Though both the exciting thunderstorm and the Peninsula Oilers took the spotlight at the Oilers/Chinooks game on Thursday night at Lee Jordan Field (with a final score 4-0) spirits still ran high with our local Chugiak Chinooks. And what’s not to feel good about? This team of 25 young men are fortunate enough to be high-performing college ball players enjoying a two month summer retreat in Alaska – and it is about much more than baseball.
Of the five teams in the Alaska Baseball League, the Chugiak Chinooks are the only faith-based team. Athletes in Action – an Ohio-based Christian organization – has been coordinating summer trips to Alaska for groups of college ball players from across the country since 1988. This collection of exhibition games was formally organized into a summer team in 2001 as the Fairbanks Fire. The Fire continued to play in the Alaska Baseball League for 10 seasons. They then looked for a new home.
Local baseball enthusiasts Sen. Bill Stoltz and Lee Jordan seized the opportunity to bring a baseball team home. Stoltz inspired community support by organizing an exhibition game at the 2011 Bear Paw Festival and by the 2012 season the Chugiak Chinooks had been born.
Under the guidance of head coach Jon Groth since their first year, the Chinooks are in good hands. Groth himself was a college ball player with Athletes in Action as well as a major league player for several years with the Cincinnati Reds. His passion for baseball and mentorship are evident. He has traveled with his family for the last six summers from their home in Tyler, Texas, to coach the team.
“It’s really special to be able to give back to the program,” says Groth.
And give back he does. The relationships formed between coaches and players are about more than just the game. They work together for 60-90 minutes per day where they share their stories, their faith and their plans and dreams for the future.
“The players want all the things in life. They want to play in the majors, but they also want families. We’re here to help them make their life decisions for the right reasons,” Groth continues.
Though baseball is the unifying tie, the team of four coaches aim to provide mentorship and guidance on all aspects of life for these young men. The goal is to send the players back home as better men as well as better players.
One such young man is outfielder Levi Gilcrease, from Tampa, Florida. A senior at Baylor University in Texas, Gilcrease has been involved with Athletes in Action his whole life, even serving as a bat boy when he was young.
Gilcrease mentioned that there is little baseball practice during his days. Their frequent games – up to seven per week – serve as training. This leaves time for exploring Alaska with his volunteer host family. Since arriving in early June, Gilcrease’s surrogate family has taken him 4-wheeling and out to both Matanuska Glacier and Alyeska.
Another outfielder, Jeremy Johnson from Suwanee, Georgia, is a student at Auburn University in Alabama. Though he initially struggled to adjust to the time change, the climate and the long daylight hours, he is feeling more at home now.
Johnson says he is enjoying Chugiak because the small community allows him to meet a lot of people in the area. The players have opportunities to interact with many aspects of the community through their outreach events. They read to children at the library and put some work in with FOCUS, Inc. as well. One FOCUS client recognized Johnson at the game and came over to say hello. Johnson had a good experience with FOCUS and appreciated the opportunity to work with kids who have a different perspective on life.
Johnson also appreciates his time with his host family. He says back in Georgia he is the middle child with two sisters. With his Alaskan family he is the big brother with three younger brothers, ages six, ten and twelve. He has had the chance to go fishing with his new family and plays catch with the boys. It is indeed a two-way relationship – Johnson has the opportunity to be someone the boys can look up to, but the boys remind Johnson about the joy and innocence of baseball and why he loves the game in the first place.
The 2017 Chinooks season is running short. As of Thursday, July 20, there are only three home games remaining at Lee Jordan Field in Loretta French Park. Come out to our great local field soon or the 2018 season will be your next chance.
If you are interested in hosting a Chinooks player for the 2018 season, visit www.cerchinooks.com/host-families/ for more information. Applications will begin next spring.
Sara Kennedy is a special education teacher in the Anchorage School District. She likes to swim, bike and run around Alaska, and camp and fish with her family. To reach Sara, email: email@example.com.