UTICA — On a chilly evening in early May, a capacity crowd at Jimmy John’s Field warmly welcomes the starting lineup of the home team.
A herd of Utica Unicorns sprint out of the dugout, one by one, surrounded by the theatrics of smoke and loud music. The club’s skipper quietly joins them on the field, slowly ambling up the steps.
Dressed in the same bright purple and red trimmed uniform as his roster, Jim Essian waves to the fans when his name is announced. At 66, he is nearly three times the age of those he manages, with a career in baseball that commands their respect and represents the path they want to follow.
“I’m out here doing this to have fun and also to teach these young kids,” Essian said prior to a May 19 matchup with the Westside Woolly Mammoths. “This is a great setup, and hopefully I can help some of my players to get signed by affiliated teams. The job is not so demanding physically, there’s no travel, and I only have four games a week.”
One of four franchises in the United Shore Professional Baseball League, the Unicorns compete with the Mammoths, Eastside Diamond Hoppers and Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers. The squads provide an opportunity for players who recently finished college to hone their skills as they aspire to make it to the majors.
Essian has plenty of experience to share with a résumé in the sport that spans over four decades. One of 13 children born and raised in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood of Detroit, he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies at 18. After succeeding in the minors, Essian made the big-league roster at 22 and spent the next 11 seasons in Major League Baseball, serving as a catcher for the Phillies, White Sox, Athletics, Mariners and Indians.
After retiring as a player in 1985, he immediately went to coaching, helming independent league teams before leading affiliates of the Chicago Cubs. In 1991, he took over in the Windy City, serving as the manager of the Cubs.
“Jimmy brings a big-league résumé to our league as both a player and a manager,” said Chris Newell, the skipper of Birmingham-Bloomfield. “Certainly the league benefits from having him, and I know I certainly have. He’s a baseball lifer and thoroughly enjoys teaching the game.”
Following his stint in Chicago, Essian guided teams in the Expos and Yankees organizations before retiring to Troy. He spent 15 years working a “normal” job as a financial adviser, watching his three children graduate from Troy High.
In 2010, he managed the Greek National Team, a squad that placed fourth in that year’s European Championship, earning a berth to the 2011 Baseball World Cup. He went on to lead an independent team in Fort Worth, Texas, to a first-place finish before hearing about the USPBL.
“I was retired, and then the game brought me back. I retired again, and then this thing popped up,” Essian said. “I thought I would be a good addition to what they are doing here, and they agreed.”
Essian spent the league’s inaugural season as an assistant with the Hoppers. After Utica won the title, its manager stepped down to pursue other opportunities, leaving a spot open that Justin Orenduff said Essian was perfect for.
“He obviously has the experience necessary for the job and adds even more credibility to whatever team he leads,” said Orenduff, who is the USPBL director of baseball operations. “He has great demeanor and goes about his business in such an efficient way. He already knew how our schedule worked and our philosophy, so he was able to step right in. The players responded very well to him.”
Orenduff remarked that Essian will help in a variety of ways, especially aiding the mental approach of his young talent. Utica outfielder Brendan Rawe and pitcher Donny Murray agreed, praising their coach.
“You can tell he’s been around the game for a really long time, at every single level,” Rawe said. “It is reassuring to have him as a manager, because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s very consistent, never getting up or down, keeps us even-keeled. He knows what it takes to get to the highest level, and he’s going to help us get there.”
“He has great stability and leadership,” Murray added. “He’s there to help us go about our business and stay on top of us to make sure we’re doing that. It’s not an overwhelming feeling at all. At the professional level, that’s the balance you want to help you succeed.”
One of the league’s top pitching prospects, Murray tossed a no-hitter last season and took the mound for the league’s opening day. Utica’s ace said he relishes getting a chance to work for the same man who managed the likes of Greg Maddux in 1991.
“I love pitching for him because of the way he handles himself, the team, everything,” Murray said. “He knows what he wants from players, expecting the same things from when he was in the major leagues. As a pitcher, you want to go out there and do well, so when I get that good feedback from him, it is really reassuring.”
Both players admitted that Essian will crack jokes in the clubhouse, keeping things loose. When asked about his approach in helping the Unicorns on their hopeful journey to the majors, he reflected on how the league serves as a perfect place for the twilight of his own career.
“I am definitely more patient now than I ever was,” Essian said. “This is supposed to be fun; this is not managing a minor league team for the Cubs or Yankees. It is not so serious or competitive, and I can focus on their instruction. As long as they’re on time and play hard and don’t miss signs or have base-running mistakes, then I don’t have to yell too much.”