Alaska Baseball League

Miners: Vols under Northern Lights

on Sep 26, 2013
Miners: Vols under Northern Lights

No school work. No SEC tournament talk. No fatigue generated from playing in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.

Just two solid months of personal development, breath-taking images and some old-fashioned fun on the diamond.

This was the summer agenda for Tennessee shortstop A.J. Simcox and outfielder Christin Stewart, who spent their offseason months honing their skills in the Alaska Baseball League, while donning the green and yellow of the Mat-Su Miners.

"It was a little bit more relaxed because you didn't have to worry about school or anything like that," Stewart said. "You're just out there, playing the game you love. Yes we want to win, but you're just out there trying to get better.

"That's the main thing about summer ball, getting better and coming back to your school and performing there."

Simcox found ease sharpening his trade through the lack of pressure he felt during the summer.

"When we're at Tennessee, we're playing for something," Simcox said. "Not that you're not playing for something out there, but out here in Tennessee, you're playing for the SEC tournament. You're playing for a SEC championship berth, regional berth, national championship, and out there you can focus a little more individually on your own game while also contributing to the team. It's easier to develop in summer ball as opposed to how it is here."

Over 4,100 miles away from the University of Tennessee campus, the Miner organization is headquartered in Palmer, Alaska, a small town nestled deep inside the vast Matanuska-Susitna Valley. This close-knit community of just under 6,000 residents cherishes the many intricacies of the Alaskan region, including the rare wildlife, beautiful outdoor sights and the overall tranquility that exists with this forgotten corner of the country.

They also love their baseball.

"They treated us very well," Simcox said. "The Mat-Su Miner organization has a very good bond with the Palmer community. They help us a lot. They support us a lot. We have sellouts almost every game; a thousand fans come to the games. We draw the best out of any other ABL teams."

"I feel like we had one of the best crowds even in Anchorage at our (road) games," Stewart said. "It was just a great experience out there. The people were so nice. Everybody embraced the team and supported the baseball team there."

When initially informed that they would be playing their summer ball so far away from home, both Simcox and Stewart were curious and anxious to see what "The Last Frontier" had to offer.

"At first I was kind shocked because I didn't even know they had an Alaskan Baseball League there, but after I did some research, I found out that it was actually a really good league," Stewart said.

"Going up there, I didn't know really what to expect," Simcox said. "I heard some stories ... I was a little nervous going up there. I mean, I'm going all the way to Alaska for an entire summer."

Any uncertainties, however, were quickly put to rest as the backbones of the Tennessee offense quickly settled into their new environment and began taking advantage of their unique situation.

"Honestly, me and Christin just worked really hard," Simcox said.

"At the beginning we went in for early work about every day. The coach assigned us early work. ... After a week or two, he made (the early workouts) non-mandatory. We kind of took a week off, and our numbers showed. ... We started going back in for early work, and our numbers just took off again."

In a league well-respected and known for its noteworthy alumni, including MLB greats Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, the ABL produced some of the toughest competition in the country as many of baseball's top prospects flocked north to showcase their talents.

"It was really good competition," Simcox said. "...We had (pitchers) run it up 94-95 (miles per hour) occasionally. You know it's also with a wood bat, so the pitcher has the advantage going into it. That kind of levels it out a little bit. The competition was honestly a good league top to bottom. "

"We had kids from all over, like ACC, some SEC guys, so the competition was really good," Stewart said. "Day in and day out, if you didn't bring your 'A game,' you could lose any day."

And more often than not, the "A game" is what opponents got from Simcox and Stewart, as well as UT pitcher Trevor Bettencourt, who all put up impressive numbers during their Alaskan stay.

Stewart earned the ABL's MVP Award after leading the league in home runs (5), doubles (14) and RBIs (31). The sophomore from Lawrenceville, Ga., also finished second in average (.336) and hits (42), while making only one error in 35 games.

Simcox took home ABL's Silver Slugger honors, compiling a .356 batting average with 48 hits and 27 runs scored; all good for tops in the league. In addition, the Knoxville native picked up 20 RBIs, while striking out just 9 percent of the time in 34 contests.

On the mound, Bettencourt racked up a 2.96 ERA, surrendering a mere 15 earned runs in 45.2 innings. His 39 strikeouts were good for second in the league as well.

"Me and Christin and Trevor, we all made great strides this summer," Simcox said. "You just look at our numbers, and it proves we worked really hard.

"We just progressed a lot this summer."

BY DARGAN SOUTHARD, COPY EDITOR

FROM:  http://utdailybeacon.com/sports/2013/sep/25/diamond-vols-shine-under-northern-lights/