United Shore baseball eyes more family fun, expansion

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Utica — It sure doesn’t feel like baseball weather on this day at Jimmy John’s Field, but Andy Appleby has thoughts of summertime.

Appleby, owner and chief executive officer of the United Shore Professional Baseball League, is thinking about warm Michigan summer evenings, with families in the stands, kids wearing their baseball gloves, the smell of hot dogs and popcorn in the air.

Owner and CEO Andy Appleby is leading the United Shore Professional Baseball League into its third season. The four-team league plays its games at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica.

The attractions around the park complementing what’s happening on the field.

For Appleby, summer — and baseball — can’t come soon enough.

“I truly believe that people get four or five times the value of what they pay for a ticket,” Appleby said of USPBL games. “In the age of $4 coffees, how often do you feel that way?”

Single-game tickets this season range from $12 to $35 (the first five rows have padded seats), or you can snag a lawn seat for $6.

Excitement is building for the USPBL, an independent league that begins its third season May 11 at Jimmy John’s Field with four teams — the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Woolly Mammoths. They will play every weekend from May through early September at the Macomb County ballpark.

Skeptics — those who thought that the same teams playing each other over and over in the same park would be a tough sell — appear to have been proven wrong . Last year, the average attendance was 3,300 (4,500 capacity), with 60 of the 75 games official sellouts.

Cities across the country have noticed Appleby’s magic formula, and he anticipates making an announcement about expansion in the next three to six months.

The USPBL is ready to expand.

“We have, literally, 35 different communities around America that would love to build our ballpark in their community,” Appleby said. “But I would say they have to get a little more creative in terms of financing.

“If I had a favorite, I would tell you, but they’re all very much working toward solutions of how they can finance those ballparks.”

The interest has come from as far away as Colorado and Virginia, Appleby said, though the majority of calls have been from Midwest communities.

Ultimately, Appleby would like to have as many as eight cities in the USPBL, with two teams in each city calling the park their home.

“My initial thought process on this league was to make it more Midwest,” Appleby said. “But I’m starting to think with some of these communities that are so fantastic and have everything you want, which is a lot of people, a lot of businesses, a lot of families, even if it costs another $100,000 for travel, it’s worth it if they want a real build a real nice ballpark in one of those communities.”

Images of USPBL mascots are displayed on the outside wall of the press box, from left: the Utica Unicorns, the Eastside Diamond Hoppers, the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers and the Westside Woolly Mammoths.

The USPBL has found its niche in Metro Detroit, even with the Tigers in their shadows.

Major League Baseball prohibits its minor-league teams within a 15-mile radius of its MLB parks — but independent teams and leagues are exempt from this rule. Utica is about 28 miles from Detroit.

The Tigers have a supportive view of independent league baseball, at Utica, or elsewhere. But they say the level of baseball is not to be confused with what is played in big-league farm systems.

“No, I would not say that, although it definitely is professional baseball,” said Tigers general manager Al Avila, speaking specifically of the Utica club. “At that level, you’re talking about a lot of guys who didn’t get drafted out of high school or college but who get signed there.

“Now, we scout independent leagues to find organizational fillers. It happens less and less now, but every once in a while, because of injury, you need to fill a position. And sometimes you can find a gem — and that’s an exciting thing to do.

“But we also have an open tryout camp in Lakeland, and a lot of independent leagues come to scout guys they end up liking to play in their leagues. So we also offer that service to them and we invite them to come.

“We have signed players out of the independent leagues over the course of years, and every once in a while you hit paydirt. When I was with the Marlins, that’s how we signed Kevin Millar (12-year major-league career).”

Why has the USPBL been a success?

Appleby owned a minor league team in Fort Wayne, Ind., and remembers the cold weather and the impact it had in April.

He wanted to ensure that wouldn’t happen in his own league.

“We play all our games in the very best weather that Michigan has to offer, as opposed to most major and minor league teams that have to start April 1,” Appleby said. “From a business perspective, when we had our team in Fort Wayne, for eight years I literally just wrote off the first two months of the season.

“No mom is coming out in 25-degree weather with her kids.”

Appleby also was intent on scheduling weekend games.

“It was a fistfight to get weekend games (in Fort Wayne of the Midwest League),” Appleby said. “We were lucky to get five or six weekends in the summer.

“(The USPBL) is a great schedule and dramatically increases the likelihood of success as moms and dads don’t have to work the next day.”

It’s good baseball, too, with 20 USPBL players signing with MLB organizations.

“That’s nothing short of incredible,” Appleby said. “None of those kids would be playing baseball today without the advent of this new league.”

But as Appleby would tell you, the USPBL exists as much for baseball fans as it does for baseball players.

“It’s been an amazing amount of work, not just myself but the entire staff, to get to this point,” Appleby said. “We treat every game like the World Series. I’m at every second of every game, trying to visit with virtually every fan. We greet them when they come in and say goodbye to all of them afterward because we knew we needed to build this one family at a time.”

USPBL facts

What: United Shore Professional Baseball League.

Teams: The Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Woolly Mammoths play from May 11 through Sept. 9, with games scheduled around the weekend.

Where: Jimmy John’s Field (capacity 4,500), 7171 Auburn Road, Utica.

Tickets: Single-game tickets are $12, $15, $20 and $35 (lawn tickets $6). There are also full- and partial-season ticket plans available.

More information: USPBL.com