by ELENA DURNBAUGH
The crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. Warm sunshine. The sleepy, contented pace of an inning that can burst into a frenzy with a single pitch. For many baseball fans, the sport is synonymous with summertime.
Summer returns to Jimmy John’s Field in Utica with Opening Day for the United Shore Professional Baseball League on Friday, May 11.
Four teams make up the league and call the field home — The Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, the Eastside Diamond Hoppers, the Utica Unicorns, and the Westside Wooly Mammoths. The teams face off every weekend from May through September in what USPBL owner and CEO Andy Appleby calls “the best weather Michigan has to offer.”
The Beavers will look to defend their championship title in the season opener, a rematch of last year’s final game against the Wooly Mammoths.
“Opening Day is always super fun,” says Justin Orenduff, executive director of baseball operations. “The energy is going to be big.”
USPBL teams rosters are comprised mostly of top college players passed over by the MLB draft and players released from major league organizations. The league serves as a developmental training ground for players who want to make it to the big league.
In addition to baseball, fans can look forward to giveaways, face painting and live music from American Band on Opening Day. A new bat-dog, JJ The Field General, will also make his debut. JJ spent 14 months training for his position in the ballpark. The night will end with a fireworks show.
The 2018 season is only the third year of competition for the USPBL, but it has already had some big success. In the first two years, 20 players from the league have signed MLB contracts.
“To have 20 players is really a fantastic thing,” Appleby said. “Most would not be playing baseball today if not for the advent of our league.”
Some of that success can be attributed to the one-of-a-kind development program the league has for its pitchers. The Delivery Value System, or DVS, is a model and scoring system built on statistics to measure pitching delivery and assess individual risk in pitching a baseball. The system was developed by Orenduff, who was a pitcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization before becoming involved with the USPBL.
DVS helps pitchers improve their shoulder motion and recovery time. Orenduff said they’ve seen a correlation between improved DVS scores and higher velocity throws, something essential for pitchers in today’s major league.
The USPBL is the only league currently using this system. “Because the league is independent, we have the ability to put these things into use and keep building on them,” Orenduff said.
Pitcher development is not the only area of innovation for the USPBL. Jimmy John’s Field contains “every good idea I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” Appleby said.
The park boasts suites 30 feet away from the catcher, the closest in baseball, as well as summer picnic areas right on the field. The park can seat 4,500 fans per game, but has only 2,000 seats in the grandstands, giving the games an intimate feel.
“Every day is a party there,” Appleby said. “Every seat’s a great seat.”
The field has new areas for fans this year, including a beer garden and a new deck over the lawn.
Jimmy John’s Field and the USBPL have built a reputation as being family and community oriented. Located in Utica’s historic downtown, the field has brought new development to the area. The organization has won numerous awards, including the 2017 Phoenix Award for Community Impact.
More than 600 charities have leveraged USPBL and Jimmy John’s Field for fundraising. The field has also hosted campouts for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, family movie nights, and different community festivals.
Moving forward, the league hopes to grow in size and prestige.
A second stadium is in the near future. A new ballpark will mean a chance to expand the number of teams competing in the league and replicate the success they’ve had in Utica. Appleby expects there to be more details within the next six months.
This year, ESPN3 will feature some of the USBPL’s games as a part of the network’s “Game of the Week” series. Ten games will be broadcast across the country, giving the league and its players exposure on the national level.
“That was a great milestone for us. We’re becoming more and more legitimate,” said Appleby of the TV spot. USPBL is the only professional baseball organization to feature games on ESPN3.
The league is anticipating a sell-out crowd for the season opener, and excitement and energy will drive the season forward.
“We want to create that energy in year three that we can bring forward into 2019-2020 and potentially to a new site,” said Orenduff.
The season starts with the first pitch thrown out at 7:05 p.m. Tickets are still available online at uspbl.com and prices start at just $6 for a seat on the lawn.