By Chuck Curti, Times Assistant Sports Editor
Published: Friday, July 4, 2008 11:59 PM EDT
Reprinted with permission by the Beaver County Times
The clock read just about midnight when Derek Sumner and the rest of the Athletes in Action Fire baseball team stepped off the airplane. The sky, however, gave the indication of late afternoon.
Snowcapped mountains formed the horizon all around. Moose roamed the landscape in the distance.
Welcome to Alaska. Welcome to summer baseball.
“The moose are pretty much like Pennsylvania deer here,” said Sumner. “And almost every car I’ve seen has a crack in the windshield. I guess you’re not Alaskan if you don’t have a crack in your windshield.”
Sumner, who will be a senior at Geneva College in the fall, is following in the footsteps of Barry Bonds, Terry Francona and Randy Johnson. All played in the Alaska Baseball League, one of the country’s premiere summer wooden bat leagues for college players.
Sumner set a Geneva single-season strikeout record last year with 84 (in 76.1 IP) while going 7-3 with a 4.36 ERA. He also played some shortstop for the Golden Tornadoes, coached by Sumner’s uncle, Alan Sumner.
It was Alan Sumner who gave his nephew the idea to play summer baseball. Alan Sumner had become involved with Athletes in Action, a Christian sports organization, during his days as a college player, and he had the opportunity to play baseball in Germany.
Derek Sumner filled out an application on line, which included putting down references and a preference of which baseball league he’d like to join. (AIA fields wooden bat teams in four summer leagues.) Sumner put down Alaska as his choice, and his request was granted.
The team met in California on June 3. For two weeks, the Fire played “preseason” games against teams from the California Collegiate League. Once that was complete, the team headed for Anchorage and then to its home base in Fairbanks.
“It was a little bit intimidating coming from a smaller school,” said Sumner. “But it was an awesome opportunity to try and prove myself against some of the best players in the country.
“I feel like I’ve fit in pretty well competition wise. I don’t see it as a huge jump from playing in the NAIA, but the intensity is a little different. I feel like I’ve held my own.”
In five appearances (26 IP), Sumner is 2-1 with a 5.19 ERA. His most recent outing was Thursday, when he picked up his second victory in a 10-6 win over the Mat-Su Miners.
Stats, however, aren’t Sumner’s primary concern. He’s trying to soak up as much baseball knowledge as possible so he can carry it into his senior season at Geneva.
He credits pitching coach Chris Beck, a 1994 draft pick who spent five years in the systems of Seattle and the Chicago Cubs, with fine-tuning his game.
Sumner said he’s been able to get a bit more velocity on his fastball and learn how to locate his pitches better. Unlike playing against hitters wielding aluminum bats, Sumner is able to pitch inside more and not worry about hitters getting the heavier wooden bats around so quickly.
“Location is a huge thing. You notice that if you give up 14 hits against the metal bats, you might give up seven or eight runs. With a wooden bat, they might get three or four runs.”
Pitching in Alaska following a long college season hasn’t worried Sumner with regard to wear and tear on his arm. He’s actually throwing less now. After doing double duty at Geneva as a pitcher and shortstop, now, he’s required only to pitch.
The Alaska Baseball League is half way through its 35-game schedule, and the players will return to the Lower 48 in early August. Back to a place where it’s dark at midnight and where there are a few less cracked windshields.
“The experience so far has been awesome. The baseball is great. The competition is amazing,” said Sumner. “I definitely hope to have better skills and also become a better person in Jesus Christ as well.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot.”