On Saturday, fans lined the outfield berms at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica as baseballs headed for the 2022 United Shore Professional Baseball League Home Run Derby.
Kids of all ages gathered on the left-field hill Saturday night, trying to catch outbursts from the right-handed power hitters, then sprinted around the outfield fence to the right for the left-handed hitters.
Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers utility player Dakota McFadden hit a record 39 home runs to win the derby, with most of his drives finding those same youngsters beyond left field. Half an hour later, everyone threw a ceremonial first pitch for the 2022 All-Star Game, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Dance team routines, free “soft balls” and video board birthday messages designed for mid-inning festivities.
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USPBL owner Andy Appleby strolled under the stands, greeting families in the pitch-level suites. With more than 33 years of sports management experience that includes the Detroit Pistons, Shock and Vipers, Appleby thinks it’s good business to welcome everyone.
“It’s a dream to see all this great crowd on a beautiful night,” Appleby said. “People always ask me, ‘How are you doing at 70 games?’ I’m like, ‘Damn, I can’t think of a better place to entertain 4,000 people every night who are as happy as can be.’ ”
Business is good for Appleby, whose summer development league for recent college grads is back to sell its 4,500-seat stadium off M-59 in Utica. Two summers ago, attendance was limited to 100 people per game by COVID-19. Appleby hoped they would continue to ease restrictions and welcome more fans, but that didn’t happen until the end of the season.
Today, the restored USPBL is still going strong and is one of Utica’s best entertainment venues. Appleby’s four-team league founded in 2016 has had an impact on the city in a way felt by the owner, ticket holders and players. With expansion still on the mind, another city could soon benefit from Disney-like Americana and the affordable family entertainment that Appleby offers.
“We really treat every game like it’s the World Series,” Appleby said. “We want to make sure everyone is having a good time. We want to be the cleanest ballpark in America, we want to be the safest ballpark, double the level of service and do it at a very affordable price.
“And through our partnerships, I can invest so much in the game itself, so when people come in, the reason we get thousands of testimonials is because people think they’re getting four or five times the value of what they pay. And in the age of $4 coffees, when do we feel that?”
Darrell Seelinger certainly thinks his USPBL experience is worth every penny. He and his wife, Janis, have been season pass holders since day one.
Five years ago, they turned their Macomb residence into a foster home. Their current guest, outfielder Drue Galassi, led and coached one of the All-Star teams, facing Utica Unicorns teammate Ari Sechopoulos.
USPBL host families receive discounts and bonus tickets for neighbors and business clients. With friends nearby and a beer in hand, Seilinger feels “like royalty” in his aisle seat every weekend. He gets excited like any child for the Friday fireworks.
“If you told someone 10 years ago that they were planning to build, in such a small community like Utica, a baseball diamond, they would be like, ‘Where are you going to put this?’ “Said Seelinger. “And yet they found a way.
“The nights I know we’re going… It gives me something to look forward to in the summer for a night out, and it’s always fun entertainment.” And these guys, they work hard, they strive to take it to the next level, and so we can’t wait to see their hard work and effort.
Seelinger has seen firsthand the impact of the USPBL on the economy of downtown Utica. He would like local businesses to thank the league by framing player jerseys on their walls.
His love for the USPBL left him devastated by empty hallways and concession stands during the 2020 pandemic season. He still thinks about it fondly. The USPBL was the first professional baseball league in America to return amid COVID-19, despite suffering a 75% drop in revenue via a shortened schedule and limited attendance.
Appleby was discouraged whenever he saw the barren children’s area on the right field line. “We even had to rope the playground, for God’s sake,” he said.
“It was like a ghost town, it was very difficult,” Seelinger said. “But we came, we tried to do everything we could to support, not just the league itself, but being a good host family, you want to be here for (the players).”
Appleby noted a positive from the pandemic season. He improved his broadcasts from one camera to four and was rewarded with around 16,000 viewers per game on YouTube and other social media. This helped retain referrals and increased player exposure.
Even with the help of Seelingers and other hosts, the venue lacked the traditional energy that comes with being at the ballpark. Westside Woolly Mammoths outfielder Greg Vaughn Jr. was motivated, but admitted the atmosphere wasn’t the same.
“Just from a player’s perspective, we dream of playing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans,” said Vaughn, whose father is a four-time MLB star. “We feed on that. It makes us happy and appreciates the reason we are here.
“The fans and the kids love us, it feels good. It’s a feeling you can’t quite describe, but it’s something you’ve always wanted and always dreamed of.
Although not an All-Star this year, Vaughn recalled his fondest memories as he took in the sights and sounds of Saturday’s contest. After the lackluster 2020 season, he saw the crowds come back strong when he won the 2021 Home Run Derby and played in the USPBL Championship game against the Unicorns. The 2022 All-Star festivities were relatively colorful.
“Every year I’ve been here it just gets better and better,” Vaughn said. “I guess the next few years will tell how much higher the game goes even higher here.”
Both Vaughn and Seelinger support league expansion, hoping to serve other communities and add to the 47 USPBL alumni signed by major league franchises. The Utica complex is filled to capacity with Beavers, Unicorns, Woolly Mammoths, and Eastside Diamond Hoppers, so a new location is in order.
Appleby said two or three communities were close to adding USPBL baseball diamonds, before the partner mayors were not re-elected and other complications arose. He would like to create at least two more teams, build a new park and be ready to play by 2024.
“I have about 10 months to complete our second ballpark, and it’s my goal to do that,” Appleby said. “I think I will.”
Until then, he can be happy to change the perception of Utica and Macomb County for the better. He likes to see Utica mentioned in most television weather reports, a sign for him that it has become a good community thanks to his help.
At the worst of the 2020 season, he wondered if families would ever return to Jimmy John’s Field. As the kids chased the home run balls through the hills of the outfield, he wondered no more.
“It’s just good that they (come back),” Appleby said, “And so I’m really grateful that things are back to normal.”
Contact Mason Young: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @Mason_Young_0