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Living with the Captains: A Look Into the World of Host Families

Living with the Captains: A Look Into the World of Host Families

| On 25, Jul 2013

When you walk into Helen and Bill Collins’ house, you are drawn to the collections of photographs that fill their living room. Photos of boys in sports uniforms populate the shelves. However, only some of these photographs are of the Collins’ blood family members. Many others are remembrances of the numerous players that the couple has housed during their time as a host family for players on the Lake County Captains.

Their basement is filled with bats, baseballs and collages of the previous players, as well, players who have become a part of the Collins’ family in more ways than just being shown in memorabilia on the wall.

T.J. McFarland used to play catch with our grandson,” Helen said of the time the current Baltimore Orioles pitcher spent with her family while playing in the Indians system. “He still sends him all his old gloves.”

The same type of bond formed between Marc and Joyce Shack and the first player they had live with them for about six weeks during the 2011 season, knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright. Although Wright is now with the Red Sox, he’s still close with the Shacks.

“We have a lifelong relationship with Steven,” Marc said, adding that he and Joyce travel to watch Wright pitch when he is nearby. They maintain such a strong relationship, in fact, that Wright secured them tickets to a game in Cleveland in which he pitched for Boston.

The couple was invited back to Wright’s hotel after the game to meet some of the Red Sox, an experience it is obvious the Shacks treasure.

Helen and Bill treasure similar memories, such as when pitcher Chris Archer invited them to his Major League debut with the Rays, which happened to be in Cleveland. The couple was invited to sit in the section of the stadium traditionally reserved for families of players — and it’s evident that these players do, in fact, consider their host parents their families.

“We truly enjoy them,” Joyce said of the players she and Marc have hosted. In addition to Wright, the couple currently hosts Lake County pitcher D.J. Brown, and hosted pitcher Josh Martin before he was promoted to High-A Carolina.

For many young players in the minor league baseball system, the time they spend with the Low-A Lake County Captains marks one of the first times they have really been away from home. Players who are drafted directly out of high school, for example, have not had the college experience of living apart from their family for an extended period of time.

While some players choose to use their time in Lake County as an opportunity to live in their first apartment and try out the world of adulthood, a number of players still desire a more sound and structured environment — a place more like the home they have left behind.

Many people are not familiar with the idea of host families for baseball players, as the Lake County Captains host family program has not been operating officially for very long. What started as a family here and there housing a few players for a season has grown into a legitimate part of the Captains organization. However, the program is still not nearly as well-known as the Captains — and current host families — would like it to be.

Helen and Bill were an integral part of the host family program in Lake County, an effort that started accidentally in 2008 during the Indians spring training in Florida. Helen described meeting a few young players in the Indians organization and, upon their arrival in Lake County, she invited them over for breakfast or lunch throughout the season.

Though the players, Archer, Joey Mahalic and Ryan Morris, lived in apartments, they made it a point to stop over for food every now and then and spend time with the Collins family. When the team made it to the playoffs in 2008, however, their apartment lease did not take them into the post-season, which lead to a phone call to Helen.

“They said, ‘We have a favor to ask, and you can say no!'” Helen remembered. “They asked if they could stay with us for two or three weeks during the post season, so we said yes.”

The next season, the Indians moved their spring training to Arizona, and Helen and Bill continued their annual visits to watch the pre-season action. 2009 brought them into contact with McFarland and Josh Judy, who became the next two players to stay at the Collins’ household during their season in Lake County, along with repeat player Mahalic.

Around 2009 or 2010, it was suggested to Helen and Bill that they should talk to the Captains about the work they were doing as host families. Up until then, the Collins had been operating on their own, with no official affiliation with the team.

“People told us that we should tell the Captains what we’d be doing and at least give the players the opportunity to be part of this,” Helen said. “We were getting these guys by referral.” The Captains agreed that a program such as this was needed, so they pulled out the bylaws, and thus began the official Lake County Captains host family program.

“Helen and Bill were really the driving force behind this program,” Lake County Captains Finance Director Rob Demko said. Although Demko and the Captains are the ones in charge of the program now, they still rely on input from the Collins when figuring out the best way to operate and promote the program.

