Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
UTICA, Mich.-During his final season with UMHB baseball in 2022, Malek Bolin took center stage every time he walked to the plate.
His 15 home runs as a fifth-year senior helped the Fort Worth native surpass the program record for homers in a season, previously set at 26 by Josh Fredrick in 2012. Bolin closed his career in Belton with 33, and his power-hitting has continued to draw attention in a four-team league in the heart of Michigan.
Bolin is in his second year in the United Shore Professional Baseball League, better known as the USPBL. And in that span, he has established himself as one of the league’s leading hitters, heading into the All-Star break with a USPBL-best 14 runs batted in and tied for second in home runs, with three.
His numbers have been so good that he was selected as an infielder for the USPBL All-Star Game on July 8th, his second straight season with an All-Star nomination. Not to mention he will also be hitting in the USPBL Home Run Derby, competing against five other sluggers.
“I’m pretty pumped to be in it,” Bolin, who plays for the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, told True To The Cru via phone recently. “It’s really fun to play with some of these other guys in the league.”
Uniquely, the four-team league conducts a draft of the group of players selected as All-Stars, meaning a player like Bolin, who plays for the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers, could end up on a roster composed of nobody else from his same team. It creates opportunities for players to get to know each other better in game situations, especially since most of the time, they’re in opposite dugouts whenever they’re on the same field.
“It’s fun to pick their brains in a game situation,” Bolin said of getting to know players on other teams. “You can do it in practice, but they’re not going to give you everything. Once you really play with them is when you really get to know them.
“Sometimes, you come away thinking, ‘Okay, that guy is cooler than I thought. Like, sometimes he might seem a little standoffish, but once you’re on a team with him, he’s pretty cool. It’s cool to play with those different guys in the league.”
But he won’t just be there on Saturday enjoying the experience. He makes good use of his time spent alongside the best pitchers in the league, and takes mental notes on their various approaches to facing different batters. Notes that will help him succeed against those same pitchers in the second half of the season.
“Last year when I went to the All-Star game, that was my biggest thing. I wanted to talk to whoever the best hitters were, and whoever the best pitchers were. I wanted to learn how they were trying to get me out, and I took that information into the second half of the season.
“I had some success, because I figured out ‘These guys are trying to get me out on these specific pitches. I’m going to try to attack them before they get to that [pitch].”
Bolin says the 2023 version of the league has similarities to last year, but one major difference lies in the pitching.
“That’s where they’ve separated themselves from last year,” he added.
Made up of several former small-college standouts, Bolin is not alone in being a D-III alum within the USPBL. Based out of Utica, Michigan, the league features a handful of former D-III standouts, as well as players who spent time in the NAIA, junior college, D-II, and D-I ranks. Burle Dixon, who currently ranks third in the league in batting average, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2019.
“I think the biggest difference between the ASC and here is that every pitcher here is like the Friday night starter for a team in the ASC,” Bolin said. “And that goes through the bullpen too. Everyone here throws low-90s, or high-80s, and they have four pitches that they can throw for strikes at any moment.”
Amongst the independent professional leagues in the United States, the USPBL is one on the rise. Despite being relatively new–having been established by Andy Appleby, former senior vice president of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons in 2016–and having just four teams, the league has caught on amongst the baseball community in and around Detroit. In fact, at one point last season, the league reportedly was drawing more fans than the nearby Detroit Tigers of major league baseball.
“The stadium is extremely nice,” Bolin said of Jimmy John’s Field, which serves as the stadium for all USPBL games. “It may not be the nicest playing surface I’ve ever played on, but definitely the nicest stadium.”
And there are other aspects that separate the league from some of the others in “indy ball” currently operating.
For example, live bands are often brought in to play on the stage beyond right center field, and in addition to playing a 30-minute set before the first pitch, will also play between innings, adding to the atmosphere.
Players have often jumped at the opportunity to join the league, considering 50 players have departed its ranks over the last seven years and signed with major league organizations.
And for fan appeal, the USPBL utilizes a “sudden death” extra innings format that resembles that of football.
After the first extra inning is played in accordance with international tiebreaker rules, putting a runner on second base to start the inning, the “sudden death” format comes into effect if the game remains tied.
The managers of both teams take part in a coin toss prior to the start of the inning, with the manager who wins the toss selecting offense or defense. The offensive team starts with a runner on first base, and has three outs to score. If held scoreless, the defensive team wins.
It has all contributed to a rewarding professional experience for Bolin thus far. The USPBL is merely a stepping stone for most, but Bolin is making the most of his opportunity at hand in the present. And he is making the UMHB community proud while doing it.
“Last year, I felt like I was learning from the older guys,” Bolin said. “Now this year, after bouncing around a few places early before coming back here, I was one of the older guys and they were looking for me to provide a lot of offense.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself early, but once I relaxed through the middle of the season, I started playing well and leading a few categories. I’m trying not to be too worried about outcomes. It’s more about playing the game and taking it in as it comes to me.”
WATCH THE USPBL ALL-STAR GAME: