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Road to Major Leagues Takes Turn Into Alaska

August 02, 2000|STEVE HENSON

Northern lights. King salmon. Country hardball.

Not to mention a week in Hawaii.

The attractions of the Alaskan Summer League are many. And so are the alumni who eventually make the major leagues.

The Goldpanners, one of the league's six teams, took count recently and came up with 172 big leaguers who as amateurs played for the Fairbanks team since its inception in 1960.

From Tom Seaver, Hall of Fame pitcher, to Adam Kennedy, former Cal State Northridge star and Angel rookie, many Alaskan Summer League players become famous.

Players who spent this summer in the nation's 49th state say the steppingstone is a tremendous life experience.

"There are lakes in almost everybody's backyard and the sun shines for almost 24 hours," said Tyler Johnson, a left-handed pitcher from Moorpark College and Newbury Park High playing for the Kenai Oilers.

"I couldn't get over it. At 5 a.m. we're standing on the [Kenai] river, fishing for salmon and it's light outside. The whole experience is like an adventure."

One of the league's six teams is in Oahu, Hawaii. Johnson didn't mind that seven-day trip.

"I went surfing every day," he said. "It loosened my arm. I think my arm got stronger by paddling."

Arm strength has never been a problem for Johnson, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in June but decided to return to Moorpark for his sophomore year. He is 4-1 with a 2.25 earned-run average, has allowed 19 hits in 41 innings and opponents are batting only .136 against him.

Johnson has hit 14 batters, mostly when his slider runs in on a right-handed batter.

"The days he pitches best are the days he doesn't beat himself," said Gary Adcock, the Oilers' manager and the pitching coach at Purdue. "He's had a lot of success here."

Kenai, a town of 7,000 on the Kenai peninsula, won the league title and is seeded No. 2 in the National Baseball Congress World Series. Kenai's first game is Friday against either the Valdosta (Ga.) Red Sox or the Lake Erie (Mich.) Monarchs.

Johnson and outfielder Mike Falco lived with a Kenai couple, Don and Nina Pearson, whose children are grown. Falco, an Agoura High graduate, batted .261 with five home runs before coming home two weeks ago because of a back injury.

"His numbers don't suggest he had a great summer, but for him to come up here and get 90 at-bats and see good pitching was beneficial," Adcock said.

So was getting away from home for the first time. Falco is familiar with gorgeous settings because he plays at Pepperdine with the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop.

Yet the beauty of Kenai awed him.

"It's rolling hills covered with trees, surrounded by mountains covered with snow," he said. "It's unbelievable."

Scott Dragicevich, a Stanford infielder from Westlake High, played for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots and four players from the region play for the Goldpanners, who gained an at-large entry into the NBC World Series.

Outfielder Barry Matthews of Pierce College and Crespi High is batting .330 with 30 runs batted in for the Goldpanners. Outfielder Chad Redfern of Chatsworth High is batting .276.

Right-handed pitcher Brian Felton of Loyola Marymount and Crespi posted a 4-0 record and 1.29 ERA. Left-hander Andy Davidson of Northridge and Hart is 4-3 with a 2.25 ERA.

The Goldpanners, whose manager is former Cal State Northridge pitching coach Dan Cowgill, open NBC World Series play Thursday against the Nevada Griffons.

The scenery in Wichita will be drab compared to Alaska, but the baseball will continue to be high-caliber.

"Coach Adcock has helped me so much with my mechanics," Johnson said. "Facing better hitters has made me a better pitcher. I'm going to dominate when I get back to Moorpark."

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