USPBL utilizing space and time

By: Timothy Pontzer | Shelby - Utica News | Published July 13, 2017


UTICA — On a sunny mid-June afternoon at Jimmy John’s Field, Alex Abbott delivers a home run. 

A utility man for the Westside Woolly Mammoths, Abbott’s shot over the right field fence increased his club’s lead over the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers.

As players and coaches exited the dugout to congratulate him on the hit, the ballpark remained quiet. 

The Mammoths won the United Shore Professional Baseball League contest 12-1, but not a single fan rose to their feet throughout the entire game.

The reception was not surprising. Except for a handful of league staff and the players themselves, the stadium was completely empty.

This is the norm each Tuesday and Wednesday in the USPBL, with “closed” matinee affairs being held. The league opens its gates on Thursday through Sunday, drawing large crowds. Last year’s inaugural season featured 42 sellouts. There have been 23 this season at press time, all before the All-Star break. 

The league’s commissioner, Andy Appleby prides himself on what he calls the “holy grail” of scheduling. The four-team association starts in May and runs until early September. Potential chilly temperatures of April and October are avoided while weekend evenings and Sunday afternoons better allow families to attend.

However, with the creation of the Mammoths as the USPBL’s first expansion team, Appleby and his staff had to strike a balance of business and baseball. While the fan experience is paramount to the bottom line, the group wants to be billed as a “finishing school” for potential players and getting enough innings pitched and at-bats is crucial for a call-up to a major league organization. Instead of extending the season in April or October and flirting with poor weather, the league decided to utilize the “closed” games.  

“These games are another example of the altruistic example of this league,” Appleby said. “We run the scoreboard, hire umpires and provide everything necessary to run a real game. There is still quite a bit of expense in doing it, but it shows that we’re thinking about these kids and we really want them to improve.”

There’s no ceremonial first pitch, anthem or flyover, even the usual walk-up music for a batter is absent, resulting in a quiet stroll to the plate for the players.

“With our league structure, we had to make certain concessions because we had the fourth team, but we obviously wanted to still have a certain allotment of games for the players,” said Executive Director of Baseball Operations Justin Orenduff. “This makes sure that each guy gets the necessary number of reps needed to improve in a game setting.”

Along with the Beavers and Mammoths, the Eastside Diamond Hoppers and Utica Unicorns each will play 52 games. Only 75 total contests are open to the public, but Orenduff stressed the need for those extra games along with additional practices.

Each Tuesday and Wednesday the two teams not competing in the afternoon meet for a joint morning practice. Orenduff and his assistants work on fundamentals tailoring specific drills and exercises to improve on areas of the game where he feels improvements can be made.

Orenduff said those morning sessions can are just as important as any game.

“I told the guys, if I go hop in a Prius and drive 50,000 miles, even if I push the pedal down it’s not going to turn into a Ferrari,” Orenduff said. “Guys can go out and play 50, 75 or 100 games, but if the stuff isn’t getting better it doesn’t matter. Being able to determine what someone needs to showcase for that higher level is the key.”

A former pitcher selected in the first round of the 2004 MLB draft, Orenduff takes pride in improving the league’s young arms. A recent example is Hoppers pitcher Devin Alexander who saw his average velocity rise from 84 to 88.8 in a single month, with a fastball touching 91.

“I really feel like these days on Tuesday and Wednesday allow for guys to improve their game,” Orenduff said. “The guys that have felt the improvement like it and guys on the fence just want to play so it may not matter. I know some guys like being able to step out and look at the crowd, feeling a part of the show. But even though that’s not there this is a proven strategy for these guys to get better, with the practices and games.”

MLB scouts have also utilized the convenience of the Tuesday and Wednesday setup, getting a chance to see half the league practice in the morning and the other half compete in the afternoon. Despite the lack of a crowd, the USPBL’s prospects know its still a stage filled with opportunity.

“It is a lot more quiet, but it’s definitely not harder to get psyched for,” Mammoth pitcher Jared Gaynor said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of game I get to pitch in, if I’m facing hitters and there’s a win or loss on the line, I’m going to give it my all whether there are fans or not. We obviously prefer the fans, but at the end of the day, it still counts towards our stats and record.”

Gaynor’s skipper Shane McCatty echoed those thoughts.

“I definitely like the games more with the fans because it gives everyone an extra bit of adrenaline and it’s more fun across the board,” McCatty said. “It’s just part of the job and you adapt to it. Some of these guys played rookie ball or some minor league games with no fans, but other guys coming right out of college initially find it to be weird. They all realize that it ultimately gives them the reps they need.”

The unique approach has paid off already, with two Beavers signing contracts with MLB organizations. Third baseman Alex Maloney inked a deal with the Chicago White Sox June 24 and pitcher Kevin Matthews agreed to terms with the Atlanta Braves June 29. Overall, the USPBL has seen 16 players move on since the league’s inception last year.

“For me personally, the game is the game and whether it’s a sellout or there’s nobody here, I want to win the game and make sure these guys are getting better,” Beavers manager Chris Newell said. “With the fans, it’s electric and the players certainly feed off it. I always want a full house, but we have jobs to do and if these guys need fans here to motivate them, they’re in the wrong business, because they’d better be motivated by the game itself.”

Newell credited his club and the league’s players overall for treating both the open and closed games the same.

“I haven’t noticed much of a difference in compete level, in fact I’ve had a few guys thrive and gain confidence because they work on some specific things when perhaps the pressure isn’t there of being watched,” Newell said. “Then they can take that confidence into the games with fans and build it up even further. This is a beautiful ballpark and Appleby has done a wonderful job of putting together something that’s never been done before. That includes having all four teams under one roof and having these games to make sure the guys get a chance.”

Thinking to the future, Appleby believes a barren ballpark will not be a necessity.

“We won’t need to do these closed games when we expand to multiple stadiums,” Appleby said. “At the moment we need the games to make sure our players are getting what they need, but once we have more facilities, every game will be open to our fans.”