Milligan College baseball soaked up some northern exposure this summer.
Buffaloes pitching coach Chris Gordon and rising senior outfielder Wesley Jones spent the summer in the Alaska Baseball League in Palmer, Alaska with the Mat-Su Miners, who conclude their 42-game season today.
Former Milligan pitcher Jason Trivett pitched for the Miners in 2010 thanks to a recommendation from Gordon. Trivett impressed the Miners staff with his stuff and his work ethic, and Gordon parlayed Trivett’s performance into a conversation with Mat-Su general manager Pete Christopher.
“Honestly, the reason I got a chance up here was because Trivett was such a hard worker last year — not just athletically, but he was a great person, too,” said Gordon, who had coached for the Southern Collegiate Baseball League’s now-defunct Tennessee Tornado in recent years. “Pete was like, ‘Do all your pitchers work that hard?’ I was like, ‘Well, I’d like to think so.’ Of course, Trivett was a special kid.”
Jones had a special summer. He was a late addition to the Miners after they had two players sign major-league deals, and outfielder Jaycob Brugman (BYU) suffered a stress fracture in a shin.
Jones has routinely batted over .300 at Milligan. He hit .347, tied for the team lead with 12 stolen bases and was second in doubles (16) in 50 games this past season.
But he didn’t know what to expect while batting against the top-notch pitching in the ABL, a five-team wood-bat league that has been an Alaskan pipeline of sorts. It has showcased nearly 400 future major leaguers.
“We needed an outfielder and I talked our general manager into giving Jones a chance,” Gordon said. “I told Pete, ‘I know he’ll put it in play and he can really run and he’s got a great arm.’ And I was like, ‘And he’s got a great attitude.’ He was like, ‘Well, can he hit Division I pitching?’ I was like, ‘I really believe he can.’ And Jones made me look really good.”
Indeed, Jones hit .367 in 17 games. The next-highest average among Miners entering Saturday’s games was .299. Jones saw the ball well in a land where the sun never sets in the summer.
“When I went up there, I think my team was hitting .235 and the league average was like .220 at the time,” said Jones, a Dobyns-Bennett graduate who concluded his season four days early to be in his brother’s wedding Saturday. “So I was just hoping to hit — I don’t know — .250 or .300.”
Playing most every day for three weeks helped Jones find a rhythm, as did the faster velocity of the pitchers.
“Day in and day out you see guys … everyone was throwing 90 (mph),” Jones said. “You get to play every day, and I’ve never had a problem with velocity. I’ve always liked the hard throwers, because normally a hard thrower has a hard breaking ball.”
Gordon agreed that the power arms helped Jones’ average surge. There are days in the Appalachian Athletic Conference when offspeed pitchers get Jones ahead of himself.
“Jones has such quick hands,” Gordon said. “He’s played great for us — he’s hit above .300 every year at Milligan — but I think there are times he gets himself out because he lets himself get sped up by offspeed stuff. The guys have good offspeed stuff here too, but a lot of these guys have good velocity, and in a fastball count they attack with fastballs. When he got a fastball count he was ready for them.”
Jones ended the season on a nine-game hitting streak and was batting .460 during that span.
“What he did was unbelievable really, to come in and hit that well,” Gordon said.
Jones and Gordon have treasured the baseball. Jones said they usually play in front of 800-1,000 people, and temperatures range from the 40s to the 60s. But the opportunities away from the diamond have been engaging, too.
Gordon said they took Jones to Thunderbird Falls in Anchorage (approximately 40 miles from Palmer) shortly after his arrival.
“He had his jaw open, you know, in awe the whole time,” Gordon said. “It’s hard to describe how beautiful it is here. Everywhere you look could be a tourist attraction.
“We’re surrounded by mountains. There’s wildlife everywhere. Even our ballpark, over the left field wall is Pioneer Peak, and it’s a gorgeous view.”
Jones enjoyed visiting a glacier, although he quickly surmised that it would’ve been better to have worn cleats. The Buffalo also made way for a moose.
“I couldn’t even describe how big they are,” Jones said. “I mean they’re well over 1,000 pounds. The family I stayed with likes to hunt, and they would kill a moose and a deer and catch a lot of fish. They’d smoke it and freeze it or cook it. They didn’t buy meat at the store. It was really good. Anything you’d use ground beef for, they use moose.”
Gordon went rafting for 13 exhilarating miles on the Matanuska River.
“That’s been the most fun thing I’ve done since I’ve been up here,” he said. “It was Class 4 rapids. It was unbelievable. I’ve done the Colorado and some stuff out West, but never the Nolichucky.
“You had to put on pretty much a wetsuit, because you run right beside the glacier and the water’s coming right out of the glacier. The water’s really cold but it’s still a blast, and I didn’t get too cold until the very end.”
Gordon, Milligan’s recruiting coordinator, appreciated Milligan head coach Nathan Meade letting him head north for the summer. He intends to return in 2012.
Jones is thankful for the call-up of a lifetime.
“I jumped at the chance; I didn’t ask any questions,” Jones said. “They took care of me. They gave me plenty of gear. They gave me a host family. I was able to drive a car while there. They flew me up, they flew me back. It was a great experience.”
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org