Neal Rubin: Minor league baseball comes to Utica
Along the foul lines at field level will be the half-moon tables, nine on each side, that sold out for the season at $20,000 apiece.
Behind the plate — right behind the plate, an absurdly close 30 feet — are five luxury suites. Beyond right field, past the picnic area and the playscape? That’ll be the Wiffle ball diamond.
Somewhere in the middle, starting on Memorial Day, will be baseball. Which, if Andy Appleby has done everything else right, will be almost incidental.
A brand-new minor league is bound for a brand-new ballpark along M-59, set atop the former town dump in Utica. The United Shore Professional Baseball League will in some ways be unlike anything ever attempted, and in other important ways like everything you treasure about summertime.
Sunshine. Family. Laughter. Fireworks. Beer. And yes, independent minor league baseball, featuring three teams of mostly post-collegians who will play one another again and again until mid-September.
That’s unprecedented: three teams sharing a ballpark, facing off only against each other. Also unprecedented: a structure in which Appleby’s General Sports and Entertainment of Rochester owns the privately funded stadium, the teams and the league.
“It’s been an eight-year overnight success,” says Appleby, 53. “I say eight years because it makes me feel better than what it’s really been, which is 12 years.”
He’s standing in the concourse of Jimmy John’s Field wearing a suit, a tie and a hard hat. Saws are whining, generators are thumping, and the clock is ticking.
May 30, 2 p.m. It’ll be the Utica Unicorns vs. the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers in a game that means, well, not much.
The Unicorns will live in the same partially subsidized apartment complex as the Beavers and the Eastside Diamond Hoppers, earning the same $600 to $1,000 per month. It’s not the stuff of bitter rivalry.
But after the game — after every game, in fact — kids will be invited to run the bases.
That’s what’s important, Appleby says. Fun. Frolicking. Atmosphere. Things, as he likes to put it, that you can’t download an app for.
Appleby’s first job in sports was with the Detroit Pistons. He started work there in September 1986 on the same day as Dennis Rodman, but at a somewhat lower level — selling season tickets over the phone.
He wound up a vice president before he ventured off on his own.
Until June, he owned the Derby County Rams, a professional soccer club in England’s second tier. Before that he owned a Class A baseball team in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Lure the kids, get the parents
The Wizards were affiliated with the major league San Diego Padres, which meant stability and a free roster of players. But Appleby remembers starting the season in the chill of April, and practically battling other owners with fungo bats for lucrative weekend dates.
Now his games will take place amid Michigan’s best weather, mostly Thursday through Sunday — though the lack of a major league connection could be problematic.
“It’s difficult for independent teams to create a following,” says James Lewis, who is both the coordinator of the sports management program at Western Michigan University and a high school umpire.
Fans, he says, get invested in players’ success, and like knowing that their favorites might eventually show up in the big leagues. That’s a long shot for an independent player who wasn’t quite good or lucky enough to get drafted by a big league team.
But $6 lawn seats, free parking, a 50-by-80-foot high-tech scoreboard, pyrotechnics every Friday and a reading program that rewards schoolkids with tickets?
“This guy has all the right ideas,” Lewis says. Lure the kids and you get their parents — “and parents buy beer.”
Trash to treasure
Appleby has already found sponsors for not only the ballpark, Jimmy John’s Field, but the VIP lounge (AAA) and the league itself. United Shore is a mortgage company in Troy.
Ultimately, he hopes to expand to eight or more stadiums throughout the Midwest, each with at least two teams so there’s always a home game on a warm night.
He expected to spend $12 million on Jimmy John’s Field, but complications — and garbage — arose.
“If you look in that pile of dirt,” he says, pointing toward the field, “you can see a bottle sticking out.”
The antique trash turned out to be only three inches below the surface, not 10 feet. Also a surprise: he needed to spend $100,000 on a lime-concrete mix to spread across the field so trucks could drive on it.
The revised tab for the park is $15 million, but if that’s what it takes to build the showplace he spent a decade or more dreaming up ... Hey, sometimes you get bad hops.
Besides, he says, the other numbers are on his side.
More than 150,000 cars each day pass the stadium along M-59, “a 24/7 commercial.” A million people live within 12 minutes’ drive of home plate, and 2 million live within half an hour.
Cabanas and pavilions bring the capacity of the ballpark to nearly 4,000, but the cozy grandstand contains only 1,900 seats at $10 to $20 apiece, similar to the cost of a Toledo Mud Hens game. The most distant seat in the house is a neighborly 13 rows up.
As for the level of competition, maybe his pitchers will throw 93 mph instead of 95 — but aside from the batters, how many people can tell the difference?
“It’s not about the game,” says Lewis, the sports management professor. “It’s about the experience.”
And, the details.
The youngest of Appleby’s four children, 10-year-old Quinn, suggested Unicorns as a team name. Her dad was resistant until she further suggested making the mascot look feisty so it would appeal to both boys and girls.
The Beavers will be marketed as the league’s villains, heathen invaders from Oakland County. Their uniforms will have pinstripes, just like the elite and arrogant New York Yankees.
In a sense, it’s like playing with action figures, or creating imaginary teams with baseball cards.
Coming soon, to Utica: the ultimate fantasy league.