In more ways than one, the dirt fields of Southeast Alaska have left their mark on the seniors of this year's Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team.
From the undulating outfield at Moller Field in Sitka, to the pernicious pebbles of Norman Walker Field in Ketchikan, to the dust devils at Juneau's own Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park, playing baseball in Southeast forces players to develop rock-solid fundamentals and quick thinking. It also forces the development of cuts, scrapes and bruises.
In warmer, drier climes, teams might worry about getting grass stains out of uniforms. In Southeast, a diving catch or slide on a rainy day turns a player into a walking mud puddle.
"You have to be tough, stick your nose in the dirt and play hard," senior first baseman-pitcher Evan Scandling said. "People down south don't have a clue what it's like up here. ...
"You really have to want to play to come out here."
Scandling and the seven other Crimson Bear varsity seniors will play their final Southeast high school series this week as the team travels to Ketchikan to play two games against the Kings and three against the Sitka Wolves. Juneau (9-0), which has already clinched a state tournament berth, will play each team once on Thursday and Friday, and the defending state champion Crimson Bears will play Sitka again on Saturday morning.
A few varsity players will join the junior varsity squad for a pair of games at Craig-Prince of Wales today.
In addition to Scandling, this year's varsity baseball seniors are shortstop Joe Ayers, outfielder-catcher Bud Baun, catcher Isaac Cadiente, pitcher-outfielder Chad DuBois, pitcher-outfielder Bryan Hamey, third baseman-pitcher Zach Kohan and second baseman-pitcher Nick Wolf. While some have spent more time on the diamond than others, all have had to adjust their play to the field conditions found around the region.
"Baseball is all about performance, and performance is all about good habits in bad situations," Juneau coach Jim Ayers said. "In Southeast Alaska, you've got to develop good habits in very tough situations."
Good habits in tough situations - and just being tough. While the Adair-Kennedy field surface is mostly fine glacial silt, Ketchikan's Walker Field is peppered with rocks and pebbles that can wreak havoc on a player who lays out for a catch or slide.
"Everyone has scars on their body from diving at that field," Cadiente said.
"You're pretty much sacrificing yourself if you slide," DuBois said.
And that kind of all-out play is necessary to win in Southeast. DuBois said that fielders have to be aggressive in getting to grounders; the longer it takes to get a glove on the ball, the greater the chance it will take an odd hop off a stone.
With lots of games crammed into each series - necessitated by the short season - there is little time to recover, and players have to play through pain. But for all the travails, the Crimson Bears have also experienced the excitement of clinching region titles and earning trips to the state tournament - which they won last season.
Many of this year's seniors have played together since Gastineau Channel Little League days, and a few were on the 1999 GCLL Junior All-Stars team that advanced to within one win of making the Little League World Series.
"I won't miss the five games in three days, and the rain and mud," Scandling said. "But I'll miss playing along with all these same kids I've been playing with since I was 12 years old."
"I think we all had a unique experience on these fields," Kohan said. "Once we go down south (to college) and play on other fields, we'll realize how much it helped. ... (Playing in Southeast) forced you to do a lot of different things to be a better baseball player."
Since the Crimson Bears have already secured a berth at the state tourney, some of the pressure is off for this week's games. But they do represent the last chance for Juneau to get real-game practice prior to the tournament, which will be held June 5-6 in Fairbanks.
"We definitely have a job to do," Kohan said of this week's games. "We're working to improve with every at-bat, with every game."
As the regular season winds down to a close, Jim Ayers said he feels privileged to have guided this year's seniors through their high school careers.
"I've been around baseball for 50 years, and I've never seen guys work harder in difficult conditions," he said. "They're not just great ballplayers, they're great human beings. ...
"It's one of the best things that has ever happened to me, knowing these guys."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.