Fairbanks -- When most residents of Fairbanks slip into a summer slumber, the midnight sun starts to cast its spell on those who remain awake, and strange things begin to unfold at Growden Memorial Park.
Umpires delay games on perfectly clear, bright evenings. Balls don't bounce true off the infield but instead skip low and fast. First basemen lose track of balls thrown at them. Rounds of golf are played using baseball bats and balls.
Welcome to Fairbanks, land of the midnight sun, where unusual summer happenings are the norm. And welcome to Growden Memorial Park, home of the Alaska Goldpanners, a park unlike any other in the Alaska Baseball League.
Set in the heart of Alaska's Golden Heart City, Growden Memorial Park is a contrasting mix of new and old, bright and drab, beautiful and grotesque.
Along the right-field line rests a newly sculpted grassy knoll, allowing spectators to lounge comfortably on lush grass that was taken from the outfield when the warning track was installed recently. Just a few hundred feet away, a cold, mammoth, gray structure stands, empty and incomplete, without a roof.
"To me, the unfinished building is an eyesore," Don Dennis, the Goldpanners general manager since 1967, said of the site where a visiting team's locker room was supposed to stand.
The home team's dugout exits into a locker room, complete with a trainer's room, a shower area and a tanning bed ("I wouldn't recommend using it, though," assistant general manager Todd Dennis said of the bed. "Nobody cleans up after themselves."). The dressing room also feeds into a pseudo player's lounge, a weight room and team offices. Across the field, the visitor's dugout is a dark, simple concrete bunker with one destination -- the field.
A press box looms high behind home plate, above the main grandstand. It shakes when the wind blows or when someone climbs the 60 steps leading to the dark box. Inside are dust, paint chips and a weathered painting of someone resembling Kenny Rogers (the country singer, not the Texas Rangers left-hander). A freshly painted wooden banner stretches across the front of the press box, boasting the Goldpanners' seven national championships. Behind a door in the far-right box, Todd Dennis controls a studio that feeds audio, video and Internet broadcasts of Goldpanners games to the world.
Some of the stadium's seats are wooden with bright paint, others are metal. Some are clean, but most are dirty and empty. The bullpens on each side of the field contain more field grooming equipment and machinery than pitchers.
"It's very Fairbanks," Todd Dennis said. 'You look at an average Fairbanksan's yard and you're going to have things here and there. And it's all put together by Band-Aids and gum.
"But there's a lot of substance there."
The main difference between Growden and the state's three other ABL ballparks is obvious at first glance -- Growden is the only field that has a man-made turf infield.
The green and yellow OmniTurf infield covers one full acre. It still holds relatively vibrant colors, despite being installed 16 years ago. It doesn't hold the life it once did, though. The one-inch strands of fake grass lay flat now, packed into a stiff rug.
"There's no bounce to it," said Sean Timmons, a pitcher who grew up in Fairbanks and has spent six summers with the Goldpanners.
Goldpanners first baseman Mike Hofius added: "A chopped ball sticks and stays close to the carpet. And it's not a true bounce. It stays down. You've got to come out early and take a lot of balls."
The turf cost $100,000, but the project ran to $250,000. Workers had to dig five feet deep to install sand and rock to prevent damage from the Interior's wicked permafrost.
"Back in the old days with grass, we did have a lot of sinks," Don Dennis said. "But there's none of that now."
The turf may cut down the angle of a hard-hit grounder, but it can't stifle nature.
"I've never had a single complaint in all these years," Don Dennis said before adding, with a sigh, "The only problem we've ever had is moss."
Griffin Park's successor
Opened in 1963, the park was originally dubbed Memorial Park but was renamed in 1964 in the memory of James Growden, a fixture in Fairbanks' youth sports community who died with his two sons in Valdez during the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964.
The Goldpanners were founded in 1960 and played ball at Griffin Park before moving into the new park. The Panners have shared Growden with two teams over the years -- the North Pole Nicks in the early 1980s and Athletes in Action from 2001 to the present.
The turf is far from the park's lone unique distinction -- Growden became Alaska's first lighted outdoor facility in 1964; the Panners host visiting teams in their Olympic Village, a pack of 14 Atco trailers smooshed into a fenced area behind the third base seats; and pitchers in the visiting bullpen warm up facing away from the action on the field.
"Forty-some years ago, I thought we'd have a little bit of an edge if a guy was warming up that way," Don Dennis said. "I don't know about that now. It might be a an old wive's tale."
Growden seats up to 3,500, a crowd the Goldpanners usually draw at least once a season with their annual Midnight Sun Game. An average crowd of less than 200 attends most games.
The quiet concession stand sits below the grandstand, offering simple, uninspired ballyard fare. The public-address announcer favors the campy "Happy Boy" by the Beat Farmers to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for the park's seventh-inning stretch.
Growden's dimensions are 316 feet to the left-field fence, 410 to center and a distant 330 to right. Growden is pinned in by a community park and a handful of youth softball and baseball fields, each sending in an occasional smattering of shrill shouts and cheers.
Just beyond the left-field fence runs Second Avenue with its trickle of traffic. Behind the street sits the Fairbanks Curling Club. Local lore says former Goldpanners Dave Winfield and Ron Shotts each reached the building on the fly with tape-measure home runs.
Don Dennis witnessed just one.
"Winfield tells a story that he hit the curling club, but I remember it as a very close short-hop," he said, "but it's splitting hairs."
Growden may be surrounded -- and lit -- by the powerful lighting system perched on 10 tall towers, but the midnight sun is the park's brightest light.
Each June, the sun powers one of baseball's unique games and Growden's annual solstice celebration, the midnight sun game. It begins after 10 p.m. and is played without the aid of man-made light, no matter how dark it gets. The community tradition dates back to early 1900s and started for the Goldpanners in 1960.
"A lot of things go on at solstice here," Don Dennis said, "but, generally, the Midnight Sun Game is the focal point."
The sun gods favor the home team -- the Panners are 33-10 in the contest. One of the wins came in the 1984 Midnight Sun Game when The Republic of China (Taiwan) Olympic team protested dark conditions and eventually forfeited the game in the eighth inning despite leading 2-1.
Some of Growden's other games are played after midnight -- when most umpires and coaches are fast asleep. Visiting players staying in the Olympic Village sneak onto the field for a game of football, golf or any sport other than baseball.
"You can come out and play fungo golf in the middle of the night," said Hofius, who played at Growden as a visitor last season with the Mat-Su Miners. "It's just a lot of fun."
It doesn't have to be the midnight hour for the midnight sun to work its magic. On most evenings, the sun rests in foul territory just behind third base, causing occasional problems for first basemen, right-handed pitchers and umpires.
"It can be pretty bad," Hofius said. "It really makes it hard to pick up the ball (on throws from third base)."
One crew of umpires made a new ground rule last summer. It was just after 11 p.m. on a particularly bright July night when umpires suspended play in the 14th inning of a tie game due to the angle of the sun, fearing for the safety of first basemen. The game was eventually continued later that night, with the Goldpanners winning. But the win will forever be a side note.
"Idiotic -- we call it the Angle of the Sun game," Dennis said. "But it's there every night, every summer.
"And it used to be a much bigger problem before daylight savings time."
Reporter Josh Niva can be reached at email@example.com.