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Commentary Bob Lutz: NBC’s Alaska tradition being grounded

  • Published Monday, August 5, 2013, at 7:51 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 29, 2013, at 9:31 a.m.

After talking to Anchorage (Alaska) Glacier Pilots general manager Jon Dyson, then to his Anchorage Bucs counterpart Shawn Maltby, I was ready to give up hope than an Alaska team would ever again grace the presence of the National Baseball Congress World Series.

It was pure gloom and doom from those two, who claimed that a marked increase in airfare since United Airlines stopped flying Alaska routes in 2008 was the major culprit for Alaska’s NBC absence.

And make no bones about it, the World Series needs the Alaska League, which has accounted for 16 champions and 17 second-place finishes.

Only two of those championships have come in the past 16 years, though, as the commitment from Alaska has waned.

But just try telling that to Todd Dennis, the general manager of the Fairbanks (Alaska) Goldpanners, whose six titles are the most in World Series history, though the Panners haven’t played here consistently since the mid-1980s.

Dennis, the son of Fairbanks founding father Don Dennis, is adamant that the Goldpanners will be back. Next year, if at all possible.

“There is no one with a higher motivation to get to Wichita than me,’’ said Dennis, whose Panners won the Alaska Baseball League regular-season championship this season. “It’s great to win our league and it’s great to win our league’s postseason tournament, but none of that comes close to the NBC World Series.’’

Dennis said the Goldpanners face the same travel issues as the five other teams in Alaska, but that he and his board of directors are more devoted to finding a solution.

Dennis is looking for ways to ease travel costs and says it’s not impossible.

Told that others inside his league believe it is, he pointed to Fairbanks’ NBC heritage.

He sees that the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Foresters could be on the verge of winning their third straight World Series title and fifth overall. That would put them into a tie with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, Liberal BeeJays and El Dorado Broncos for the second-most championships.

“We need to be able to defend our legacy there in Wichita and Santa Barbara is making us aware of that,’’ Dennis said. “We’re not about to let any other team overtake us if we can help it. There are green lights everywhere to make certain we’re in Wichita in 2014. There is a lot of time between now and then, but this is the day after our season ended and I’m already thinking about Wichita.’’

Nothing approaching that kind of enthusiasm exists with the Anchorage franchises.

The cost of airfare has literally grounded them, Dyson and Maltby said.

Maltby went so far as to say he would be surprised if an Alaska team ever played in Wichita again.

“We discuss it every year and it goes back to the same topic, which is finances,’’ Maltby said.

The NBC made concessions this year, tied into enticing an Alaska return after the ABL didn’t send a representative last year. NBC operations manager Kevin Jenks said the organization arranged for low-cost hotel rooms and a few free meals.

It wasn’t enough, though. Not with airfare approaching $30,000, according to Dyson.

The Bucs’ Maltby and the Pilots’ Dyson have lots of Wichita experience. Both said they wish things were different.

“I really do think some of our teams like going and enjoy the experience,’’ said Dyson, who has been with the Pilots as a player and administrator for 13 years. “I was on the 2001 team that won in Wichita and I know the NBC guys have tried to reduce a lot of the costs for us. But until we get to a way to where we can greatly reduce the airfare, this is kind of where we are.’’

Fairbanks, in its 54th season, had a 22-13 league record this season. There have been years when Dennis didn’t think he had a strong-enough team to challenge for a World Series championship, but this isn’t one of those years.

The Panners, he said, could challenge Santa Barbara and the other successful NBC franchises. They just weren’t able to make the finances work.

Dyson said the teams have discussed sending just one Alaska team — an All-Star team made up of players from all six teams — but recognizes other teams would have a competitive balance problem with that.

There is discussion, Dyson said, but no solution.

Dennis, though, is devoted to finding a way. The Goldpanners are in his blood; he was a batboy for the team when Barry Bonds played the outfield during the mid-1980s.

“No one wants to be in Wichita more than I do,’’ Dennis said. “And we really think we’re getting close to finding a way.’’

That’s good news, especially for an NBC World Series that needs Alaska to prosper. And to challenge Santa Barbara’s dominance.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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