Utica baseball league swings for fences with inaugural season
Utica — Andrew Appleby noticed something was missing.
After the frigid winters and spring thaws would pass, going to a minor league baseball game in Metro Detroit wasn’t an option during the summer.
“Minor league baseball is a national phenomenon just about everywhere else in America,” said Appleby, founder of the Rochester-based sports firm General Sports and Entertainment in 1998. “There’s over 200 teams nationally, and yet we’ve never had a minor league ballpark here in southeast Michigan.”
The United Shores Professional Baseball League and its three teams — Utica Unicorns, Eastside Diamond Hoppers and Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers — kick off the inaugural season Monday.
The first game in the independent league founded by Appleby matches the Beavers and Unicorns at 2 p.m. at Jimmy John’s Field.
The $15 million, 2,000-seat park — at the northeast corner of Auburn Road and Moscone Drive in downtown Utica — has a capacity of 4,500 and features 18 diamond tables under the grandstand, six open-air cabana suites above each dugout, three picnic areas, a grass berm seating area, a Wiffle ball diamond, and a state-of-the-art playground beyond the right-field fence.
There’s also 50-foot brick façade towers at the entrance, a VIP club, a 50-by-80-foot LED scoreboard and five field-level suites 30 feet behind the catcher.
“The vision for this was to create something that was very Disney-like, warm, friendly, intimate, safe and clean, but also have a lot of grandeur,” Appleby said. “I specifically designed this to be a smaller facility.
“I think almost every ballpark, arena and stadium has been overbuilt.”
And, unlike most stadiums, Appleby said Jimmy John’s Field was more than 90 percent privately funded.
Appleby is no stranger to owning professional sports teams. His firm owned the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards, the Class A affiliate for the Padres, from 1998-2006, and the Derby County Football Club, a soccer team in England, from 2008-15.
He said the business model for the USPBL is similar to those teams, with revenue coming from corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, suite sales, summer picnics, concession sales and merchandise sales.
“This is more near and dear to my heart because it’s the first time I’ve really owned anything where we’re only 15 minutes away and our office is eight minutes away,” Appleby said. “This is literally every good idea that I’ve seen or done for 30 years in sport business from a design and marketing standpoint.”
According to Appleby, Monday’s opener is sold out, 20 of the 24 suites have been purchased, and most of the premium seats have been bought. Single-game tickets range from $6-$20 in the lawn and grandstand sections.
“When you have 2 million people within a 25-minute radius and have three times less seats than most minor league teams, I would imagine we’re going to sell out most of our games,” Appleby said.
The USPBL’s four-month season spans 75 games from May-September, with each team playing 50 games Thursdays-Sundays.
The league, not affiliated with Major League Baseball, gives players ages 19-26 a chance to continue pursuing a baseball career. Players will earn $600-$1,000 a month, depending on experience, and stay with host families or share an apartment with teammates.
According to USPBL executive director of baseball operations Brian Berryman, the type of player being targeted is one who falls through the cracks — the “pass-over kid.”
“Pass-over kids are the ones who didn’t get drafted last year,” Berryman said. “They went to a (Division 2) school, they’re high school kids who projected higher or don’t project as high at a position, someone who could play but doesn’t grade out well enough and needs a year or two to improve, or guys who get released from other organizations.”
For some, like Clinton Township product Cameron Walker, the USPBL provides an opportunity to reach the next level — the lower tier of the minors.
“This a second chance for guys who are trying to make it and live the dream,” said Walker, 25, a Beavers utility player who played at Wayne State from 2009-14. “I worked for Coca-Cola. I actually quit my job last Friday for this.”
For others, like Dakota Freese, Carlos Gonzalez and Jordan Barnes, it’s a chance to get back to affiliated ball.
Freese, a 24-year-old right-handed starting pitcher from Iowa, went to tryouts last week and impressed with his fastball consistently hitting 93 mph. He’s one of many hopefuls trying to make the final cut for the Diamond Hoppers.
