Arizona's Alaska League connection makes impact in first two games

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2001

FAIRBANKS -- Five of the Arizona Diamondbacks starting lineup in the World Series on Saturday had an Alaska connection, including three former North Pole Nicks.

Center fielder Steve Finley, first baseman Mark Grace and left fielder Luis Gonzalez all played for the Nicks, a now-defunct team that was part of the Alaska League from 1980-87, while second baseman Craig Counsell played for the Mat-Su Miners and starting pitcher Curt Schilling was born in Anchorage. Schilling grew up in Arizona and never played in the Alaska League.

Other Diamondbacks who played in the Alaska League are Sunday's starting pitcher Randy Johnson and reliever Russ Springer (both Anchorage Glacier Pilots), plus non-playoff roster outfielder Ryan Christenson (Kenai Peninsula Oilers). There are no New York Yankees in this year's World Series with Alaska League experience.

When he played for the Nicks, Finley stayed in the North Pole home of Carlo and Bonnie Zanazzo.

The Zanazzos have kept in touch not only with Finley and his family, but also with the mother of Mark Grace. Grace stayed with Bob and Ranea Adkins during his time in North Pole, while Gonzalez stayed with Steve and Jean Hatch.

"Everybody that housed these guys is so ecstatic over them winning the pennant and being in the World Series and having three of them on the same team," Carlo Zanazzo said.

During spring training, the Zanazzos went to Arizona to watch preseason games. They were in the stands wearing North Pole hats and jackets and Gonzalez pointed to them. Eventually he came over along with Grace and Finley to talk about the North Pole Nicks. Finley went out to dinner with Carlo and Bonnie, celebrating his 36th birthday.

Finley stayed with the family for about half of the 1986 season but left to play for the national team.

Bonnie Zanazzo said Finley particularly liked eating at Arby's and was good to their son Steve, who was 13 at the time and the Nicks batboy.

The Zanazzos housed a total of 12 players in five years. "It's just wonderful to see what they've done with their lives," Carlo said.

Gonzalez, who won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, stayed with the Hatches in 1986 and 1987 and has kept in touch.

"He hasn't changed a bit," Hatch said. "He was real personable and everybody liked him."

A Nicks reunion had been planned at Dodger Stadium in September at a game with the Diamondbacks in which six former Nicks were to be playing. The reunion was postponed because of the terrorist attack.

More than 500 players with Alaska League connections have advanced to the major leagues since pitcher Dave Dowling of the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks became the first Alaska League baseball player to reach the major leagues in 1964. Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Dave Winfield both played for the Goldpanners.

Some of the other notable Alaska Leaguers are Barry Bonds (Goldpanners), Mark McGwire (Glacier Pilots), Bret Boone (Goldpanners), John Olerud (Oilers and Palouse Empire Cougars of Pullman, Wash.), Jeff Kent (Anchorage Bucs) and Jason Giambi (Goldpanners). In several games this season, the San Francisco Giants started seven former Alaska Leaguers and had three others on the bench for the biggest Alaska connection.

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