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 Goldpanner 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 other of baseball's award winners.
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 had several former Alaska Leaguers in both Giambi brothers -- first baseman Jason (Panners) and outfielder Jeremy (Oilers) -- plus outfielder Ryan Christenson (Oilers), pitcher Mike Magnante (Bucs) and pitcher Gil Heredia (Miners).
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 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?
Even though there has never been an Alaska League team in Juneau, local players have had their shot at playing in the league, with most joining the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
The first Juneau resident to play in the Alaska League was Glen Johnson, who played college baseball at Stanford before joining the Glacier Pilots in 1972. Tim Kissner played for the Pilots in the early 1990s, and now serves as the northern Florida-region scout for the Cleveland Indians. Two summers ago there were four former Juneau-Douglas High School players in the Alaska League -- third baseman Rob Conway and pitcher Chad Bentz with the Pilots, and outfielder Jason Bigelow and pitcher-first baseman Joel Cladouhos with the Miners. Bentz, a 34th-round draft pick by the New York Yankees in 1999, pitched again for the Pilots this past summer and posted a 1.35 ERA.
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.
"It's all about creating opportunity," said Boucher, who is one of nine people with Alaska League ties honored in the National Baseball Congress' Hall of Fame in Wichita, Kan. "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."