Built on faith and family, ABL’s Chinooks bond over baseball…and birthday cake

Tuesday, June 5, 2018 - 12:33
  • Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks shortstop Gergory Ozuna, of Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic, hits a ball off a tee on Friday, June 1 at Lee Jordan Field in Chugiak. The Chinooks open their Alaska Baseball League Season June 5, with the team’s first home game set for June 11 at 7 p.m. against the Mat-Su Miners. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Logan White celebrated his 20th birthday with a couple dozen of his new best friends.

“We’re all gelling really well,” said White, who ate birthday cake behind the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks clubhouse, courtesy of his host family, Ed and Becca Banfield.

The post-game cookout is a tradition for the Chinooks, who eat dinner together each night they’re at home at Lee Jordan Field in Chugiak. The team bonding is just one way the organization’s leadership tries to instill a family first atmosphere on the Christian-based squad, which is a branch of the nationwide Athletes in Action organization.

In addition to eating team meals at the park, the Chinooks participate in a wide variety of community service projects ranging from their “Books with Chinooks” reading program at the Chugiak-Eagle River Library to sharing meals with elders at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.

Head coach Jon Groth — an Athletes in Action alumn himself — said the team’s unique mission sets it apart from its competition in the Alaska Baseball League.

“We love Christ and think baseball is a unique way to show our love of Christ,” Groth said as he stood eating a plate of homemade macaroni (supplied by Martha at the Peters Creek Inn) Monday night at a sun-blessed Lee Jordan Field. “The way we play and the way we interact with fans, the way we interact with the community, hopefully that sends a message that, ‘Hey, these guys are really good baseball players but there’s something a little bit more to them.’”

That doesn’t mean the team isn’t going to play and work hard this summer — quite the contrary. In fact, White said he and his new teammates (most of the players have been in Alaska for less than a week), climbed Mount Baldy in Eagle River after practice Sunday night.

“We went up at around 11 o’clock and saw the sunset — if you can call it a sunset,” White said, his fingers still sporting a bit of frosting as he held the plastic Elsa (from the movie “Frozen”) the Banfields used to top his birthday cake.

A Phoenix, Arizona native, White said he’s adjusting fine to Alaska’s midnight sun — perhaps because he’s got a secret weapon.

“The blackout curtains are big,” said the catcher, who recently completed his freshman season at Division I Coastal Carolina University.

The Chinooks open ABL play Tuesday at 7:10 p.m. at Mulcahy Stadium against the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. The team’s home opener is Monday, June 11 at 7 p.m. at Lee Jordan Field. All games at the park are free admission, and this year the Chinooks are teaming with other ABL teams to offer a Travel Pass that will give Chinooks fans $1 off admission at Mulcahy Stadium and Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer.

Like almost every player in the five-team ABL, White is making his first trip to Alaska this season. This year’s Chinooks squad is no different, with players hailing from at least 21 different colleges and one — Wayland Baptist shortstop Gregory Ozuna — coming all the way from the Domincan Republic.

Getting the players to mesh quickly is the job of Groth and Chris Beck, the team’s general manager and pitching coach.

Beck said the first few days of the season are spent simply getting to know each other, teaching players signs and terminology, and getting into the swing of summer-league play.

“We honestly don’t know what we have until after we watch them play a couple times,” said Beck, who also serves at the team’s pitching coach.

The Chinooks are a familiar sight in Chugiak, having moved to the community from Fairbanks in 2011. The team has slowly built a following of fans, who now sport the Chinooks’ distinctive salmon logo on hats and sweatshirts all year long.

When players arrive in Alaska and see folks already wearing Chinooks gear, Beck said it’s an instant thrill.

“The fans don’t realize how much that means,” he said.

Also a thrill is getting to play at the picturesque Lee Jordan Field, which is ringed by mountains. Beck said watching players like Ozuna marvel at the friendly confines has been a highlight this spring.

“He’s loving it up here,” Beck said. “He knows it’s a gift and he will tell everybody, ‘I love playing baseball.’”

Ozuna was one of the first players to arrive this year, and he and Jackson Beck (Beck’s son) spent last Friday blasting music while spraying balls into the outfield off a tee. Ozuna even showed off some serious pop, blasting a couple balls into the fence in left-center — a pretty impressive poke off a tee.

“That’s out, that’s out!” he shouted hopefully as one ball sailed toward the fence.

His new teammate just laughed as the ball smashed off the top of the fence, mere inches from leaving the yard.

Ozuna tossed his bat and laughed as the duo went to shag balls.

The ABL season is a long one, with teams set to play 47 games over the next two months. Keeping the players close is as important as teaching good fundamentals, Beck said.

“It creates a family atmosphere, and that’s what we’re striving for,” he said.

The Chinooks finished 17-27 in the ABL last year, and both Chris Beck and Groth said they can’t yet say how the Chinooks will stack up in the collegiate wood-bat league this summer.

“We’re not unique in that, all five teams have to do that,” Groth said.

At the end of the day, however, wins and losses are secondary to players becoming better people while they’re in Alaska.

“I don’t want to think about where I would have ended up if I hadn’t played on an Athletes in Action team for two summers,” Groth said.

Beck said the team wouldn’t be able to succeed in Chugiak without the help of its dedicated boosters and host families, who give players a home away from home while they’re in Alaska.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” he said.

Beck said the best way folks can support the Chinooks is by simply coming out to the ballgame and enjoying the atmosphere at the family friendly park alongside the Old Glenn Highway.

“People can help by buying a hot dog and a Coke,” he said.

For more about the Chinooks, find them on Facebook or visit the team’s website at cerchinooks.com.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274

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