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NEAL RUBIN

Rubin: A league of his own, with three home teams

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The first hecklers were a good thing. Even the first plumbing problem at the new ballpark was a good thing, if you look at it the right way.

And the first grand slam? Andy Appleby was so excited Sunday afternoon that he nearly tripped over a baby.

Appleby owns the United Shore Professional Baseball League, and a month into its existence he’s still counting milestones. He’s also counting turnstile clicks, and he’s hearing enough of them to start thinking about adding another team or two next season.

The way the independent league works, Appleby owns the splendid little ballfield along M-59 in Utica and the three teams that take turns playing one another.

That way, he says, he can control the schedule —he never has an empty stadium on weekends —and the quality of the experience.

The sacrifice is actual rivalry. The Utica Unicorns, Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers and Eastside Diamond Hoppers, most of whom are recent college grads, share their partially subsidized lodgings and most everything else except uniforms and mascots.

It wasn’t until the 13th game at Jimmy John’s Field, Appleby says, that Unicorns fans began harassing the Diamond Hoppers.

Better yet, Diamond Hoppers fans badgered back.

“I knew we’d turned a corner,” he says.

At first, people just reveled in the atmosphere and cheered good plays, as though they’d stumbled on a game involving particularly large and talented children. “Now people are starting to take ownership.”

There were roars, for instance, when Beavers catcher Conor Sullivan belted the first bases-loaded homer. Appleby was so excited he leaped his wife’s goddaughter on the floor of the owner’s suite, burst through the door to the seats and was beaming in the sunshine by the time Sullivan reached third base.

But there was also some visible disappointment, because the four runs put Utica in a dispiriting 13-2 hole.

Oh, and the plumbing problem? A construction mistake led to a punctured pipe and the closing of the men’s and women’s restrooms along the first base side on opening day. But even with a capacity crowd, the Jimmy John’s johns on the third base side were up to the task.

“That told me we’d never have a bathroom issue,” Appleby says.

He already knew his glass was half full, and now he can say the same about his urinals.

Families making memories

The better test of Appleby’s league will be two months from now, or two years. By then it’ll be all about the product and not the novelty.

What won’t change is that done right, low-level pro baseball is fun. One tiny kid runs the bases with a mascot in the bottom of the first inning, and all kids are invited to run them after every game.

On Wednesday nights, barbers give free haircuts in the concourse. Fridays mean fireworks. A bottle of water costs only $3, and so does a 12-ounce Budweiser; who knew you’d be faced with deep moral decisions at a ballgame?

“It’s just a way to spend time with your family,” says Linda Dennisuk of Royal Oak, catching Sunday’s game with a friend. “My kids are grown, but I’m looking out at kids and parents making memories.”

Great American pastime

In a stadium that holds about 4,000, the league is averaging 3,000 fans and a 25-percent turnover in players.

For all the charm, it’s a business, and a highly competitive one. Two players have already been signed to minor league contracts with major league organizations, a large credibility boost for the operation.

Others have failed and been sent home.

“It’s a meritocracy,” Appleby says. “They all know they’re just an 0-for-10 streak from having to get their first real jobs.”

At the top of the food chain, meanwhile, the boss wears a name tag that says ANDY, jots nightly notes about things to improve, and spends part of every game introducing himself to the customers.

He was dapper Sunday, if overheated, in khakis and a Ralph Lauren dress shirt. In an open-air cabana suite, he introduced himself to a burly man with hairy shoulders in a tank top.

“I’m Andy, too,” the man said.

Same name, same game, same sunshine. It was another fine afternoon at the ballpark, no matter who was winning.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

@nealrubin_dn