Utica baseball league keeps delivering hits

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Jimmy John’s Field has already seen 20 sellouts this season.

More than a month into the United Shore Professional Baseball League’s inaugural season, founder Andy Appleby hasn’t missed a game.

And he doesn’t plan to.

As a result, Appleby has witnessed firsthand how much the Utica-based independent league has grown since its inception.

Through the first five weeks of the four-month season, 20 of the league's 25 games have been sellouts with an average attendance of 3,200 at the 2,000-seat Jimmy John’s Field. In addition, 23 of the ballpark’s 24 suites have been sold for the season and there’s been an uptick in ticket package sales.

“I feel like anyone leaving our ballpark is going to tell 20 people how great it was, so that is why we've had the (ticket) increase,” said Appleby, a former Palace Sports and Entertainment executive and founder of the Rochester-based sports firm General Sports and Entertainment.

“We've been a little bit under siege here since May 30 (Opening Day). The phones are ringing off the hook almost to the point where it's hard for us to call people back, which is great.”

There’s also been an emergence of hecklers, a sign that fans are becoming passionate about the league’s three teams: the Utica Unicorns, Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers and Eastside Diamond Hoppers.

“I thought that's the greatest thing ever because they love their team,” Appleby said. “The Unicorns in particular have a really good following. When you see base hits, everybody cheers. Initially, it was like a good catch was made there was kind of pleasant emotion and applause. But now people are really starting to pick their teams, which is just a cool phenomenon.

“That's when it really starts to work when people start to affiliate with their teams.”

MLB organizations are already picking up players from the United Shore Professional Baseball League.

Not only has the USPBL been a hit with fans of all ages, it’s had a positive impact on the local bars and restaurants. According to Appleby, downtown Utica is “quite a happening town” on Thursdays-Sundays, when the majority of the league’s games are played.

Appleby added while the league has been progressing as he envisioned, there have been a few minor operational tweaks made along the way.

"Being at every game and having someone that has a really critical eye like myself being atop this business for 30 years, we're improving leaps and bounds every single night – better game presentation, better food, better parking, better traffic control, better everything,” Appleby said.

“That's what I love. We've got a ways to go but there wouldn't be anyone that would say we have a ways to go because it's a pretty great operation right now. But I know we can even get better from this.”

The league, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball, has a steady stream of scouts attending games and had four players already sign to play affiliate ball. Beavers left-handed pitcher Ross Vance became the first when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization on June 16. Less than a week later, Beavers infielder Aaron Bossi signed with the New York Yankees on June 22, where he’ll report to Single A Tampa.

Then on Sunday, Unicorns right-hander Evan Piechota (Madonna) and Diamond Hoppers right-hander Chris McDonald (Hillsdale), who are both from Livonia, were picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

While the signings didn’t completely surprise Appleby, it did happen sooner than he anticipated.

“From our player, league and baseball operations perspective, we couldn't have asked for more,” Appleby said. “What that does is helps us build our reputation not only amongst the fans, but among major league organizations, college coaches and then certainly players.

“We’re really trying to teach each kid and really create a true finishing school here. Having two of our kids already signed, I really think bolsters that story."

United Shore Professional Baseball League founder Andy Appleby: “I feel like anyone leaving our ballpark is going to tell 20 people how great it was.”

It’s a story that’s still in its infancy but hopes to strengthen its legitimacy as the summer unfolds.

"Usually minor league baseball really takes off after July 1 and … it wouldn't surprise me if we sell out most every game from then on,” Appleby said. “That's probably what we want to do.

“You put together a wonderful baseball game with a magnificent ballpark and double or triple the service levels people are used to and I think that's a winning combination."

One that also includes Appleby at every game.


Twitter @jamesbhawkins