I don't play baseball. At least, I haven't in many years. Aside from some short Little League stints a decade ago and a little church softball, my not-so-chiseled arms have swung a bat about as many times as K-Rod has pitched a clean inning for the Tigers. So when the United Shore Professional Baseball League (USPBL) invited me to partake in their tryouts alongside aspiring professionals from around the country, I was naturally all too eager to showcase my “talents.”
The USPBL offers far more than your run-of-the-mill independent league for both fans and the players on the field. Just ask Chairman Andy Appleby who told us all about it in a DSN exclusive interview. While the fan experience is second to none, it's player development that the USPBL prides themselves on and what really separates them from the pack.
The goal is to be a gateway to The League. With a whopping 13(!) players scooped up by Major League teams last year, that goal is becoming a reality.
Ross Vance, signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, might be the most promising of all. The hard-throwing lefty has already made it to AA ball where he's yet to give up a run in two innings of work. An out shy of 13 total minor league innings this season, Vance sports a 2.13 ERA courtesy of a blank scoresheet, sans just one subpar outing.
Justin Orenduff and his Delivery Value System (DVS) deserve a large share of credit for developing these young players. Orenduff, who oversaw the tryout, comes with Big League pedigree as a former first-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers. After his own career was cut short, in part, by injuries, he developed the DVS to maximize pitching performance while minimizing injury risk.
Technology and training systems like the DVS are just one of many ways the USPBL is staying ahead of the pack to maximize talent. Their training and coaching methods rival and even surpass many minor league teams with MLB affiliation. After an incredible firsthand experience, I saw for myself why Major League scouts like the Pittsburgh Pirate's Mal Fichman were in attendance at the tryout. Speaking of…
Trying out for the USPBL
What was it actually like though? BORING! I kid, I kid. The first hour was slow but that's expected when over a hundred prospects are checking in and being sorted for day one testing. I didn't know yet, but I would soon learn why so many aspiring players were willing to fly in from around the country and then fork over money just to get in the door.
The first day of the three-day tryout took place indoors at the 2SP Sports Performance (2SP) complex in Shelby Township, a short drive from Jimmy John's Field where USPBL games are played. This kept us out of the nasty rain that persisted all day and provided state of the art facilities for testing.
I stretched and tried to stay loose with the others while we waited. I chatted up many of the same players I'd be “competing” with a short while later. They came from all different backgrounds. Some were returning USPBL players, others at the close of their college baseball careers. Some hadn't played since high school and at least one had never played organized ball at any level but reeked of potential.
Skill level varied greatly as I would see in person. Some looked like they belonged on MLB rosters, others like they would struggle to make upper echelon high school teams. Regardless of experience or ability, everyone shared a common goal.
One thing was especially clear. At 5′ 8″ and 145 pounds, I was a lot smaller than most of the hopefuls. Despite my pint-sized stature, most of the guys thought I was just another ballplayer – at least for awhile. Although my aspirations were not the same, it felt cool to be vying for exposure along with everyone else.
The Warm Up
Eventually, we made our way to the turf where Orenduff and Chris Newell had their say before putting us through warm-ups. Newell, USBPL's Birmingham-Bloomfield Beaver's manager, was especially animated when talking about everyone's potential. Probably because he wasn't the one going through warm-ups.
I may not be overweight but no amount of weightlifting is a viable substitute for running. It's been cold in Michigan, OK? I was tired by the time we finished stretching. After the multitude of field-length drills we went through, I was ready for lunch and a nap. I didn't look out of place but I'm sure I would've tested dead last if they were tracking stamina via heart rate.
60 Yards of Embarrassment
After warm-ups, I reported with the catchers. I looked even smaller among that group but there was less of them so I didn't mind. The first real testing was our 60-yard sprint times. 2SP has a fancy laser setup to get the most accurate times possible which is pretty cool unless you'd like to blame human error for subpar times.
While I was never much of a baseball player, I was a proud track athlete in high school and had enough ability to compete at a high level. Catchers generally aren't the fleetest of foot and I felt somewhat confident.
Somewhere along the line, I forgot just how much training went into those track times. I couldn't maintain top speed for even 40 yards and experienced slight quad cramping to boot. After failing to break seven seconds in two tries I sauntered back, pride in shambles, knowing that was my best chance to impress.
At least I wasn't the slowest.
After running us near death, it was time to test our hitting mechanics. This was a two-parter. The first was for ball speed. Hit a ball of a tee as hard as you can while a radar gun measures its velocity. Simple stuff. Less embarrassing than running a 60.
The second was a simple live batting practice session. Stand in a net and try not to whiff as baseballs are tossed at the plate. Scouts and managers alike paid close attention to these sessions and would often interrupt to offer advice and ask questions. Mechanics, fluidity, and contact were the currency here.
After an inexperienced hitter with obvious potential finished an inconsistent session, Chris Newell, and Pittsburgh Pirate's scout Mal Fichman took him aside and then into an open practice area to work with him one on one.
