The state of Michigan has always enjoyed a rich history in sports. Multiple championships over the years from the Detroit Red Wings, Pistons, and Tigers captivated the city’s attention and hearts, while the love-hate relationship with the Lions continues.
But beyond the glory of the professional athletes and teams that have become household names, there are factions that serve as a stepping stone towards achieving the goal of playing professional sports.
The United Shore Professional Baseball League was the culmination of the vision of Andy Appleby, who is the former senior vice president of the Detroit Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment. He’s owned both a Class A baseball team in Fort Wayne, Indiana as well as the Derby County Rams, an English professional soccer team.
Minor league baseball wasn’t exactly a thing around metro-Detroit, and he set out to change that. So far, it’s worked out tremendously well, and it continues to get better. Four clubs now occupy Jimmy John’s Field in Utica – the Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, the Eastside Diamond Hoppers, the Utica Unicorns, and the newest team, the Westside Wooly Mammoths. Each team will play a full 50-game regular season schedule.
Affordable family fun was at the forefront of the initiative for the USPBL, as well as the league serving as an opportunity for players to be noticed by MLB affiliated minor league teams.
The word continues to spread around the state of the USPBL, and Andy was good enough to take some time with Detroit Sports Nation to talk about some of the exciting events coming up at Jimmy John’s Field, as well as how the entire process started.
Michael Whitaker: We certainly appreciate you taking the time to talk to Detroit Sports Nation about the USPBL!
Andy Appleby: We’re so excited for the new season. We throw our first pitch two weeks from this Thursday, and it’s amazing it’s come up so quickly. We had a fantastic first year, but this year we think that we can even exceed expectations even further and improve on every facet of our operation and every facet of our baseball side.
MW: For those that don’t know, how exactly did the idea of the USPBL come about?
AA: Well, I’ve been in the business of sports management at a high level for 30 years, and I had 12 great years with the Pistons and Palace Sports and Entertainment. I left to try and start the next great company, and I started General Sports 19 years ago. The first thing I did was put together a group of investors to buy a minor league team in Fort Wayne, IN. I fell in love with minor league baseball – it’s a wonderful entertainment platform. Great baseball and affordable family fun, I just thought it was a wonderful platform. At that point it started to hit me that although minor league baseball has been successful at other places, we’ve never had it here in Detroit. After about eight or nine years, we put it all together and we built the great ballpark in Utica.
I can literally market our players to all 32 teams, who have different needs and wants. By virtue of having open communication, that’s what took us from our goal from 1-2 players that have been signed up now to 12 players signed.
MW: What are some of the short/long term plans of the USPBL?
AA: Right now, short term is the introduction of our fourth team called the Westside Woolly Mammoths. We just got our mascot and we’re all excited about it. We’re hoping to have a fantastic season and with further growth in attendance and then hoping to have at least as many or possibly more of our players signed by major league organizations. We have had 12 players signed from this year and we’re hoping to have even more next year.
MW: What is it you love most about the league?
AA: I love everything about this because it really gave me a chance to use every good idea I’ve seen or done in the world of sports management on both sides of the ocean. This was just the culmination of the first part of my career, but from my perspective, I’m at virtually every second of every game. There’s almost nothing better than positively influencing everything about the ball park but also just seeing all of the positive influence we have with families across metro Detroit, as well as the ability to work with charities to raise money. Last year we had over 500 charities raise money at the ballpark and this year, I’d be surprised if we don’t have 3,000 charities to raise money. All of which I’m super happy about.
MW: What is it you’re doing to make sure the fan experience is a good one?
AA: We have a suite for instance that’s right behind home plate – literally only 30 feet, which is the closet in baseball history. We have open air private cabana suites, nothing like that has been done before. We netted the entire ballpark only with the finest kevlar invisible netting, which is better than several major league parks because it’s new technology. Just several other little things that were part of the whole process. We moved the dugouts down a little bit, and we also re-located our summer picnics right on the field. In most minor league parks, you have your tents in the back 40 and they can’t see the game. Our summer picnics are right on the field, so you can have your company have a summer picnic and they can also all sit together in high tables with umbrellas.
MW: Are there any special promotions that fans can look forward to?
AA: Oh yes. There’s everything from Star Wars Days to Family Day. We have Kids Day every Sunday, and we have fireworks every Friday night. We have live music on Saturdays and nine classic rock bands as well as four country bands on Saturday nights. We have Heritage Nights on Thursdays, such as Greek, Italian, Polish, and German, and we also have lots of bobblehead giveaways. We have Thirsty Thursdays featuring Chick-fil-A and discount beer. And then, of course, one of the fan favorites is that kids get to run the bases after every single game.
Andy Appleby is certainly proud that his vision has resulted in the successful realization of what he sought to bring to metro-Detroit: affordable family fun in the form of a well-run baseball league.
The USPBL 2017 schedule officially kicks off May 11 with a tilt between Birmingham-Bloomfield and Utica at 7:05 PM. It will be the first Thirsty Thursday of the year, and fans in attendance will receive a championship mini-flag.