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Story Last modified at 3:34 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

ABL 'Opening day' a big hit
Inaugural ABL game could be first of many

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

photo:Sports

Athletes in Action's Chris Talley signs an autograph for a young fan following the Fire's 7-4 loss to the Anchorage Glacier Pilots at Loretta French Park on July 9. The Alaska Baseball League exhibition game was the first ABL game ever played in the Chugiak-Eagle River area.

The score was 7-4, but the outcome of the historic Alaska Baseball League game on Saturday, July 9 between the Athletes in Action Fire and Anchorage Glacier Pilots won't be known for some time.

That's because the exhibition game was meant to test the community's ability to host ABL play at the Loretta French sports complex with the idea that the Fire could play home games at the Chugiak park next season. After the game (the Pilots won in seven innings), AIA general manager Chris Beck said he thought the field passed the test.

"I think it played good," he said.

Beck said the field – which is currently used by American Legion teams – has some structural issues that must be addressed before ABL play can start up on a regular basis. He said those include things like adding a wind screen in the outfield, improving dugouts and making it easier for players to see around the field, which is currently encircled in chain link.

"They're pretty easy fixes," he said.

The game was well attended, with event organizers estimating about 400 people showed up for the free contest, which was billed as the "Chugiak Classic." All of the 500 free hot dogs provided by Rep. Bill Stoltze (who helped organize the game and also threw out the first pitch) were gobbled up, and most fans stuck around until the final out.

Anchorage's Ron Keller drove in for the game as a way to spend time with his family. Sitting on a lawn chair beyond the right-center field fence, Keller munched on some snacks as he took in the game.

"I brought my pop corn, my grandkids, my wife and daughter," Keller said.

Keller, who has a home in Chugiak and lots of family in the area (he's Stoltze's uncle), said he hopes the Fire can make a permanent move to Chugiak work.

"It's a great venue, and you've got it all – parking, scenery – this is great," he said. "I hope it develops."

Seating, which was limited to a couple small stands of bleachers and about a hundred lawn chairs set up along the first- and third-base lines, didn't seem to be an issue. Those who didn't have seats were content to wander around the field, stand and chat or climb the large hill beyond left field.

Knik Little Leaguers Ryan Gray and Skylar Johnson climbed up the hill to get a better look at the action. The two 9-year-olds, who play for the Nationals in the Knik League, said the exhibition was their first ABL game of the year.

photo:Sports

Anchorage's Stefan Chrichton delivers a pitch to Fire hitter Tyler Shryock. The Fire are considering a move that would make the baseball field at Loretta French their permanent home starting in 2012.

"We just wanted to see how these guys play," Gray said.

The boys heard about the game through a mass email sent out by league president Dan Kendall, who said he sent about 900 invites to players and their families. Gray said he and his friends would be regular spectators if the Fire came to town full time.

"Whenever we had time we would come," he said.

Gray and Johnson's parents also attended the game, sitting in a row of four folding chairs erected near the scoreboard in center field.

Aaron Gray, Ryan's dad, said traveling to Anchorage or the Valley for ballgames isn't usually the first thing people want to think about after getting off work in the evening.

"That's too far and it's a pain in the butt," Gray said.

Gray's wife, Molly, said that if the family could pack up and head to Loretta French, they'd definitely attend games.

"It splits the difference," she said.

Aaron Gray said he'd love to have something to do in the summer that doesn't involve a lengthy drive.

"We don't have a lot of entertainment options in the summer," he said.

Also, Molly added, a local nine would benefit the community by giving everyone a team to get behind.

"This is a perfect thing for Eagle River," she said.

Matt Bell is a pitcher for the AIA Fire who attends Tacoma Community College in Washington. Bell said he'd love to see ABL games in Chugiak just for the scenery alone.

"I definitely love the hills around here," said Bell, looking out at a field surrounded on three sides by nearbyhighlands draped in low clouds.

Bell and teammate Taylor Oldham took time out from the game to sign up local youth players for a camp the team will host at Loretta French on July 24 from 1 to 4 p.m. While sitting at a table set up outside the field, the two players looked up as the crowd erupted in cheers after the Fire got out of a tough inning with a solid defensive play at the plate.

"We don't usually have people cheering for us," Oldham said.

Oldham, who later got into the game, said the playing surface was better than he expected.

"For a recreational field it really is in pretty good shape," he said. "It's a lot better than a couple of the fields we play on."

The Fire's move to Chugiak is not a done deal, and Beck said the squad has been fielding offers from Outside leagues. But as of right now, he said the team's best option seems to be in Chugiak.

"I don't think there's any other place we would want to be," Beck said. "There's some other leagues that want us, but this is the main option right now for sure."

Beck said he hopes to have details of the team's 2012 plans ironed out by the end of the ABL season, which wraps up at the end of this month.

Fire to host clinic

The Athletes in Action Fire Alaska Baseball League team will host a youth baseball clinic on July 24 from 1 until 4 p.m. at the Loretta French Park baseball fields. The camp is open to children ages 5 and older and costs $30 for the first member of a family and $20 for each additional family member.

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.