USPBL players eager to welcome fans back, including millionth in 2021
Utica — Andy Appleby's favorite part of his baseball league: The smiles.
Well, the smiles are coming back to the United Shore Professional Baseball League in 2021, after a COVID-19 2020 that only allowed 100 fans in the stands — and even those fans were forced to wear masks.
The sixth season of the four-team USPBL starts May 28, hopefully, said Appleby, with no mask requirements. The league is expecting to be able to accommodate 1,000 fans from the start, and could be trending toward sellouts by season's end.
"It feels like we're just opening the park for the first time," Appleby, the league's founder and CEO, said on a spectacularly sunny Tuesday afternoon in the commissioner's box at Jimmy John's Field, as several of his players took batting practice 60 feet away.
The USPBL played its fifth season, albeit a shortened schedule of fewer than 40 games, against all odds — and despite revenue losses in excess of 75% from the year before.
But the crowds were so small, players could hear conversations that were happening in the stands. That surely didn't happen in 2019, when the league had 62 sellouts — including one game with a league-record 4,926 fans in the stands.
Things should be back to normal, or as normal as normal is these days, very soon.
"It felt like a scrimmage, kind of," said AJ Kullman, a left-handed pitcher from just outside Columbus, Ohio, who is back for Year 2. "Like playing fall baseball in college again. You know, competition is competition. I just feel like we're gonna have a little more adrenaline this year.
"Sports like this are meant to be played in front of fans.
"When they're cheering and bringing energy and being loud, that's what makes it fun."
And the USPBL is known for its fun, ever since it started in 2016 as a three-team professional development league that many outsiders doubted would take off. The league has since expanded to four teams — the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns and Westside Woolly Mammoths — has sent 38 players on to sign minor-league contracts (one, the Minnesota Twins' Randy Dobnak, has made the majors), and is considering expanding operations out-of-state.
Back this year are fireworks, live music, the pep squad, and all sorts of fan interactions.
The league's players are mostly guys out of college who went undrafted, though some have played affiliated professional ball and are trying to revive their careers. They're all focused on reaching that next level. But that doesn't mean the fans don't matter to them.
"Toward the end of (last) year, we had 100-200 fans, and it felt really loud at that point," said outfielder Greg Vaughn Jr., the son of the former major-league slugger who's from Sacramento, California, on Tuesday, the first day of spring training.
"I can only imagine once we have sellouts. It's gonna feel like we're on the big stage."
Tickets, starting at $12 but sold in pods for social-distancing purposes, are on sale at uspbl.com for the opening weekend — the first game is between the Unicorns (three) and Beavers (two), the only two teams in the league to win the USPBL championship.
At some point this year, the USPBL will celebrate its one millionth fan, who will get $1,000, a custom jersey, a cabana suite for five years and a photo on the USPBL Wall of Fame at Jimmy John's Field.
It's a milestone that should've been hit in Year 5, if not for a pandemic.
But better late than never for Appleby, who can't wait to see the smile on that fan's face.
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