When Andy Appleby had the idea to start an independent professional baseball league, practically in the shadows of the Detroit Tigers and Comerica Park, there were more than a few snickers and crooked eyebrows, mostly from the media.
The skepticism subsided, and much of that can be traced to one man, former major-league player and manager Jim Essian, a native Detroiter who gave the United Shore Professional Baseball League instant credibility when he signed on as assistant coach for Year 1 in 2016.
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” said Justin Orenduff, the USPBL’s director of baseball operations.
“People respect him.”
Essian, 70, quickly moved into a manager’s role, and eventually became the league’s chief scout, not just filling his own roster for the Utica Unicorns, but also much of the other three teams’ rosters, too. This weekend, he will go for a third consecutive league championship.
Utica plays in the final at 1:05 p.m. Sunday at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, against an opponent that will be determined during playoff games Friday and Saturday.
Essian gives his championship rings to his grandkids. He has six.
“So,” he said with a laugh, “I’ve gotta win some more.”
Winning is nice, to be sure, but that’s not the point of the USPBL, nor has it ever been. The league is an independent, but it prefers the term “developmental” instead.
In Year 1, 2016, it wasn’t the easiest task to find players. Now, recruiting his still a key part of Essian’s job, but it’s definitely gotten easier, given the USPBL’s impressive if surprising track record — it has sent 45 players on to sign contracts with major-league organizations, including one, right-handed pitcher Randy Dobnak, who made it to the majors with the Minnesota Twins, and recently signed a $9.25-million contract.
Dobnak was one of Essian’s recruits. Essian knew him from his time at a small college in West Virginia. Essian’s son played with Dobnak there.
Dobnak never was drafted, and when Essian reached out to inquire about what he’d been up to, Dobnak told him he was driving an Uber. Essian got him to Utica, for $400 a month, and he was signed by the Twins within a matter of weeks.
Four USPBL players were signed this season, all by the Twins. Essian recruited three of them.
Essian said he’s not surprised by the success of the league — it sold out 30 games this season and is expected to sell out all the games this weekend, Appleby said, after being limited to 100 fans a game in 2020 because of COVID-19, and has drawn more than 1 million fans since launching, first with three teams, now with four. There continues to be talk of expanding into other markets.
Essian has been surprised by the players’ rise.
“I didn’t know we would be sending so many players to major-league organizations, but I was experienced at managing all through the minor leagues and major leagues, in Europe, in Puerto Rico, and there are good players out there,” Essian said. “You just gotta find the good ones and coach them up.”
Essian’s resume is long and impressive. A three-sport star at the old St. Martin on the east side of Detroit, he was committed to be a running back and linebacker for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. That was until the Philadelphia Phillies offered him a $40,000 bonus and incentives (including school money if he wanted to return), and he jumped at it, quipping he didn’t want to lift all those weights at Michigan.
He ended up playing parts of 12 seasons in the major leagues, as a catcher, for the Phillies, Oakland A’s, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners. He retired as a player in 1985, and began coaching, in the minors and majors, eventually replacing Don Zimmer as Chicago Cubs manager in 1991.
He coached or managed for more than 20 years in the minor and major leagues, before retiring after the 1996 season. He had a new baby on the way, and decided being a financial adviser was a smarter plan.
More than 10 years later, he got involved with Greece’s national baseball team, managing. And 10 years after that, he heard about the USPBL, was intrigued and applied, and he’s glad he did.
“It was a hard transition, but it was the right thing to do at the time,” Essian said of leaving affiliated baseball in the 1990s. “And I had no tremendous desire to get back in anymore, because it’s hard work.
“But when they opened up the stadium (Jimmy John’s Field), I saw an opportunity there.
“I knew I could add some experience and expertise. And it’s been great.
“We really love coming back to Michigan,” added Essian, who winters in Florida, and spends a lot of his summer spare time at his place on Higgins Lake, north of Houghton Lake.
The USPBL, to be sure, is glad to have him, and plans to create an award in his honor, perhaps as soon as this championship weekend, Orenduff said.
It will be recognition for all the above-and-beyond work he’s done.
The job description for USPBL manager when Essian got the job was pretty simple, Orenduff said: Communicate the expectations to players, and maintain a competitive team on the field. Essian has taken on so much more — scouting, recruiting, working with host families, helping players secure a hotel or a car in times of need (usually out of his own pocket).
No wonder players want to play for him.
“He does it all,” Orenduff said. “He definitely gives his time and he loves the players.
“He’s been instrumental in probably one of the biggest key factors — helping us create a culture.”
Essian doesn’t hit the road much in his role as director of scouting. He relies on a Rolodex he’s spent decades bulking up, from major-league scouts to college coaches, and everywhere in between. In the offseason, the USPBL will work on a list of players to target, mostly graduating college seniors who might not get drafted — and that list has increased in recent years, as the Major League Baseball Draft has been cut down, in 2020 to just five rounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic (with no minor-league season in 2020, multiple MLB franchises actually send recent draft picks to work out with the USPBL), and this year to 20 rounds due to the elimination of several minor-league franchises.
Then it’s often Essian who’s on the phone with college coaches, and eventually undrafted players, selling them on the idea of playing in Utica.
It’s a slightly easier process than it used to be, for starters because of the success of the league — which specializes in technology and analytics, as well as science-based fundamentals through Orenduff’s revolutionary Delivery Value System — in getting players signed elsewhere (“The common goal is for each player to get out of our league, and to the next step, Orenduff said). But, also, there’s more available talent.
Orenduff, who also brings a major-league-caliber pedigree as a former first-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers, estimates between 65 and 70% of players in the USPBL are signed by Essian.
“Well, it’s been great. It’s a great experience,” said Essian, whose 2021 Unicorns are led by ace right-hander Zack Jones (The Citadel; 3-1, 1.02 ERA) and Drue Galassi (Western Illinois; eight homers, 27 RBIs). “With our technology and the experience of the staff, we’ve been able to do some really good things.”
USPBL championship weekend
Where: Jimmy John’s Field
Schedule: 7:05 Friday, Westside Woolly Mammoths vs. Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers; 7:05 Saturday, Eastside Diamond Hoppers vs. Friday’s winner; 1:05 Sunday, Utica Unicorns vs. Saturday’s winner.
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