College Baseball: Holmes playing in Alaska
KENAI, Alaska — When Noah Holmes arrived in Alaska for an unconventional summer of baseball, he found that his reputation preceded him.
To his new teammates on the Peninsula Oilers of the Alaska Baseball League, Holmes already a legend of sorts. He was the fellow who had homered off N.C. State’s Carlos Rodon, a lefty who may be the first player chosen in the 2014 MLB draft.
“Most of my teammates here are California guys,” said Holmes, the former East Rowan star who is a rising senior at Appalachian State. “So I was a little amazed they knew about that home run and were asking me about it. They all wanted to know if I was that guy.”
That homer came on opening day back in mid-February, and Rodon’s velocity wasn’t at its peak. Still, Holmes hit one of three balls the Mountaineers sent over the wall at Doak Field in Raleigh as the Mountaineers handed the Wolfpack All-American his first loss since he was a high school junior. Holmes’ high school and college teammate Preston Troutman also homered against Rodon.
Holmes is a left-handed hitter, so he wasn’t anticipating major success against Rodon.
“Rodon is very impressive,” Holmes said. “I knew it was going to be tough if I had to swing at his curve or changeup, so I went to the plate ready to hit a first-pitch fastball. Fortunately, he threw a fastball, and I was able to put a good swing on it.”
That homer is one Holmes may describe to his grandchildren someday. It was a highlight of a solid junior season for the third baseman, who shared Rowan County Player of the Year honors with South’s Maverick Miles in 2010.
“I raised my batting average from .246 as a sophomore to .296 this year,” Holmes said. “I made some real progress, but I also know I’ve got to keep working. My goal is to play baseball as long as I can, so I need to make more progress.”
Fifteen Mountaineers are playing in college leagues this summer, but Holmes and Dillon Dobson were dispatched the longest distance from Boone. ASU coach Billy Jones found them spots with the Peninsula Oilers on the southern coast of Alaska.
“I’m pretty much a homebody,” Holmes said with a laugh. “Coach wanted to get me out of my comfort zone a little bit.”
The quality of play in Alaska is traditionally high. Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds hit homers in the league while they were college kids, and Tom Seaver pitched in the ABL. Holmes’ Oilers club boasts an alumni list that includes notable hurlers Frank Viola, Jimmy Key and Dave Stieb.
Even the long day of travel that kicked off Holmes’ adventure was memorable.
“I flew out of Raleigh at 1 p.m. and made it to Alaska at 4 a.m.,” Holmes said. “We were stuck in Seattle for five hours, and flying out of Seattle, that’s when the real plane ride started. The distances in Alaska are different. It’s huge.”
Fortunately, the Oilers will make only three road trips. The closest is to Anchorange, three hours away. The longest will be to Fairbanks, a haul of about 12 hours.
Holmes got off to a nice start, batting .346 in the Oilers’ exhibition games. He went 0-for-2 on opening night of the regular season, playing a new position — second base. Dobson won that four-hour marathon for the Oilers with a walkoff hit in the 13th inning.
“The temperature was comfortable when the game started, but I had on a big ol’ jacket and a sweatshirt and I was still freezing in the dugout by the time it ended,” Holmes said. “We need to cut the games a little shorter than 13 innings.”
Coral Seymour Memorial Park, where the Oilers play home games, has no lights. Lights aren’t needed this time of year in Alaska.
“The sun is always up,” Holmes said. “We get a little darkness around 1 a.m., but by 3:30 a.m., the sun is up again. It takes some getting used to.”
Holmes and Dobson stay with different host families, but they hang out together often. Holmes likes the outdoors, so he’s enjoyed new experiences such as bear-hunting with his host family. A fisherman, he can’t wait for the salmon to start running next month.
“It’s cool to be here,” Holmes said. “We went over to the town of Seward for a Little League camp the other day, and I saw a bay with the bluest water I’d ever seen and I saw mountains that had snow on top. It’s just a beautiful place. I’ll have some memories.”
Holmes will fly back home on July 30. When he returns, he’ll not only be that guy who homered against Rodon — he’ll be that guy who played ball in Alaska.