USPBL looks to build on inaugural season’s success

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

The inaugural season of the United Shore Professional Baseball League went better than founder Andy Appleby envisioned.

Simply put, it was a smashing success.

The Utica-based USPBL, an independent baseball league not affiliated with Major League Baseball, sold out of 42 of its 75 games at Jimmy John’s Field and had a total attendance figure around 230,000.

Eastside Diamond Hoppers teammates, right-handed pitcher Matt Rodgers, left, and second baseman Kam Stewart are photographed Monday at Jimmy John's Field in Utica. The United Shore Professional Baseball League will hold open tryouts April 27-29 at Jimmy John's Field as it prepares for its second season.

The league had 13 of its 67 players signed to major-league affiliates — nine during the season, and four in the offseason — including three by the Pittsburgh Pirates, two by the Washington Nationals and one apiece by the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

“It was a great year to establish ourselves,” Appleby said. “On the baseball side, we were able to go so much further than I ever anticipated. A year ago I was very hopeful that we could have one or two players signed by major-league organizations.

“The beautiful thing about the players that have signed is the vast majority of them, if not all of them, would not even be playing baseball today without the advent of the United Shore Professional Baseball League. That’s gratifying because most of them would just be in real jobs today because there was never a real niche for the 22-year-old college kid that just graduated, that maybe just barely didn’t get drafted.”

Appleby said the USPBL, which invests in the latest strength and conditioning programs, sabermetrics and video analysis, helped prolong numerous careers and its finishing school improved players’ deficiencies, whether it was bat speed, the arc of their swing or arm strength. He added almost every pitcher added anywhere from 2-7 mph to his fastball and in some cases as much as 10 mph.

As the competition and level of play steadily increased throughout the season, so did the interest from MLB teams. According to Appleby, as many as seven major-league scouts would attend a game last year.

From a business standpoint, Appleby said the USPBL was profitable and the first year exceeded his expectations. The $17 million, state-of-the-art stadium turned out better than he anticipated and the league fared well in terms of satisfied fans and partners.

“One thing that I was heartened by was the fact that we literally had not just hundreds, but thousands of testimonials for our new ballpark,” Appleby said. “I feel that our fans felt that we gave them four or five times the value of what they paid. In an age of $4 coffees, when do we feel that we ever get four or five times the value that we pay? I think that’s the secret to our success.”

The second season will kick off with Opening Day on May 11, with some new additions. The league added a fourth team — the Westside Woolly Mammoths — to join the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers and Utica Unicorns.

Right-handed pitcher Matt Rodgers plays for the Eastside Diamond Hoppers, one of four teams in the United Shore Professional Baseball League.

Appleby said the second-year expansion is according to plan and he got the idea for the new team nickname after woolly mammoth bones were found near Chelsea, Michigan, in 2015. He added he’s hopeful to have another ballpark built somewhere in the Midwest for the 2019 season and already has been contacted by 30 different communities who are interested.

Two managers — Diamond Hoppers’ Paul Noce and Beavers’ Chris Newell — will return while Jim Essian will take over the Unicorns and Shane McCatty will head the Woolly Mammoths. Both Essian and McCatty served as assistant managers last season.

In addition, 25 percent of the players from last year’s teams — some who became fan favorites — will be retained and remain on the same squad. The USPBL will hold tryouts Thursday-Saturday to help fill out the rosters and players’ pay will still be between $600-800 a month.

The league also will still have a 75-game season with the majority of contests being played Thursday-Sunday, with three Monday matinees on holidays. Appleby said he and others developed a 10-point plan on pace of play with the goal to make games more compelling and closer to two hours this year.

Ticket prices — highlighted by the $6 lawn seats — will remain the same with the exception of the drink rail, which will increase from $10 to $15.

The ballpark will have heritage nights on Thursdays, a postgame firework show on Fridays, live bands on Saturdays and kids days on Sundays, among an array of new promotions. Among the new stadium improvements include a stage added to the lawn area, a fire pit on the concourse and drink rails in right-center field.

“We hope to continue on the excellence that we’ve started,” Appleby said. “We have to double down and be even better this year.”

USPBL tryouts

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Jimmy John’s Field, 7171 Auburn Road, Utica

Cost: $175

Schedule: Thursday: position player and pitcher assessment; Friday: breakout groups; Saturday: simulated games