lore, of the sun's power and the game's beauty, helped draw the same crowd nevertheless. Six fans who traveled from Australia sat near a mustachioed longhair drinking $2 Pabst Blue Ribbons and wearing a shirt for Bubba's Trailer Park with the nametag calling himself White Trash. A rowdy group of 80 from Marshall, Mich., wore tie-dyed shirts and made more noise than the other 3,800 people at the game. And one gentleman came here all the way from England – only days after undergoing an appendectomy.
Fairbanks treated them to a unique experience, certainly. At the solstice festival downtown in the afternoon, merchants sold tchotchkes while teenage girls performed a tae kwon do demonstration accompanied by thrash metal. Walk down a block, to Big Daddy's Bar-B-Q, where they happily pulled beers from a tap with a handle made of oosik – the bone inside a walrus' penis.
Traffic made its way down 2nd Avenue to the dirt parking lot. The gates opened at 8 p.m. on the dot, the Allman Brothers over the loudspeakers greeting the fans who raced to the open seating and avoided standing-room-only purgatory. To kill time in line, kids in baseball uniforms played catch and tried to avoid the Air Force's latest recruiting tool: a 10-foot-tall blow-up doll named Ricky that actually moved because some poor Airman Basic was zipped inside, no doubt after talking back to a superior.
"That's kind of creepy, a giant Air Force guy," one kid said.
Once inside, the atmosphere lightened. The Frito Pie, heretofore causing heart attacks in the lower 48 states with its amalgam of corn chips, chili and cheese, debuted at the Midnight Sun Game to the delight of heart surgeons throughout Fairbanks. Hot dogs went for $3, and, as the menu noted, "BUN IS FREE." The greatest duel of the night was not on the field, but behind it, where concession lines and port-a-potty lines battled for supremacy.
Because by the fourth inning, the Goldpanners trailed 5-0. Their starting pitcher, Ryan Platt, left after the second with an ankle injury and 2-0 deficit. Their bullpen fared no better. The infield, a lumpy carpet with weeds growing among the gravel in foul territory, helped a few Waves bleeders sneak through. A teammate tried to convince pitchers Brandon Harmon and Forest Cannon to switch seats for good karma. They rolled their eyes.
Hey, maybe it would have helped. One Goldpanner runner got thrown out at third base trying to advance from second on a ground ball in the hole to San Diego's shortstop. Another lost extra bases to a diving catch in center field.
Things got so desperate that Gloyd asked 32-year-old Sean Timmons, the winningest pitcher in Goldpanners history who attended to throw the honorary midnight pitch, if he could fill in for an inning or two.
"Do we have a fake beard?" Goldpanners assistant coach Clarence Griego said. "We'll call him Ton Simmons."
Timmons, it turns out, is graduating Saturday from his physician assistant program in Georgia. Aware that he no longer had the time to pitch for the Goldpanners, general manager Don Dennis tried to think of the best way to keep him around one last time. Timmons couldn't turn down the midnight pitch, not even for his graduation.
Gloyd, too, had a passage of sorts: He took a final exam for his master's degree in sports management. From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., he cramped his hand writing essays.
"And I did awful," he said.
So Thursday stung twice. As Goldpanners players swept their dugout of spit and seeds following Brent Wyatt's flyout to left field that ended the game, the Waves posed for pictures down the first-base line as if they had won the World Series. Their general manager, Mike Studer, had grown up in Fairbanks and attended more than half a dozen Midnight Sun Games, so after the victory, a celebration beckoned.
"I can sleep later," Studer said.
He looked into the distance, to the same place Gloyd had, past the layers of trees and toward the Chena Ridge, where the sun would have rested between 12:47 a.m. and 2:47 a.m. – still casting a stunning glow – had it not run off with the clouds. The Midnight Sun Game is, more than anyone else, Mother Nature's, and some years she just doesn't play kind.
"The truth is, the majority are without sun," Dennis said. "I've never kept any official records."
Nor should he. The celebration here always goes on, no matter the sun's whims. Because when the party's good enough, it doesn't matter who's there, so long as there are two teams to play baseball and thousands of fans to watch.
And now, plenty of Frito Pie.