Macomb County-based baseball league connects players with SE Michigan families

Cal Coughlin has been having a blast since he came to Southeast Michigan in early July to pitch for a local baseball team called the Westside Wooly Mammoths. 

The Mammoths are one of four teams who play for the Metro Detroit-based United Shore Professional Baseball League (USPBL) at Jimmy John's Field in Utica. AtCal Coughlin this point in the season, they're leading the league in wins.  

"It's really fun right now being a Mammoth," Coughlin says. "We've only lost one game since I joined the team, so we're rolling. It's always fun to be on a winning team, and we've got a bunch of guys who grind and compete every day and show up trying to win." 

Originally from Illinois, Coughlin has been taking part in America's pastime for nearly as long as he can remember. While enrolled at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, he played for the college's baseball team but didn't play any games during his senior year, which was shortened anyways due to COVID.

After graduating in 2021, Coughlin took a break from the sport for a few years. But he eventually started playing again in Illinois for a collegiate summer league with a bunch of former pro players in its lineup. While pitching at one of these games, he ended up speaking to a baseball scout who suggested he come to Michigan to play for the USPBL.

"He said, 'We gotta get you in a better league.' A day later. [Mammoth's coach] Taylor "Jelly" [Grzelakowski] reached out to me. I headed out Sunday. It was right after the all-star break, and here I am now!"

USPBL game at Jimmy John's Field'Great family entertainment'

The USPBL is what's known as a developmental baseball league. While it's not affiliated with any major league organizations, it is intended to function as a kind of finishing school for college-age baseball players. Over the last seven years, around 50 players have graduated from the USPBL to major league teams.

"It is professional baseball," says Jim Essian, coach of the Utica Unicorns and scouting director for the league. "Our mission statement or goal is to find undiscovered talent, coach them up, and send them along to major league organizations, [though] not everybody goes to major league organizations. In the meantime, we're providing great family entertainment right there at Jimmy John's Field."

Essian, a Southeast Michigan native, certainly knows a thing or two about baseball. In the early Seventies, he was a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, later played Jimmy Johns Field in Uticawith the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, and Cleveland Indians, and eventually served as a coach and manager with the Chicago Cubs, as well as the head coach of the Greek National Baseball team. 

As for the League, it was launched by the Rochester-based General Sports and Entertainment company in May 2016.  It currently features four teams: the Utica Unicorns; the Westside Wooly Mammoths; the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers; and the Eastside Diamond Hoppers. Each of these teams play from May through September in a 42-game regular season and also participates in a mid-season all-star game and an end-of-season championship game. 

The games are played at Utica's Jimmy John's Field, which has the capacity to accommodate 4,500 fans. The ballfield has 2,000 box seats, as well as a variety of premium suites, 18 on-field diamond tables, three summer picnic/group/birthday areas, a grass berm seating area, a wiffle ball field, and a kid’s playground area. It also features a state-of-the-art scoreboard, a concert-quality sound system, and a VIP club.  In addition to the teams, Jimmy John's Field also offers special theme night events like fireworks and live music.

"I played 4 or 5 years in the minor leagues and this field is way better than those we had back then. It's a beautiful field, great managing points, very intimate," says Essian. "It's affordable, and we get nothing but good reports from the fans."

Cal Coughlin with several of the Natushkos.'A home away from home'

Beyond the games themselves, the league also sponsors a host family program that allows USPBL players who come from all over the United States and Puerto Rico to find lodging free of charge with local families. It's part of a long baseball tradition that helps players become part of the local communities in which they play. The league typically places about 35 to 40 players with local families each year. 

The program was founded by host family coordinator Sandy Wilton, a Clarkston resident who had previously hosted players affiliated with another professional baseball organization, the Frontier League. Players are placed with families in  Macomb, Lapeer, and Oakland Counties, who in turn get tickets, discounts, and a variety of other benefits for participating in the program. In order to qualify USPBL players must be between the ages of 18 and 26 and have their own transportation. Host families must complete an application and are matched with players according to a variety of preferences including how comfortable they are with kids and animals.

"Instead of paying for an apartment, [USPBL players] have the opportunity to get a host family that treats them just like a summer son," says Wilton. They take them on day trips and introduce them to their families, so it's a home away from home."

Coughlin has been staying with Steve and Sarah Natushko, a Macomb Township USPBL playerscouple whose family includes four kids and several dogs. 
"It's really great having the dogs around and having Steve to talk to before and after the games," says Coughlin. "And [his son] Luke plays baseball. Working with him on his pitching and catching has been awesome. I'm at home even though I came here to Michigan."

This will be Natushkos' fifth year participating in the host family program, which they originally found out about through their family church. During that time, they've hosted players from Tennessee, Oklahoma. North Carolina, and two from Chicago, including Coughlin. Family members have grown close with all the USPBL players, who still keep in regular contact and have introduced them to their own families. 

"It's basically like having another kid," says Natushko. They have their own routine. They go to practice. They have their games. And we go to their games because we like to cheer them on and let them know they have support."

Cal Coughlin with Westside Wooly Mammoths baseball.Hitting home runs

Coaching the Unicorns has been a wonderful experience for Essian. He especially enjoys watching the league's younger fans as they come to the dugout to get autographs and run the bases after the game. Looking towards the future, though, he'd love to see the USPBL get even bigger. 

"If we continue to have the success we're having now and it's possible to get a new stadium in the area with three or four new teams, then we can really develop, whether it's in the area or even out-of-state," he says. "Then we can really do some traveling and have some rivalries and expand what's proven to be a very popular destination for families."

After facing off against many different teams in college, Coughlin finds the experience of the close-knit four-team USBPL rather unique. After the games, he feels it's much easier to get to know and hang out with players from other teams. 

On the field, though, as the saying goes, it's a whole different ball game. And right now, focused on doing his best to help the Mammoths keep notching up victories during his team's journey to the championships in September. 

The Mammoths are currently two games up from their rivals the Utica Unicorns. While he acknowledges they are tough competitors with several championships behind them, Coughlin has faith in his teammates.   

"Our chances? I think the Unicorns are going to have a hard time stopping us," he says.

This series, made possible with the support of Macomb County, captures the stories of how residents and visitors live, work, and play in the region.
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Read more articles by David Sands.