Contrary to popular perception, not all athletes have it made.
As anyone who follows pro baseball is aware, it's a long, long way to the top. Minor League salaries can be charitably described as "barely adequate," and players have to cut corners any way they can in order to make ends meet. This is especially true in the lower levels of the game, where players are often just out of school, new to the country or both.
Enter host families.
Throughout the Minor Leagues (especially in the short-season circuits), players often have the option to save on housing expenses by living with a host family. Essentially, these families "adopt" a player for the summer -- providing him with food, shelter, and often, a much-needed sense of belonging. Yes, this is essentially a charitable act, but the families receive much in return. Inevitably, they are baseball fans first and foremost, and by allowing a player into their homes they greatly increase their connection to the game. Rooting interests are intensified, and in many cases, lifelong friendships established.
Host family programs vary by team and parent organization (some Major League clubs eschew these programs altogether, opting for hotels, apartments, and when available, dormitory-style living arrangements). But what they all have in common is the desire to create an ideal symbiotic relationship from which all parties involved can benefit.
The Price Is Right
Vancouver, much more than most Minor League towns, is expensive. So when the cosmopolitan Canadian metropolis obtained a Class A Short-Season Northwest League franchise in 2000 (the Canadians, natch), it immediately became apparent that a host family program was needed.
"It's not a normal situation here. You can't just go on Craig's List and get an apartment," said Canadians director of ticket operations Jason Takefman, who also administers the team's host family program. "An apartment is going to cost $1,300 a month. So players love having a host family, because it gives them security. A lot of them are homesick, and they immediately have someone to take care of them and cheer them on.
"And let's face it -- the players don't want to think when they're not playing. They have so many things going on in their lives; they're trying to impress scouts, to impress their coaches, to show they can compete at this level. They don't want to have to worry about doing the laundry and going food shopping."
The Canadians recruit host families using a variety of methods, but Takefman says word-of-mouth remains the best and most effective tool.
"We're like anyone else in that we like to hire from strong referrals," he said. "This is an extension of our community relations program, and we consider our host families to be team ambassadors. Once they start doing it, you'll find that they start referring to the team as 'us.' They truly become a part of the team.
"And the players and parents get along famously," he continued, citing Nick Swisher, Jeremy Barfield and Rich Harden as satisfied past participants in the Vancouver host family experience. "The families will continue to keep tabs on 'their' players, visiting them in Spring Training the following season and things like that. We've had players invite host families to their weddings, even use them as references on mortgage applications."
The job of matching up players with host families is no easy task, however.
"We have to get as much information about both parties as possible," said Takefman. "Is a player allergic to cats? Allergic to nuts? One of our families recently had the basement redone, and the ceiling is now only 5-foot-9. I said to them, 'Look, you're going to end up with a utility guy, maybe a second baseman.'
"And maybe some families will ask for a pitcher, because they want to cheer on their player but can't go to every game. But no one seems to want the coaches, though. It's because you can't cheer for a coach."
A Trend on the Rise
Jenny Hoover's official title with the Williamsport Crosscutters is director of client services, but one of her duties with the club is coordinating the host family program. With the season slated to start in a week's time, now is a very busy time of year.
"This isn't like going to the ASPCA and picking out a new puppy, there are a lot of things to consider," said Hoover. "When the players arrive [in mid-June], they spend the first couple of days in a hotel. During that time I try to find matches for them. ... And these players really must talk to one another [in Spring Training], because a lot of the times they seek me out right away and tell me who it is they want to be matched up with. They'll say things like 'I heard about such-and-such family, where the mom is a really good cook. Please get me in there.'"
The CrossCutters' program started with the team's booster club, and as it grew the team eventually took it over.
"Last year, 12 families participated, and our goal this year is to be able to host every player on the team," Hoover said. "We try to get the word out to the community each year through newspaper ads, and we'll hold meetings where people can come out and get to know other people who are doing this. It's sort of like a support group, where you hear about the good and the bad."
While the "good" definitely seems to outweigh the "bad" when it comes to host families, there are many potential problems. Like any arrangement that throws unfamiliar individuals under the same roof, there is always the potential for conflict and misunderstandings.
"The families have to let players know what their rules are, so that everyone is on the same page," said Denny Madigan, director of community relations for the Vermont Lake Monsters. "We did have one occasion where a family had a player who was disrespectful, who kept on breaking house rules. And the family finally said 'Enough, you're on your own.' He then had to stay in the team hotel at $50 a night."
Fortunately, such incidents are few and far between.
"The families love it," said Madigan. "We haven't had someone do it one year and then next year say they can't."
Curiosity Becomes Tradition
One of the Lake Monsters' most dedicated hosts is Freda Tutt, who has welcomed a player into her home every year since 1995 and now helps the team coordinate their program.
"[In 1995], my son and I were going to a lot of games, and at one point during that season they made an announcement at the stadium that the team was looking for host families," said Tutt. "And my son seemed to think that hosting a player would be like winning the lottery. ... He was like 'Mom, we have to do this!'
"So I called the front office, and we ended up with Juan Rosado. He was from Puerto Rico and served as the team's translator because he spoke both English and Spanish. ... He shared a room with my son, who had a bunk bed. Juan was on the bottom bunk, my son on the top. Juan would take out the trash, put the dishes away ... he was a real member of the family."
Since then, hosting a player has become summertime ritual in the Tutt family.
"It's a great way for us to be introduced to people from all parts of the country," she said. "I have 'baseball sons' from California, Washington, Puerto Rico. Hosting players is a microcosm of society, in that they're from such different backgrounds and family situations."
Tutt may be in the minority, however, when it comes to her willingness to host coaches. She has housed current Washington Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein, among others.
"It's nice to sometimes have an adult conversation at the dinner table," she said. "With the players, sometimes their telephone will be ringing or they'll leave their hats on."
But at the end of the day, such transgressions mean very little.
"I think the way [host families] feel is that if we had a child playing in the Minor Leagues, we would want someone to do this for our kid," she said. "Once you're a parent, you're always a parent."
Another experienced host is Rick Miller, who has accommodated 17 Orem Owlz players over the past four seasons.
"I have three basic rules," said Miller, who is married with four children. "Obey the team's rules, take your shoes off when you're inside the house and always give your host mom a hug goodbye. ... If it's past curfew and a coach calls looking for one of his players, I'm just going to put the phone up to the pillow. I'm not going to cover for you."
Miller is able to offer fairly luxurious accommodations, by host family standards.
"[The players] have the reign of the basement," he said. "It's a family room with a big-screen TV and its own bathroom. We could handle four easily, but my wife prefers two. ... The first year we did it, it was just something we decided to try out at midseason. By the time the playoffs had rolled around, we had five players living downstairs."
The Millers enjoy following their "boys" as they climb their way up the Minor League ladder. Last season, the family hosted Roberto Lopez, whose .400 average led all of professional baseball.
"[Lopez] calls us to see how our kids are doing," said Miller. "But even the players who don't do that, we're still in touch. Recently, I noticed that one of the players we had hosted had gone 4-for-4 the night before. I sent him a text message to say 'congratulations' to let him know we're still watching."