It was fascinating to watch the two at work. Newell was blunt and to the point, as he tried to make adjustments in approach and swing. Fichman was more relaxed but things grew interesting when he became at odds with Newell's approach – at one point telling the hitter to ignore Newell and set up how he was prior. Two great baseball minds were working at the same goal but were both looking for different things. I hope to see that young hitter in the USPBL this year, bonus points if it's for Newell's Beavers.
When I finished in the hitting area, Fichman himself actually called over to speak with me. My heart skipped a few beats. Had he seen something promising in my swing?
“How long does it take you to get your hair like that?”^^^ For reference, this was me
I laughed out loud and I wasn't alone. He didn't seem to fully believe me when I told him about 45 seconds.
A Pitcher's Paradise
After a break for lunch, pitchers reported for position specific testing. Four coneys later, I was fully rejuvenated and ready to impress.
This is where Orenduff's DVS comes into play. The first part of testing is all about the range of motion (ROM) and safe flexibility. They use a device to take measurements while holding your arms at different angles and coupled with the data they collect during each pitcher's throwing session, they determine what mechanical adjustments are needed to maximize efficiency, performance, and most importantly, injury prevention.
After ROM testing is finished, pitchers went to the field in groups of eight to warm up by essentially playing catch. The field had four mounds set up and catchers for each. The first was essentially a practice mound to complete warming up. The second, strictly for fastballs. The third mound was for off-speed stuff and the last for a full session.
The last mound was where all the important action was. There were multiple cameras set up to record each pitcher from every angle. Scouts and managers sat behind a protective screen behind the catcher to watch intently and record pitch speed on a radar gun. That was the most important showcase for pitchers and where the remaining DVS data was collected.
I took my session just like the rest of the lot and it was probably my favorite part of the tryout. Although there was zero expectation, I was oddly nervous when I stepped on the mound. I knew, of course, my DSN colleagues would be curious to the results but more than that, I didn't want to embarrass myself. I have never pitched or had formal instruction but I still wanted to look like I knew what I was doing.
The catcher had to stand to catch my first pitch. Center plate, but certainly a jittery out of control throw.
My third was straight into the turf a couple feet in front of the catcher like a K-Rod curveball. I laughed. In a way, it calmed me down and I relaxed a bit. I threw a few fastballs with acceptable command after and even mixed in a changeup.
I don't think the USPBL will be calling me to the mound anytime soon but it was fun.
For the curious, my 4-seam fastball hovered around 58 mph. With horrendous mechanics, I'll take it. Orenduff insists that number can be bumped quite a bit with his DVS and some proper coaching and I believe it. It's a shame they're not having me do an article on that.
My pitching experience concluded the events of day one and I headed over to talk with the USPBL managers. They're all fantastic baseball minds, really driven to help these players get to the next level.
Contrary to his blunt teaching approach, Newell is laid back and after hours he's full of jokes. Talking with Paul Noce, Jim Essian, and Shane McCatty, their pride in what the USPBL is doing shines through and I can't imagine a better group to head the league's teams. The Eastside Diamond Hopper's, Utica Unicorn's, and Westside Wooley Mammoth's managers, respectively, were all encouraged by what they'd seen and excited for day two.
With basic testing out of the way, it was time for baseball. Real baseball. A little chilly but otherwise a beautiful, sunny day awaited us at Jimmy John's Field where the rest of the tryout took place.
I saw Fichman immediately as I walked onto the field.
“Still doing that to your hair, huh?”
Yes, I was.
After a less rigorous warm up than the prior day, position players took the field. Outfielders were tested on their ability to field, hit the cut off man, and make long throws to the plate. Infielders were worked in many game scenarios and asked to showcase their ability to command the essentials like turning double plays.
A batting net was then brought to furnish home plate for an on-field version of the batting practice everyone took part in on the first day. Those in groups that weren't yet hitting stayed on the field to, well, field.
Once again, I was given the opportunity to showcase my talent and impress the scouts.
Something tells me that lackluster form isn't going to cut it but just like pitching, it was fun.
I hit a couple into the outfield to make up for the couple I whiffed on. A lot of weak fouls and grounders let me know just how far I am from professional status but maybe Orenduff can help with that too. Regardless of ability, I know after a couple weeks with the USPBL, every player will be in better standing than where they started.
After my uninspiring batting display, they prepared for live games. That's where I took my leave from the field so the real athletes could make their case to the scouts and managers in attendance.
I watched for awhile as a hopeful group of possible future Major Leaguers tried to make all their work pay off. I saw Fichman taking notes and Newell hollering some pointed instructions. I tried to take it all in but kept thinking about the last thing Orenduff said to me.
“Watching these guys right now is nothing. The real story is watching them develop over the course of the season and their time with us. The player they'll be in a few months is nothing like the player they are now and that's what the USPBL is all about.”
We can all watch that progress ourselves when the USPBL's 2017 season gets underway Thursday, May 11th at 7:05 P.M. with Newell's Beavers taking on the defending champion Unicorns at Jimmy John's Field.
Between the unparalleled fan experience and unique on-field product, you can bet I'll be watching plenty myself this year. That is, of course, if the Unicorns don't call me up first.