“I got released from the (Frontier League’s) Joliet Slammers in Illinois three days before the season was set to start,” said Freese, who spent two years in the minors after being drafted in the 12th round in 2013 by the Oakland Athletics. “(Diamond Hoppers) coach (Paul Noce) gave me his number and I immediately came up here.
“I’m trying to get back on my feet, get back in affiliated ball and get my life going back where it should. … I’m not giving up until I can’t throw a ball.”
Gonzalez, a 22-year-old middle infielder from the Dominican Republic, spent four years playing rookie ball in the White Sox organization before being invited by Berryman to try out for the USPBL.
“It’s a new opportunity to show my skills and how I can play at the pro level,” said Gonzalez, who’s vying for a spot on the Unicorns. “Here you have better opportunity and more chances to showcase your talent.”
Barnes, a 21-year-old center fielder from Memphis, Tenn., turned down several football offers out of high school to pursue baseball. After one year at Northwest Mississippi Community College, Barnes was drafted in the 15th round in 2013 by the Yankees, where he spent the past three years in rookie ball.
“I went to the Frontier League workout because I got into the indy ball route after I got released by the Yankees in February,” Barnes said. “That’s where I met (Beavers coach) Chris (Newell) and Brian (Berryman). They were like, ‘Hey man, if you don’t get picked up in the Frontier League, we want you to come play in our new league in Utica.’
“It’s the next opportunity that I was looking for.”
More than wins and losses
Appleby expects the level of play to be similar to Class A.
“We want the very best players we can because that lends itself to just getting more and more of the best players,” he said. “We want to be first class in every which way.
“We have this finishing school, a state-of-the-art throwing program, the latest in muscular skeletal, advanced strength and conditioning, sabermetrics and video analysis all in an effort to try and make every kid better.”
Appleby said the league won’t receive “100 percent validation” until the first major leaguer comes out of the USPBL.
To help do that, Berryman sifted through 100-150 potential candidates before naming Greg Grall, Noce and Newell managers.
Each has major-league experience and assembled their roster, which consists of 23 players.
Grall has been an instrumental coach at every level over his 20-plus years in pro baseball, and said the selling point was the emphasis on development, something Noce and Newell echoed.
“What attracted me was the concept of no travel, playing at the same stadium,” said Noce, who had stints with the Cubs and Reds and coached at Hillsdale College for 20 years. “I love the idea of the development side of trying to develop players that are overlooked.
“A lot of these guys are released affiliated players, so you’re giving them new life.”
Newell, a Waterford native, has been a major league scout since 1999 and trained 44 players who were drafted or signed pro contracts, including Rockies All-Star and Birmingham Brother Rice alumnus DJ LeMahieu.
Newell said instead of wins and losses, success will be measured by how many players land with affiliated clubs.
“If we have a Pirates scout in the stands and I’ve got a kid who is maybe struggling a little bit, it would normally be time for me to make a pitching change or maybe it’s time for me to pinch hit,” Newell said. “But maybe they want to see how he’s dealt with some adversity. Let’s see if he can pitch out of this jam, let’s see if he can come up with this big two-out hit.
“The best interest of the league is the best interest of the kid. If I have to appease a scout in order to give him an honest opportunity to get to the next level and I have to take an L in the column, I’m OK with that.”
For Newell, that’s the beauty of Appleby’s field of dreams.
“This area has been looking for something like this for so long,” Newell said. “It’s just a great opportunity for everybody involved.”
United Shore Professional Baseball League
Founder: Andrew Appleby
Teams: Utica Unicorns, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers
Managers: Greg Grall (Unicorns), Paul Noce (Diamond Hoppers), Chris Newell (Beavers)
Players: Ages 19-26 from all over the world
Season: 75 total games from May-September. Each team plays 50 games.
Stadium: Jimmy John’s Field, 7171 Auburn, Utica
Monday’s opener: Utica vs. Birmingham Bloomfield
First pitch: 2 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out