ROCHESTER — When Brian Berryman greets a new player in the United Shore Professional Baseball League, his initial welcome can be slightly confounding.
“When I first meet a guy, I tell them, ‘I don’t want you here,’ and I say that to every single person we bring in,” said Berryman, who is the USPBL’s executive director of baseball operations. “They usually look at me like I’m an idiot, but then I tell them why.”
Berryman is currently tracking the top 100 college seniors at diamonds across the country, looking for talent to compete at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica. Coming off a successful debut season, the USPBL is adding a new franchise to the fold, the Westside Woolly Mammoths.
It’s a new rival facing the inaugural trio of the Utica Unicorns, Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers and Eastside Diamond Hoppers. The expansion allows Berryman to add another roster’s worth of young arms and bats to the stable. The goal is for the group, most ages 21-24, to use the USPBL as a “finishing school” and take the next step of advancing to the major leagues.
“Jimmy John’s Field is now a destination for all of the fans in southeast Michigan,” Berryman said. “But it should only be a stop for our 84 players. We want them to come here, improve their game and then make it to the next level.”
The founder of the USPBL, Andy Appleby, made that one of the chief initiatives when he initially created the independent association. That goal become a reality after seeing nine USPBL standouts from last season sign minor league deals with teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.
“We want to find the very best players available, that for some reason or another just missed out on the draft,” said Appleby, who is also the chairman and CEO of the USPBL. “Brian does a great job of identifying players for us and bringing in quality talent. We’re not limiting ourselves to anywhere and want guys to realize this is a real opportunity to make it to the next level.”
In addition to providing another lineup of MLB hopefuls, the creation of the Mammoths made perfect business sense for the USPBL. After selling out 42 of the 75 games last year, Appleby believed it was the perfect time for expansion.
“We took a little bit of friction for only having three teams, but I thought it was the proper way to get things started,” Appleby said. “The fourth team was pivotal, because it took away whatever stigma there was with only the three, and now people can see this is real, and we are growing.”
As for the unique new mascot, Appleby had the idea for a long time but needed a local connection.
“I really liked the Woolly Mammoths name, but I never thought one would be found around here,” Appleby said. “There have been a number of mastodons found, but finally one was dug up in Chelsea in 2015. With its huge tusks, it makes for a great logo, and Westside fits with it perfectly.”
The “Westside” moniker mimics an alliterative association set by the Beavers and Unicorns. It also hints at possible plans for the Mammoths to move.
Appleby envisions his creation expanding to 20 teams playing out of 10 ballparks. He wants that to happen within the next seven to eight years, and the growth is not limited to Michigan.
“Initially, we were just looking at the Midwest,” Appleby said. “Our next ballpark will almost assuredly be west of Utica, and the Mammoths will probably go there. We like the Midwest footprint, but we are talking to various interested cities, and now we are starting to possibly think outside those boundaries.”
While prospective cities hail from as far as Colorado and Virginia, Appleby confirmed that the Unicorns and Diamond Hoppers will always call Jimmy John’s Field home. The Beavers could possibly pack their bags someday, but their new stadium would have to be close enough to their Birmingham-Bloomfield namesake, meaning in-state expansion is certainly on the table.
Promising an announcement on a new stadium location in two to three months, Appleby said that 2017 will definitely feature all four clubs battling in Utica. Each team will play 60 contests in the league standings, but only 75 total games will be open to the public. This allows the USPBL to achieve its top goals from both a business and baseball standpoint.
“We created a league that allows us to play the best weather that Michigan has to offer and the best days of the week,” Appleby said. “Our commercial games will run from Thursday to Sunday, and in our business that is the holy grail of scheduling, especially for families. Now with the Mammoths on board, we did not want to add to the schedule and be forced to play in the cold of April or October. But we want to give the players the most reps possible, so on Tuesdays and Wednesdays we will have closed games. The stats will count, and the guys will get all of the at-bats and innings pitched they need in order to make sure our league is helping every single player truly get better.”