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Official Review by Gordon Sheldall, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks (Summer amateur collegiate baseball affiliated with the National Baseball Congress) were born in 1960 and immediately became the host team for the annual Midnight Sun Baseball Classic game, a once-a-year traditional event played on June 21, the Summer Solstice, when the sun barely ducks beneath the horizon after midnight for just a couple of hours before rising again just before 3 AM. The game is unique because the first pitch occurs at 10:30 PM on June 21 and is “over when it’s over,” as Yogi would have put it, without ever having to turn the ballpark lights on!
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food and beverage options at Growden Memorial Park, while not numerous, nevertheless manage to sustain the patrons of the Midnight Sun game into the wee hours of the morning.
There is one concession stand providing food which is located behind the grandstand. The drawback to this is that the action on the field cannot be viewed while waiting in line for food. Several servers are available, keeping the lines short and the wait times reasonable.
The menu offers the usual ballpark options, including a hot dog ($5), pulled pork sandwich or chicken/bacon/ranch sandwich ($6 each), bowl of chili ($6), chili cheese nachos ($6), chili cheese dog ($7) and Frito Pie ($7). Snacks include a variety of candy bars (chocolate is well-represented for $2), cotton candy ($3), popcorn ($2), peanuts ($2), with chips and Cracker Jack a buck each. Ice cream lovers can choose from Haagen Dazs, FatBoy or Drumstick ($3). The lone unique food item is a "Spicy/Hot Beer Dog" ($5), alas, untried. The regular hot dog is just OK; the chili is spicy but short on flavor.
Beverages listed are soft drinks (Coke products for $2 each), Dasani water ($2), Gold Peak Tea ($3), PowerAde ($4) and Monster Energy ($4), presumably to keep you "up" if your energy is flagging at 1:00 AM. Beer? Of course. Two craft breweries have a variety of beers for sale in cans - three from Brew-By-U Underwood (Australian) and four (2 IPA's, 1 Brown Ale and 1 Belgian-style Wit Beer) from (where else?), the Midnight Sun Brewing Co. in Anchorage AK. Hot chocolate would be a welcome addition on chilly nights but was unavailable the night of this review.
There is a palpable feeling of anticipation as the early fans line up at the gates 2 ˝ hours before the first pitch.
Once inside the park, fans can stake out their spot in the bleachers or set up their folding chair if they have purchased a general admission ticket. Several fans do bring their own chairs as the general seating primarily consists of metal benches with no seat back, unless you are on the top row. There are wooden stadium seats behind home plate and some on the third base side of the field.
Considering where to sit is especially important for the Midnight Sun contest. Taking a spot on the first base side of the field allows you to view the midnight sun as it descends down to the horizon, never setting completely. The result, however, is that you (and the first baseman) may be looking directly into the sun for part of the game so sunglasses are recommended. If you want to see every play without being blinded, you should sit on the third base side.
The stadium itself is showing its age and in need of structural improvements. The future of this venue as the site of the Midnight Sun game may be in jeopardy unless Growden Memorial gets a facelift. You can read about it here.
The scoreboard is antiquated, only recording the linescore, B/S/O and doesn't even show the teams that are playing.
Finally, I strongly recommend that you protect yourself against mosquitos. There is good information about protecting yourself here.
The ballpark is located within Growden Park, a larger park that includes other ballfields, a skate park, volleyball courts and a playground. It is an easy (0.3 mile) walk from Pioneer Park, a free city historical park with exhibits, activities and food available. There is not much else of interest in the immediate surrounding area.
A few blocks south of the ballpark, there are a few casual eateries lining Airport Blvd., where you can find McDonald's, Wendy's, Denny's, Subway and a couple of restaurants with Asian cuisine.
Fountainhead owns three hotels in Fairbanks (Bridgewater Hotel, Wedgewood Resort and Sophie Station Suites), which operate a free shuttle that stops at all three hotels and Pioneer Park. The desk clerk can provide information on the route and schedules. A lower cost alternative is provided by several hostels in the area.
Due to the fact that the Midnight Sun Game is, for all intents and purposes, an exhibition game that is a novelty "Bucket List" item, this event draws baseball fans from all over the country and outside our borders. For this reason, most of the fans who attend are not partisan but rather, they come for the experience of seeing the Midnight Sun, and hope to see a good baseball game in the process.
At the game of this review in 2016, the fans seated near me came from Yakima WA, Flagstaff AZ and one was local to Fairbanks. They were knowledgeable, but failed to muster sincere support for either team. The bleachers were pretty much filled, but there were quite a few empty seats in the reserved sections, perhaps partially due to the threatening clouds and the fact that it had rained earlier in the day.
The attendance was posted on the website as 3,000; however, it appeared to be closer to 2,000 - as one of the local newspapers reported. The fans dutifully stood up at midnight for the traditional singing of the "Alaska Flag Song."
Getting to the Midnight Sun Game is much easier than you might think at first. Fairbanks International Airport is less than five miles from the ballpark. There is a bus stop (on the Blue Line) right at the corner where the stadium is, but always check the appropriate bus schedules because public transportation does not run all night or every day.
The parking lot seems of ample size and can be entered and exited from Wilbur St. and 2nd Ave. Traffic flows pretty freely because there is no charge to enter the lot.
After the game, if you didn't drive or walk to get there, your best bet is to call one of the 24-hour taxi companies because there will be no buses or shuttles running at 1:00 in the morning or later. It is a short ride to downtown and should not cost more than a few dollars. Ask for a rate when you call.
The biggest access issue at Growden is that they only have portable toilets available so there are no restroom facilities that are ADA-accessible for persons with disabilities. A spokesperson for the Parks & Recreation told me that they are making upgrades to the stadium so, hopefully, this will be remedied.
Overall, prices seem to average out for the total experience. $25 for a general admission seat in rickety bleacher seats and the concession prices seem a bit high for the lackluster quality. Souvenir caps and t-shirts are predictably high. On the other hand, parking is free and the $5 program is a good deal (see "Extras" below)
There are several additional pluses worth noting about this venue and the game experience.
Immediately upon entering and, in various locations throughout, there are banners of notable major leaguers who played for the Alaska Goldpanners. Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Tom Seaver and Bill "Spaceman" Lee are just a few of their alumni so honored.
There is a small souvenir booth that sells colorful red-and-gold Goldpanner caps ($30) and t-shirts. Upon exiting the game, free Alaska Goldpanner whistles were handed out.
The game program is filled with stats, color photos and articles on some of the notable games and players in Midnight Sun history. It includes the rosters of both teams (In 2016, the Goldpanners' opponent was an Alaskan Baseball League team, the Kenai Peninsula Oilers). The commemorative ticket is also a great souvenir, printed on high quality cardstock with photos on both sides.
The Alaska Fire Circus entertained fans before the game, comprised of several young men and women who "played with fire." They handled flaming hula hoops and rings of fire and even appeared to consume a "flame on a stick."
My suggestion to anyone considering making the trip to Fairbanks for the Midnight Sun Baseball Game is to plan to spend some time exploring Alaska. It is a state filled with great adventure and unspeakable beauty. The annual Midnight Sun Festival with food, music, art and history takes place on the Sunday on or before June 21 in downtown Fairbanks. The local citizens are very friendly and welcoming.
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2300 Airport Way
Fairbanks, AK 99701