About the only thing that Chris Torres knew about Alaska was what he had seen in documentaries from school.
“When I thought of Alaska, I thought of absolutely nothing, just ice,” said Torres, a junior catcher for the UTPA Bronc baseball team.
Like ice, it was probably penguins, polar bears, Eskimos, igloos and the occasional UFO sighting that crossed his mind at the thought of Alaska.
In fact, baseball was probably the last thing he thought he would find in the northernmost state. But what Torres now knows about Alaska is that it will be his home until the end of July, as he’s joined the Fairbanks Goldpanners of the Alaska Baseball League for summer league baseball action.
Torres will be one of 11 Bronc players participating in these summer ‘development’ leagues, which offer players the opportunity to craft their skills in the off season. UTPA Coach Manny Mantrana encourages his players to join these leagues because it gets around NCAA restrictions on how much time coaches spend with players on the practice field.
“The NCAA allows only so much practice time with your players a day and weekly, so these summer leagues, (the players) get a chance to play against top competition,” Mantrana said. “The thing with summer (league) is that they use wooden bats, which helps them get their sweet spot. They can field balls and work on their abilities. Another thing is that they play every day and don’t have to worry about going to class.”
The ABL currently has six teams. Baseball summer leagues are designed for college and graduating high school students from all over the country. The Rio Grande Valley does not host any summer ball, meaning the Broncs must look elsewhere for opportunities.
Torres, a Miami native who had a solid .314 batting average with 24 RBI, knew he wanted to play summer ball, but didn’t know where. He admitted that his friends and family were a bit perplexed when they found out he’d be going so far away.
“They were shocked, honestly, but (Mantrana) got an email about some players and (Fairbanks) wanted to know about me, that’s the reason I came,” Torres said. “It intrigued me to go that far (to play baseball). This is a very prestigious league and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Both Torres and Mantrana seem to agree about the stiff competition in Alaska, but the Broncs skipper understands the type of experience his player will receive outside the diamond is one to cherish for a lifetime.
“We have some guys playing from the plains to the Midwest, these summer leagues run from Alaska to Canada. The Alaskan league is one of the best leagues in the country. If you’re an 18 or 22-year old and spend the summer in Alaska, it’s a great experience to tell,” Mantrana said.
It will certainly be more than that for Torres. As his plane landed in the non-continental U.S. state early Wednesday morning, he noticed that the sun was at full sheen. It’s just one of the things getting used to.
“It’s different to say the least. It’s far (from Edinburg), it’s a different experience,” Torres said. “It’s sun time the entire day, but it’s beautiful outside.”
Torres frequently texts back and forth with UTPA teammates, and often exchanges experiences on what to expect from the summer league.
“They basically tell me to go out and have fun,” he said. “Just take it all in just have fun, it’s a competitive league, just play hard. Work on some things.”
Torres is expected to return to South Texas once his stint with the Goldpanners ends on July 31.
Will Klausing and Shane Klemcke, two of Torres’ teammates, are playing together for the North Adams Steeplecats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Derek Hagy and Brandon Roush will also be playing together as they will suit up for the Watertown Wizards of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. They will be competing against incoming infielder Alberto Morales, who is on the roster of the Glen Falls Golden Eagle.