Birmingham Seaholm’s Keaton Aldridge talks about continuing to pursue a pro baseball career. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Utica — Keaton Aldridge came right out and said it, though it’s not really true — although, maybe in baseball terms, he is.
“I’m old,” said Aldridge, a 25-year-old pitcher on the USPBL’s Eastside Diamond Hoppers, during Monday’s Media Day.
Aldridge played at Birmingham Seaholm, finished his high school career in Alabama, played collegiately at University of Memphis and also Tampa, and professionally in the New York Mets’ minor league system.
Aldridge has been around. But he loves baseball, is nowhere close to calling it a career, and when this opportunity to return home and continue playing developed, Aldridge jumped at the chance.
“You want to go out on your terms, not someone else’s terms,” he said. “If you still have the ability and opportunity to play, you have to take it.
“I had some opportunities in some other leagues but I saw there were guys getting picked up from this league and it’s home, so it’s the best of both worlds.”
The USPBL (United Shore Professional Baseball League) opens its third year Friday with momentum building after two successful seasons on and off the field.
Four teams, with rosters from ages 18-25, play a 75-game schedule largely on weekends from May-September at Jimmy John’s Field in downtown Utica, just off M-59.
The league averaged over 3,350 fans last season — sold out 60 of 75 games — with the low prices, quality entertainment and quaint atmosphere making for a quality night out.
But the baseball is good, too.
Twenty-two prospects have signed from the USPBL, which Andy Appleby, owner and chief executive officer of the league, said has invested over $1 million to improve play in a variety of ways.
“For a small sample size, with how many guys have been picked up by teams, it’s incredible,” said infielder Jack Hranec (Ortonville-Brandon/Murray State). “We’re establishing ourselves as a good league, and especially in the independent circuit.”
League owner/CEO Andy Appleby talks about the USPBL. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Hranec, 22, wasn’t interested in ending his playing career after college.
“I just enjoy what I do,” Hranec said. “I like coming to the field every day and putting the work in and being challenged. This year, my family can come watch me. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Nicco Lollio, 23, an infielder who played at Carleton Airport and NAIA St. Catherine (Kentucky), was in the USPBL last year.
Lollio enjoyed the fan interaction, playing in front of family and friends, and the competitive nature of the league.
Like many players in the USPBL, Lollio works in the offseason and puts aside money so he can concentrate on baseball in the summer.
“This league gives you another chance to keep your spikes on and keep playing,” Lollio said. “It’s been successful, there’s been 20-plus guys who have signed with affiliates, so it’s getting exposure. Scouts are coming and we’re getting a lot of attention.”
As the league thrives as a development league, said Appleby, it strengthens the USPBL in a variety of ways.
“There aren’t really a tremendous amount of opportunities for that 22-year-old kid coming out of college,” Appleby said. “If we can turn them into a little better player, they’re still young enough that major league teams can invest in them being a 22-year-old. If we skewed more toward a 26-30 years old, it wouldn’t matter what (those players) did, they probably wouldn’t get signed because major league teams wouldn’t be able to take chances on them.
“But because they’re young, it’s a real good thing for us and it’s a great model for the future.”
Carleton’s Nicco Lollio talks about playing in the USPBL. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Expansion on tap
Appleby expects the USPBL to expand from three to six months in a city — probably in the Midwest — which would house either one or two teams.
Appleby has been in contact with about 40 mayors, he said, from around the country (as far as Colorado and Virginia), but how to construct a ballpark financially is usually an obstacle.
“They all want us, who wouldn’t want this ballpark in their town?” Appleby said. “But they have to kind of help us, too, in terms of financing. We’re not asking for a free lunch, but we just want what 99 percent of the other ballparks in America are, where they’re publicly financed but we pay all or most of the debt service for the next 30 years.
“I would say easily within the next six months we’ll have a decision (on expanding), possibly as early as three months.”
United Shore Professional Baseball League
Who: Four teams play a 75-game round-robin schedule.
When: From Friday until Sept. 9, every weekend and some weekdays.
Where: Jimmy John’s Field, on Auburn Road, adjacent to M-59
Note: Over 20 players have been signed by major league affiliates in the first two years of operation.