Todd Dennis doesn’t hit home runs, steal bases or throw strikes, but he may be the greatest utility man in Alaska Goldpanners history.Dennis rarely misses an inning of baseball at Fairbanks’ Growden Memorial Park, where he has performed about every off-the-field duty imaginable. He started as a pint-sized independent contractor, chasing down foul balls and selling them back to the team for 70 cents apiece. He joined the Goldpanners payroll at 9, hawking hot dogs while walking the stands. Since, he’s stacked cases of beers, operated a baseball card shop, worked the scoreboard, launched the team’s Web site and ascended to his current title of assistant general manager.
Dennis might not be a player, but he credits his success to a coach — his longtime employer, mentor and father, Goldpanners general manager Don Dennis. For both Dennises, and thousands of others who play or follow the game, baseball is as much about family as it is sport.
“There’s stuff you don’t forget, like growing up a ballpark rat, hanging out with the diehards at the park,” Todd Dennis, 34, said about his time spent at Growden, “but the greatest joy of all is working with my dad and my family.”
Long before columnists dissected baseball’s fallible Bonds, poets pontificated about baseball’s familial bonds. It’s a game of parents and children, from the Ripkens, Griffeys, Boones and Bondses to generations of fans playing catch in the parking lot before a game. It’s a game of brothers, like the DiMaggios, Aarons, Alous and Drews. In the stands, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters discuss strategy and share a summer night over hot dogs and Cokes. Those scenes play out each summer at ballparks across the country and here at Alaska Baseball League ballparks.
Most ABL players even gain new families as locals open their homes as host parents. If you look at the folks running ABL concession stands, ticket booths and the front offices, you’ll often see faces with similar features. For a baseball player, success requires skill, confidence, quick hands and even luck. Success for ABL management comes from experience, hard work and a good home team: partners and children who are as much co-workers than fans.
Don Dennis is entering his 40th year with the Goldpanners. He wonders how long he would have lasted if his family — wife Ann and four children — hadn’t shared his passion for baseball and sacrificed many summer hours working with him.
“It’s hard to explain to someone how much support it really takes,” Dennis, 66, said. “With (amateur) baseball, you pretty much have to live and breathe this to make it all happen on the kind of budgets we have. Over the years, my entire family has participated in numerous ways, and they are the best help. They anticipate most things and always follow through. They are invaluable.”
Mat-Su Miners general manager Pete Christopher appreciates that comment. For four seasons Christopher has had a staff of three family members assist him in Miners management. Wife Denise is a marketing whiz and secretary on the board of directors. Son Keith, 15, mows the field while little brother Kevin, 11, runs the scoreboard and occasionally sings “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.
“Without the support of your family in this business,” Denise said before her voice trailed off, “I couldn’t even imagine.”
Neither could Todd Dennis. Dennis also can’t imagine a summer without baseball or family, which now extends to his son Tom, the Goldpanners official photographer. Tom is 10.
Amateur baseball fan, friend reminisces
Chieftain sportswriter Dave Socier
2006, WICHITA, Kan. - The second most famous man to hail from Fowler, Colo., was the guy most upset Friday when the Pueblo Chieftains lost an 11-1 winner's bracket game to Havasu, Ariz.
Don Dennis, second banana only to Fowler native Dutch Clark, has roots in Pueblo. He's the person who started the Pueblo Diablos, which begat the Olympia Brewers, which eventually led to the Pueblo Chieftains semipro baseball team.
"I've never rooted for a prospective opposing team to come through as much in my life," he said over a cup of coffee.
Had the Chieftains won, they would have been playing in tonight's feature game in the winner's bracket against the defending champion (Fairbanks) Alaska Goldpanners in the 69th annual National Baseball Congress World Series.
Instead, the Chieftains have been sent to Hobart-Detter Field in Hutchinson for an 10 a.m. MDT loser's bracket gut check against the winner of Saturday night's late game pitting the Parksville (Mo.) Sluggers and Long Beach Strikers.
Donald Anson Dennis has never forgotten his Southern Colorado roots: he was a proud member of the Fowler Grizzlies, he attended Pueblo Junior College, he was sent on his way to a fabulous career in sports administration by Harry Simmons, he was the Diablos GM and he spent five years as a Pueblo Chieftain sportswriter.
He was married in Brush to the lovely and personable Annette Miller of Sturgis, S.D., then went to Fairbanks in 1967 "for just two years," but stayed and put his imprint on national semipro baseball like only a few before him.
"When I look back on it, all the times and all the teams, the best years I ever spent were in Pueblo," Dennis said. "The names keep coming back, like Joe Bonacquista, Ralph Huddin, Guy Kennedy, Joe Taravella. Working with Bill McClatchey and Jack Hildner.
"It was (PJC basketball coach) Harry Simmons who started me on the path I took," Dennis said, still in awe of The Chief. "He needed to get his basketball players some money legally, so he appointed me commissioner of officials for this basketball league. I'd assign his players to ref the games, and they'd get five or six bucks, and then they were happy."
He met H.A. "Red" Boucher, the Goldpanners' boss, "And he recruited me to come run the team just like he would a player," Dennis said.
"He worked me hard, wrote me, called me, stayed on my case. Finally, Ann and I sat down and listed the reasons to go: 1. Adventure (they were in their mid-20s), and 2.) A lot more money. We listed the reason not to go and there was only one: We didn't want to leave Pueblo or Colorado." "Finally, we agreed to go for two years. Alaska is a great place for young people. Opportunities abound. I was the Goldpanners' GM, the sports editor of the newspaper and after two weeks there the sports information director at (the University of Alaska-) Fairbanks." He hired Oregon University assistant Jim Dietz and away they went, winning NBC championships in 1972-74, ’76 and ’80.
The roster of former Goldpanners is a Who's Who: Tom Seaver, Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Harold Reynolds, Alvin Davis, Phil Stephenson, Joe Magrane, Dave Kingman, Rick Monday and Mike Boddicker.
Dennis and NBC brass crossed swords in 1981, so the Goldpanners either went to other tournaments or held their own for 15 years.
During the interim, Dennis formed the Alaska Baseball League. He traveled to Anchorage and Kenai and Palmer and helped start teams like his own. Six clubs are in the circuit, and to heighten competition, league bylaws allow only the top two teams to compete here. "I'm not trying to brag, but if we sent all six teams we'd all but take over the NBC World Series," he said.
Fairbanks came back to Wichita only after the Anchorage Glacier Pilots won their fifth crown, equaling Fairbanks. The Goldpanners won in 2002, "Our best win since we beat Anchorage in the championship game," Dennis beamed, fingering the 2002 World Series ring he wears.
Dennis retired in 1998 from his 19-year day job as manager for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. He and Ann moved to San Diego but still Don treks to Fairbanks in May to start the summer team. "There's a new generation out there now, and we do so much with the Internet www.goldpanners.com. It actually takes two people to do the job I did," he said. "That's because we're into to Pay Per View for our games and (youngest son) Todd is heading up that operation. And so, except for that elusive Chieftains loss Friday, Donald Anson Dennis has had it all: a great marriage, four wonderful children and a sports career that brought him to the zenith of amateur baseball.