Wildcats head north to improve their game

"Before it was ever a business it was a game."

- John Helyar,

Lords of the Realm

By Matt Tresaugue

Arizona Daily Wildcat

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - As the Major League Baseball strike date loomed earlier this month, Ben White went to the mound. It was business as usual.

The left-hander stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow. And if as on cue, Garth BrooksU RMuch Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)S began to blare over the Mulcahy Stadium sound system. Catcher Anthony Marnell trotted to the mound and said something that caused White to laugh.

This was supposed to be fun. And with that thought in mind, White bent over to pick up the hose and finished watering the infield.

For eight weeks this summer, University of Arizona teammates White, Marnell and Scott Kidd were groundkeepers by day and baseball players by night, working for food money.

ItUs a novel idea, especially when baseballUs highest paid player, Bobby Bonilla, loses $31,000-plus each day of the strike. Luckily for the Alaska Baseball Federation, the league gets talented labor while itUs still cheap.

Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire, Ben McDonald, Wally Joyner, Frank Viola, Rick Aguilera and J.T. Snow honed their skills and impressed scouts here for no more than $1,000 and a place to sleep as collegians before breaking into the big leagues.

Alaska baseball has roots dating back to the late 1960s when the Fairbanks Goldpanners began fielding teams of collegians and dominating the National Baseball Congress tournament, the amateur world series.

Through the years, the federation has been plagued by financial problems; play was suspended in 1988 so that the teamsU checkbooks could regroup Q and enormous egos Q it split into two separate three-team leagues two years ago because of conflicting views. Still, top collegians and professional scouts flock north without a second thought.

R[The Anchorage Bucs] called me in the fall and I immediately said yes,S Kidd said. RItUs cool up here. I have met a lot of good guys and have played with a lot of good players. Plus we get to see Alaska and thatUs something that doesnUt happen often.S

RIf you play here you are considered among the best collegiate players,S said Baltimore Orioles scout Rick Arnold, who annually travels to Anchorage looking for the one prospect who slipped through the June amateur draft. RItUs a great opportunity for the players Q they can fish all day and play baseball at night in one of the most competitive leagues.S

To understand the furor about Alaska baseball, you have to understand its uniqueness. ESPN analyst Peter Gammons may ballyhoo the eastern Cape Cod League, but Alaska baseball boasted eight alumni on the U.S. national team this summer.

RI think this shows that the Alaska leagues are real competitive,S said Team USA utilityman Jon McAninch, a former Anchorage Buc. RI was not surprised that there were so many Alaska guys on the team.S

Despite its prestige, no one will ever call Alaska baseball glamorous Q the word RbushS more readily comes to mind.

The road trips are grueling. Fairbanks is 358 miles from Anchorage, and because off days are rarely scheduled, the Anchorage Bucs would play an evening game, drive all night and play again within 24 hours.

Once on a bus ride to Kenai, White and Kidd were admiring a moose crossing the Sterling Highway when a another pickup smashed into the animal. Toto, weUre not in Arizona anymore.

RThis definitely hasnUt been a walk in the park,S White said. RThis is not first-class luxury. At the UA, we fly to games and stay in nice hotels. Here, the rooms are adequate, the bus rides are long and itUs cold. ItUs a learning experience, but itUs a lot like life in the minor leagues.S

The first glance of Mul- cahy Stadium, the hub of Alaska baseball, is underwhelming. The batting cage is rusted and the support poles are falling forward. The dugouts are decorated with peeling paint flakes on the walls and blackened tobacco residue on the floor. Every seat is aluminum with only a select few have back rests. And the gray infield dirt could be complemented well with driftwood.

It’s a little league field by Pacific 10 Conference standards, but it’s durable. The Bucs share the diamond with Anchorage’s other team, the Glacier Pilots, the city’s adult beer league, American Legion and high school leagues.

Only hours of constant showers can cancel a game scheduled at Mulcahy. Often times, Kidd would awake in the late morning, look out the window and expect a rainout. Not here.

“We play in anything,” Kidd said. “I never knew baseball was an all-weather sport.”

The northern exposure hardened the Arizona trio. After catching for some of the nation’s top pitchers in Alaska, Marnell will no longer allow his pitchers to just throw, they must think.

“Despite our record last season, we have the talent,” said Marnell, Arizona’s starting catcher last spring. “We just didn’t have the same focus. These guys here [in Alaska] are mentally prepared when they go to the mound. They know how to pitch. If the UA gets that focus, we could do great things in the spring.”

Because of the Bucs’ pitching depth, White, a starter at Arizona, was relegated to middle relief much of the summer. But the time in the bullpen allowed him to focus on mechanics and develop a circle changeup.

“I’ve learned the ins and outs of the game,” White said. “And it really makes you appreciate it more.”

Especially during the strike.

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