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USPBL eyes expansion after successful first year

Fourth team to be added

By: Thomas Franz | C&G Newspapers | Published September 16, 2016


UTICA — The inaugural season of the United Shore Professional Baseball League ended Sept. 11 with the Utica Unicorns celebrating their championship victory with a proper champagne celebration.

It also ended with a message from USPBL Commissioner Andy Appleby to the fans at Jimmy John’s Field that he would see them back at the ballpark on May 11, 2017.

That message at least answered one of the many questions regarding the future of the independent league.

Appleby also answered another major question regarding the league’s future during the playoff weekend Sept. 10. Appleby said the league is fielding four teams next year, all based out of downtown Utica’s Jimmy John’s Field.

The new team will be named after the town that is selected to host the next USPBL stadium. Appleby said 10-12 Midwestern cities have been vying to join the league, and an announcement on the destination for the next stadium could come within 60 days.

The plan is for the fourth team and potentially one of the current USPBL teams to be based at the new stadium, which would be ready for play for the 2018 season.

Appleby said next year’s season will run from May 11 until Sept. 10, with games primarily being played Thursdays through Sundays.

“There most likely won’t be any more Wednesday night games. We haven’t finalized the schedule, but it looks like it will be more Thursday to Sunday,” Appleby said.

The potential exists for the league to play games on off days throughout the summer that would be closed to the public, which is a concept Appleby said his group has experience in from its days of owning an English soccer club.

As for Jimmy John’s Field, it will soon be hosting much more than baseball.

Appleby said plans are in the works for the stadium to host an Oktoberfest event next month as well as a haunted house.

An outdoor hockey tournament could also be formed for this upcoming February with local high school and college teams.

Plans have also begun for concerts that could seat up to 8,000 fans in attendance based on where a stage would be located on the field.

“We were all hands on deck getting the season done, so now we’re focusing on more things,” Appleby said. “We’ve already had a lot of discussions and planning for various events and corporate events.”

First season a success
The conclusion of the season also gave league officials a chance to review what made the league a success in its first year in downtown Utica.

The league averaged 3,200 fans per game, which comes out to a total of 240,000 fans for the 75-game season.

“It went extremely well. I think from day one we’ve been embraced by not just Macomb County, but throughout metro Detroit. I think people have come from all over,” Appleby said.

That has created a greater interest in the city of Utica, and the city’s mayor, Jacqueline Noonan, said local businesses have thrived because of the crowds visiting this summer.

“I think overall it’s been a marvelous asset. It’s been an extremely good use of two brownfields, the parking lot and the stadium itself,” Noonan said. “There’s no question it’s been an economic driver to businesses in the area. Generally from a 5- to 10-mile radius, we’ve heard good reports.”

Noonan said those reports include businesses of all industries reporting a 10-35 percent increase in revenue this summer as opposed to previous years.

“I feel the symbiotic relationship will continue to grow; there will be more activities the city will use the stadium for. I see it as a real destination,” Noonan said. “My entire 29 years in office, I’ve worked to create events and activities in an ambiance that is family friendly. I feel this ballpark is the epitome of family friendly.”

High-quality baseball
In addition to being an off-the-field success, league officials were also pleased with the on-field product.

The league saw five of its players get signed to Major League Baseball organizations, and the quality of play should continue to improve as the league gains more notoriety with college coaches nationwide.

“The best part about the baseball was that it continued to improve from the first game to the last game, and that is the mark of our finishing school,” Appleby said. “Our philosophy is to make every single kid better, and not just play the games. I have to say we made every single player quite a bit better.”

With the league adding a fourth team, league General Manager Brian Berryman will be tasked with finding a new crop of players in the offseason.

For its current players, Berryman said the league is making individual decisions on who it will try to retain for next season.

“Some guys will age out or play their way out. That’s the ultimate goal, to get more guys more opportunities to move on to the next level,” Berryman said.

Berryman said he is traveling across the state this month to meet with college coaches and players. There is also another tryout next spring.

“There was still some uncertainty because we were a new league, and everyone wants to see the caliber of play before they start recommending guys, so now we’ve proven ourselves. It’s a matter of fostering those relationships and getting the guys who are highly recommended by MLB teams,” Berryman said. “The scouting never stops.”