Play ball! New baseball league gets off to strong start

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Utica — Music pumped through the speakers at Jimmy John’s Field as fans filled the grandstands, claimed a spot on the right-field berm and jostled for standing room spots down the left and right field lines.

There was face paint, skydivers and a barbershop quartet, and that was before the first United Shore Professional Baseball League game started.

The atmosphere was buzzing as a crowd of more than 4,200 watched the Utica Unicorns beat the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, 5-1, Monday in the new independent baseball league opener.

“It was about as good as I could hope for. Fantastic crowd, beautiful day, baseball was excellent,” USPBL founder Andy Appleby said. “I think all the fans had a fantastic time, the kids had a fantastic time.

“I walked all over the park and the playground was packed, the Wiffle ball field was packed, the picnic areas were packed, the diamond tables were all used, the suites were all used. So it was a very successful opening and I’m not sure I could’ve hoped for better.”

Fans began gathering outside the stadium as soon as 11 a.m. — three hours before first pitch at 2 p.m. — and wasted little time enjoying the experience as soon as the entrance gates opened around 12:30 p.m.

Ray Seman, of Sterling Heights, brought his son, wife and mother-in-law to the game for a family outing. He said once he heard about the stadium opening up, he wanted to be a part of opening day.

“We go to (Class A minor league) Lansing Lugnuts games. This is the same,” said Seman, 43. “I think the ballpark here and the environment here is more powerful than (Lansing). There’s more energy down here.”

Sean Barel, of Macomb, said the USPBL, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball, is a great opportunity for Utica. He brought his 12-year-old son Ryan and 10-year-old daughter Olivia to take in the game and plans to come back over the summer.

“It was a great experience,” said Barel, 41. “This stuff right here, the family atmosphere, stuff for the kids to do, the Wiffle ball game. There was lots of things for kids to see in the outfield. It was fun.”

It was also enjoyable for many of the Beavers and Unicorns, including Nic Wilson. The Beavers first baseman recorded the league’s first hit, run and RBI as he launched a solo home run over the left-field fence off Unicorns starter Jacob Ezell for a 1-0 lead in the second inning.

“It was awesome,” Wilson said. “Playing in front of fans who really legitimately care about the game means a lot and makes it a lot easier to go out there and … give a little bit extra because today could’ve been someone’s first day at the ballpark and you want them to fall in love like you did.”

Zack Blonder recorded the Unicorns’ first hit in the third inning with a bloop single to left. Two batters later, Brad Young brought him home with a two-out double off the left-center field wall to tie it at 1.

The Unicorns broke the game open with a four-run fourth after Beavers starter Nick Jensan-Clagg (three innings, two hits, four strikeouts) was replaced by reliever Neal Kunik. Jay Carp started the inning by reaching on an error before Christopher Ervin followed with a single to left.

Carp scored on Austin Crutcher’s double down the right-field line to take a 2-1 lead. Blonder keep things rolling with a two-run single to right, scoring Ervin and Crutcher, who was safe at home after Beavers catcher Ramon Ortega was unable to corral the throw.

“My first at-bat I was looking for some kind of fastball in and got it. The second one, I was trying to take it to the right side and get a couple runs across,” said Blonder, who graduated from Maryville College in Knoxville, Tenn., two weeks ago. “The whole show, all this stuff they do between innings, you don’t find that in college. It was a good time.”

Leadoff hitter Blake Harrell tacked on another run with a single to right center to make it 5-1 and Young followed with a walk to load the bases with one out, chasing Kunik from the game. Reliever Alex Kinch worked out of the jam, recording a strikeout and fielding a come-backer up the middle to limit the damage.

From that point on, it was all about the bullpen as both teams’ relievers held the offenses in check. Ezell earned the win for the Unicorns, giving up one hit, one run and one walk with six strikeouts in four innings, while Evan Piechota allowed one hit and struck out three in five innings of relief.

After the fourth, Kinch, Eric Kimber and Jalen Miller combined for 42/3 innings of scoreless relief for the Beavers, but it wasn’t an easy outing for Miller. The Unicorns loaded the bases with one out in the eighth but Miller struck out Blonder and got Harrell to pop out to third.

Beavers manager Chris Newell said although his team came up short, everybody won.

“It was special. Some of us may not ever get to heaven; this was the closest thing,” Newell said.

“They did it right. Andy hit a home run, the fans hit a home run. This was outstanding. I just wish we could’ve played two games. This was the best opening day I’ve ever been a part of.”