College baseball stars setting up shop in Royal Oak; here's how the Leprechauns came to be

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The ping of the bat, long heard at the corner of 13 Mile and Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, will make way for the crack of the bat this summer.

The 15-team Great Lakes Collegiate Summer League, sanctioned and supported by Major League Baseball, welcomes the Royal Oak Leprechauns to the fold in 2021, with Opening Day scheduled for Thursday, June 3, and the first game at Royal Oak's Memorial Park set for Saturday, June 5.

The team used to be based in Adrian, as the Irish Hills Leprechauns.

Roger Pierson, of DRC Enterprizes, installs AstroTurf on the baseball field at Memorial Park in Royal Oak. The field will be home to the Royal Oak Leprechauns.

"We want to do this as high-quality of an event as we can," said Mark Sackett, team president who's an elementary school teacher in Troy for his day job.

"The field's just gonna be gorgeous. This is the new corner."

The league includes mostly teams in Ohio, but also one in Indiana, and three others in Michigan. They are the Muskegon Clippers, Jet Box Baseball Club (Sterling Heights) and the Michigan Monarchs (Adrian).

The teams use wooden bats, to prepare players for the pros.

Royal Oak has its 35-man roster set, made up of players mostly from Michigan colleges, including four from Michigan State and one from Wayne State. Each team can have a few high-school prospects committed to Division I universities. The team will be managed by Kyle Kolb, an assistant coach at Ave Maria University in Florida.

Sackett and the organization liked playing in Adrian, but couldn't drew a crowd. It's not a densely populated area.

"People there are heading to the lakes instead of the ballfield in the summer," he said.

So at the end of 2018, they decided to make a move, and considered a number of Metro Detroit locations, including Clawson, Auburn Hills and Berkley. But Royal Oak stood out, because it had the infrastructure, with a field in a well-trafficked area.

To the west of the field is Woodward; to the east is the popular Royal Oak Golf Center, which is always busy in the summer, with its driving range, mini-golf and batting cages.

So Sackett approached the city's parks and recreation department, and was met with instant enthusiasm.

"Everyone in the city will benefit," said John Fedele, superintendent of recreation.

Sackett and Fedele first talked in 2018, and in August 2019, a proposal was presented to the Royal Oak City Commission. The plan was approved, with the goal of starting play on Opening Day 2020. But there were a couple obstacles: The obvious one was COVID-19. But the bigger hurdle was financing. Sackett said he had many good conversations, but no big money came through.

In the fall of 2019, the Leprechauns group actually bagged the Royal Oak idea, and started looking to Grand Rapids.

Then, last Dec. 3, came a phone call Sackett will never forget. It was from a Major League Baseball star, who had attended Birmingham Brother Rice, who wanted to help — but anonymously.

That financial commitment, which is a loan with a relaxed pay-us-back-whenever understanding, was the pot of gold the Leprechauns needed.

The money is going to stadium upgrades. Excavation and the installation of AstroTurf is happening this week and next, at a cost of about $350,000. There's new fencing, at $15,000. There are new dugouts, and bullpens. The total project cost is $400,000, which is being funded privately and not at all by the city of Royal Oak, which still will reap the benefits for years to come. It uses that field for sandlot leagues, tournaments and corporate events.

"For a municipal field to have that type of improvement, that high-quality playing surface," said Fedele, "it really was a no-brainer."

Workers install AstroTurf at Memorial Park in Royal Oak.

The Leprechauns' agreement with the city is for at least 10 years, at which point Sackett believes the major-league player wants to take over the team. Said player recently committed to building a youth baseball facility in Troy.

The team will play 21 home games in a season, between June and July. The park can seat about 600, with general-admission space for perhaps another 200. There is space for three corporate-outing areas. Tickets will cost $5 or $7. The team has secured a liquor license to serve beer and wine on game days.

Community outreach also is a cornerstone of the team's plan, with clinics planned, as well as player meet-and-greets with kids. 

Sackett and Fedele also see this as a long-term investment in Royal Oak. Lawrence Tech might use the field in 2022, and Oakland Community College is considering bringing back baseball, with Royal Oak as a possible home field.

"The city, they're letting me do whatever I want to do," Sackett said. "They basically said here's the keys, have at it, just let us know what you're going to do."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984