JACOB NOSEWORTHY for the Grand Forks Gazette
The Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks struck gold at James Donaldson Park on Monday as they won their first Grand Forks International title after a 10-2 win over the San Francisco Seals in the final game of the tournament.
The blowout win was uncharacteristic for the 2019 tournament, however, as the Money Round featured four one-run decisions, including the Goldpanners’ 1-0 semi-final win over the Everett Merchants in the game before the final.
Alaska head coach Miles Kizer explained that a lot of elements came into his team’s tournament-winning effort.
“We had a lot of guys who were locked-in and did absolutely everything they could,” Kizer said. “We ran a [pitcher] out who had thrown a lot earlier and we found a way to score on him early and get to the [bullpen]. They kind of ran out of pitching and we did a really good job of finding ways to get [runs] in.”
The ‘Panners took control of the game early on with a two-run first inning and the game seemed to slide out of reach for the Seals at the midway point when Alaska took a 7-1 lead after five innings.
The team from Fairbanks put up another additional three runs in the seventh inning, and by the eighth inning, San Francisco seemed to have all but given up.
A lead-off double scored in the bottom of the ninth to reduce the Seals’ deficit to eight runs, but after the final three outs, the Goldpanners could finally celebrate their inevitable win.
After going 2-2 in the round robin and finishing third in the newly named Gerry Foster Division, Kizer thought his team’s success in the Money Round was “awesome.”
“It was a complete team week,” he said. “We found a way to win [in the quarterfinals] in extras and won a 1-0 ball game [in the semifinals] which is just a straight testament to our guys absolutely competing each and every pitch. Look at what our pitchers did and what we did defensively.”
When the All-Star awards were announced during the closing ceremonies, the Goldpanners received no individual accolades, but Kizer said the lack of awards for any one player was a testament to the team as a whole.
“The individual awards are great, they are what they are,” he said. “But for us, it was just such a complete team effort for these three games in the Money Round. It’s hard to pick one guy out. What we did as a team is much more important than the individual stuff.”
Alaska had tough competition leading up to their win, however, as tournament coordinator Steve Boutang said the field of teams was “the most competitive in years.”
“The quality of play on the field spoke for itself,” Boutang said. “Every game mattered on the last day of the round robin and our playoff games were almost all one-run games right up to the final. That in itself speaks to the quality of the teams that were here.”
Alaska defeated the 2014 champion Burnaby Bulldogs and perennial contender Everett Merchants en route to the final, while the Seals dethroned the thrice-defending champion Seattle Studs and two-time champion Reno Astros.
The other quarterfinalists were the Northwest Honkers and Unión de Reyes of Cuba, but the Honkers were the only of the two teams to go home with prize money.
The Cuban team, who will be taking home donations of baseball gear and equipment from the people of Grand Forks and Trail, decided to donate their $2,500 prize money back to the tournament “as a thank you for bringing them to our country and to our city,” according to Boutang.
“From a baseball perspective I was very, very happy [with Unión de Reyes] and from an off-field standpoint, they’re such friendly people and so thankful,” Boutang said. “They have nothing at all, and when I say nothing, I really mean nothing. They’re so thankful for the donations that will be going back home with them, and then for them to donate back the prize money they made playing here is just very touching.”
During the closing ceremonies, Juan Carlos, the translator for the Cubans shared his message of thanks with the people of Grand Forks.
“The more we know this country [and] the more we know the people from this beautiful town, the more we love it,” Carlos said.
The teams seemed to all enjoy the experience of the tournament and many are already looking forward to coming back.
“[The GFI] was unbelievable,” Kizer said. “It was so much fun. The night games are a blast. The crowd, the atmosphere is a blast. Things that are going on during the game with the bingo and 50/50 is really cool and some of the 50/50 pools were insane. It’s definitely something that I’m glad we came to. I was pretty excited to come last year, just because I’ve heard so much about it. It definitely held up to its end of the bargain, for sure.
“I can’t speak for the [Goldpanners] organization and some of the financial decisions they make, but I think that any time we can be here, we will,” he added.