“We recruit in two ways,” Demko said. “We contact families and we also have families contact us.”

Demko said that the Captains work to get the word out about the host family program through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

“We also mention it at our annual Hot Stove Dinner in January,” Demko said, noting that those in attendance at the Hot Stove Dinner might be strong prospects for the program because they are “fans of the Captains and people who may be around the area.”

The organization always is looking for more families who would be interested in hosting, Demko said. The only real obligation families in the program have, he explained, is to provide players with a rent-free place to stay.

“They don’t receive a stipend,” Demko said. “Families are not required to provide players with meals or food. The Captains do provide families with tickets to games, though.”

Demko noted that, although families are not required to give the players anything other than a place to sleep, most go above and beyond with accommodations. Players frequently return from road trips at 2 or 3 a.m., and although they are not obligated to, when players don’t have cars, their host families frequently pick them up from the field in the middle of the night.

Helen proved that sentiment, describing the way she and her husband treat and house the players who live with them. She cooks them breakfast, has a cabinet of snacks for the players, and does their laundry — though they do have to bring it upstairs for her themselves.

The players who live with host families express their appreciation for the amenities granted to them. They extoll the virtues of their host parents, how grateful they are for the extra step these families take when housing them. Players who have shifted from living with host families to living in apartments miss the comforts of a home they found when with host families.

Francisco Lindor, who lived with the Collins last season, enjoyed his time so much he allegedly asked if he could live with them again if he found himself in Akron this season. However, Helen said he probably soon would realize the distance between Eastlake and Akron is quite a hike.

Many of the expectations the Collins hold for the players that live with them are similar to rules any parent would have for their sons.

“We haven’t had to set many rules,” Helen said. “We don’t lend them our cars and we don’t allow girlfriends to spend the night.”

The Shacks have similar thoughts on how the players that live with them should act, and have had no problems yet with the few that have lived under their roof.

“We don’t really have rules,” Marc said. “We haven’t had any problems, so we haven’t reached that point.”

Joyce added the players who have lived with them have been extremely helpful. Martin, she said, would do his dishes after meals and cook for himself when he needed to. The Shacks also describe Brown and Martin as never overstepping boundaries in the house or taking liberties.

“We were wary of housing other players after we had such a great first experience with Stephen,” Marc said. “But we knew we had to trust the Captains and the team; they wouldn’t ask anyone to house someone they would know would be a problem.”

When Martin was called up to Carolina, the Shacks bought him a congratulatory gift of Oreos, which they had learned was his favorite snack. Martin shared his appreciation for the family on Twitter, expressing how highly he thought of them.

Although housing multiple players in their late teens and early 20s might sound like the equivalent of being house parents in a dorm of freshmen boys, both families have described their experiences as being nothing of the sort. Demko echoed this assessment, saying the attitude of players is the biggest misconception people hold about the program.

“People think that the players are crazy or difficult to house, but it’s usually the complete opposite,” Demko said. “When you look at their schedule, they’re here for a week and then they’re gone on a road trip; they’re really only here for half the summer. It’s easy for families to continue their typical schedule. And the biggest misnomer is that these guys are wild and crazy. But these are the guys who do not want to be living in the apartments — those guys are the more social ones.”

Misconceptions such as this may be a reason Lake County is struggling to find host families for their program. Players are looking for a place to call home during their months away from their families, a place that will welcome them when they get back from a long road trip. Demko also expressed the need for families to host Spanish-speaking players, who do not always get placed in host families due to the small number of volunteering families who feel comfortable housing foreign-speaking players.

“Host families provide a sound, structured environment for these players,” Demko continued. “It gives them a nice place to stay. This kind of atmosphere makes it easier for them to navigate the world of professional baseball. It can be consistent and comforting.”

The Captains are always looking for more host families to be part of their program. Interested individuals should contact Demko at RDemko@captainsbaseball.com or can call the Captains at (440) 975-8085 and ask for Rob.

Photo: Submitted by Helen Collins