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We might get some baseball! USPBL compiles 172-page return-to-play plan

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Metro Detroit might just get its baseball fix this summer, after all.

As Major League Baseball looks more and more like it isn't going to have a 2020 season, the United Shore Professional Baseball League is plenty prepared to get back in the game.

USPBL officials have compiled a whopping 172-page proposal for reopening, a copy of which was obtained by The Detroit News. By comparison, MLB's reopening proposal was 67 pages.

Jimmy John's Field in Utica opened in 2016.

The USPBL is waiting for the go-ahead from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office, which, in its latest executive order, continues to limit outdoor crowds to 100 people. The USPBL has repeatedly said it hopes to start the season at about a third capacity, which would be about 1,500 fans — socially distances throughout Jimmy John's Field in Utica — while gradually working its way up from there.

The league, an independent circuit which houses four teams and is set to enter its fifth season, pushed its scheduled Opening Day from May 8 to May 29, and then again moved it back to June 10. It's now in a holding pattern, awaiting word from the state. When that word finally comes, the league said in its proposal that it will take at least a 10-day leadup to begin the season. In other words, it's unlikely the season would start before July, though getting going for July 4 weekend would be a financial boon.

Many of the safety protocols in the league's proposal are standard, including the installation of hand-sanitizer stations throughout the ballpark, 104 throughout the park, available for fans, staff, coaches and players, and employees wearing cloth face masks. Staff, coaches and players will have symptom tests and temperatures taken on a daily basis, and must have COVID-19 tests before the season begins.

Other safety measures are more unique to the league, among them: Players who don't play that day have a 10 p.m. curfew, whether they're living on their own or with host families, and players who do play that day have an 11 p.m. curfew; no more than seven players are allowed in the clubhouse at any time; and only the game's manager and starting nine will be allowed to be in the dugout during the game, with relief pitchers and the backup catcher assigned to the bullpens, and all other players watching from the manager's suite.

Players will be prohibited from chewing gum, tobacco and sunflower seeds, and spitting will be prohibited. Pitchers won't be able to get to their mouth.

And two measures that will be tough for the league, given its fan-friendly atmosphere: Autographs and close contact with fans will be prohibited, and players will not be allowed to throw balls or other items to fans.

All umpires will be required to wear face masks and gloves, and umpires and managers and coaches must maintain social distancing — which could make for some pretty entertaining arguments.

Also, players will be required to shower at home.

Most of the safety measures also will be applied to staff and players' time at 2SP Sports Performance in Shelby Township and Utica High School, two of the league's alternate practice facilities.

For fans, the ballpark's three parking lots will be open, but there will be at least once space between each car, and the USPBL will not be operating its shuttle. Fans with disabilities will be provided transportation. All fans will have their temperature taken, and anybody measuring at higher than 100.4 degrees will not be allowed in the ballpark. 

Once inside, staff will enforce socially distancing — with every other row going empty. On nights when there typically is a mass exit from the ballpark, like fireworks nights, staff will dismiss fans one section at a time.

Jimmy John's Field also will go nearly cash-less, with cash only accepted at the box office and at a station where fans can buy ticket vouchers, which then can be redeemed at concession stands.

Affiliated minor-league baseball is almost certain to see its 2020 season canceled, though that hasn't yet been made official. MLB had hoped to return by July 4 weekend, but that's not going to happen as the owners and players remain deadlocked in a financial stalemate, prompting commissioner Rob Manfred to say this week that he's not confident there will be a season — just days after he said he was "100 percent" confident there would be one. And even if MLB does return, it will be without fans, at least for several weeks.

That leaves unaffiliated leagues with a golden shot to reach a baseball-starved audience. The Northwoods League, a college league, said this week it would start July 1, with six teams in Michigan.

The USPBL has exceeded expectations, both at the box office and on the field, since launching in 2016, sending 36 players on to major-league organizations, including one to the major leagues.

During the shutdown, the USPBL has tried to make the best of things, hosting a virtual Opening Day last month. This week, Jimmy John's Field's beer garden and restaurants open.

Metro Detroit hasn't seen a professional sporting event since before the mid-March shutdown. The Red Wings' and Pistons' seasons have since been cut short, and there's no telling if or when the Tigers will play at Comerica Park this year. The PGA Tour is back in action and comes to Detroit Golf Club over July 4 weekend, but that will be played with no fans.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984