United at the shores: A look at the model for modern independent baseball

Volcanoes Stadium will officially begin a new chapter next week as the host of the Mavericks League — a four-team, independent, amateur baseball league where all contests will be played at one site from May to September.

“It seemed like a setup that could work for us, especially with COVID-19 complications. If we keep everything centralized here at Volcanoes Stadium, we eliminate travel and we can make accommodations for players better,” Mavericks League CEO Mickey Walker said. “Ultimately we decided that this was the best path. Once we started to get the pieces in place, we realized that this could be really special.”

The idea of an independent baseball league playing every game at one site might be a new one to Northwest baseball fans, but according to Walker, the Mavericks League is attempting to model their product after the United Shores Professional Baseball League (USPBL), which is located in Utica, Mich., just outside of Detroit. 

The USPBL was founded in 2016 by Andy Appleby, who is the league’s CEO and former senior vice president of the Detroit Pistons. The four teams (Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers, Eastside Diamond Hoppers, Utica Unicorns, Westside Woolly Mammoths) play all of their games at Jimmy John’s Stadium, a $12 million, 4,500-seat venue that was built specifically for the league.

It didn’t take long for the league to become a hit in the local community. In 2019, the season before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 62 of the league’s 75 games were sellouts, including a record attendance of 4,926 people who attended the championship game.

Katie Page, director of public relations with the USPBL, believes that the exponential growth the league has experienced in their first five seasons is due to not only the play on the field, but the emphasis on promotional events — such as nights that featured the ZOOperstars and the Budweiser Clydesdales.

“We have a different promotional event every single game night, whether it be fireworks, concerts or other special events. We are an entertainment venue as much as we are a sports venue,” Page said.

While there are open tryouts for the league before the season, the USPBL also has people on staff that are in charge of recruiting players. A majority of the players are between 18 and 25 years old and are either undrafted or recently released from playing Minor League Baseball.

Since the league was founded, 36 players have gone on to sign professional contracts with Major League Baseball (MLB) affiliated organizations, including Randy Dobnak, a right-handed pitcher who became the first alum to reach the MLB when he made his debut with the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 9, 2019.

“We consider ourselves a developmental league. Our goal is to get them to the next level,” Page said.

One of the keys of getting their players looks from MLB organizations is that the USPBL streams all of their games on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and a number of their games get picked up by — the Twins never scouted Dobnak in person but signed him based on seeing at his performances on YouTube.

When the pandemic rocked the country last spring, the vast majority of the sports world stood still. But the USPBL still found a way to play a modified season in 2020.

After the league put together a 172-page return-to-play guidebook with health and safety measures, the USPBL was able to begin their season on July 4 weekend, making them the first pro baseball organization to return to play during the pandemic.

While the league was limited to having just 100 fans in attendance, Appleby elected to upgrade the broadcast for the fans watching at home, going from one camera to four cameras and using established on-air talent to call the games — which resulted in an average of more that 10,000 views per game.

The USPBL ended up completing their three-month season without having to lay-off many full-time employees.

“Players did a great job of taking everything seriously and following the protocols,” Paige said.

In 2021, with restrictions loosening and more fans returning to the stadium, the USPBL is bringing back their promotional events to the field for every game.

“Our biggest thing is being able to bring the entertainment back,” Page said. “Families are our main demographic and our goal is to bring a Disney-like atmosphere into the stadium.”

While the two leagues will look incredibly similar, one of the main differences will be that the Mavericks League will not be paying their players — USPBL pays their players on average between $600 and $800 per month. The Mavericks League will instead be working with an agency to provide players jobs during the season — both leagues provide host families for players.

Another difference is that the Mavericks League will be playing on Thursday-Sundays while the USPBL plays a more flexible schedule.

Even though the Mavericks League will be operating with limited fans in the stands to start the regular season due to COVID-19 restrictions, Walker is looking forward to seeing how this new product is embraced by the Keizer-Salem community.

“I am over-the-moon excited for the season. This has been a long time in the making. We feel like we are on the brink of something that has so much potential,” Walker said.

The Mavericks League is still looking for seasonal employees for the upcoming season. Those interested in applying should contact Sam Evans at 503-390-2225 or at [email protected].