AVON — Players on the Lake Erie Crushers — or any minor league baseball team, for that matter — don’t make a whole lot of money.
The top salary in the Frontier League is $1,600 a month. And most teams are run on shoestring budgets, which makes it difficult to provide adequate housing for the players.
To help, the Crushers have turned to the community and asked citizens to open their homes for a player, sometimes two. Or, in the case of North Ridgeville’s Herb and Carla Sill, three players.
Host families are rewarded with some perks from the team, like free season tickets, free parking and gifts during an on-field ceremony during one of the final home games. But hosts say their reward is so much more than that.
“It’s the greatest reward you could possibly have,” said Carla Sill, who became a host “mother” two years ago and, along with her husband, have hosted six players in their home this year. “Yeah, there’s times you get woken up in the middle of the night when they get home late. The grocery bill’s a bit more than normal. But I’d say give it a try.
“I know a lot of people have asked me about it, and they’re on the fence, for whatever reason or the other. If they’re on the fence because it’s a strange person, it doesn’t take but a couple days of getting to know someone before they become family. They truly are family. You build relationships that last. It makes you so proud to see your guys doing well on the field.”
The Sills hosted two players in 2013 and now host pitchers Todd Kibby and Zach Gordon and infielder Joey Burney. Only Kibby has been with the Sills all season — Gordon and Burney were midseason acquisitions by the team.
“It takes some great people to open up their homes for us, not knowing who we are and not knowing what kind of people we are,” said Kibby, who is the Crushers’ ace of the starting staff. “It takes great people, and I got blessed with Carla and Herb. I’ve had great host parents over the years of playing ball, and they’re at the top of the list. They’re great people.
“It takes a lot of guts to be able to do that. You have to be a strong person to welcome a stranger or two into your home and treat them like you would your own kid.”
Sue Mabry, a retired teacher and mother of two adult daughters, originally put in to become a host when the team formed in 2009. Back then, the number of people who wanted to help was so overwhelming that folks like Mabry and the Sills were put on a waiting list. Now, however, there is no waiting list and some families have been asked to take on multiple players.
“I thought, as a teacher and as a mom, if I could help a young player out, I’d be all about that,” said Mabry, who lives in Elyria and has been a host for three years. “That’s the number one question everyone asks me — why do you do it, and what do you get out of it? Basically, if you didn’t like baseball, you probably wouldn’t be interested in doing anything like this.
“It’s kind of like having a foreign exchange student. I have had one from Germany and I’m getting another in two weeks from China. I’m kind of retired from teaching, so this is a way for me to do another kind of teaching. You form relationships with the player and his parents and they become a second family.”
Mabry hosted first baseman Russell Moldenhauer the previous two years and would have hosted him this year. However, just a few hours after he arrived from Texas, he was informed he was traded to Joliet for pitcher Zac Treece.
In a logical swap, Treece not only took Moldenhauer’s spot on the team but also inherited Moldenhauer’s host mom and his room.
“The host families are a big deal for us because, when we get off the field, it’s nice to have some place to go and relax and just feel at home,” said Treece, one of the Crushers’ best starting pitchers. “It’s kind of like your home away from home. They welcome you and they’ve got food for you. They’re really doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. It really makes you feel like home.
“They’re like our second parents. It’s not like they’re getting any benefits out of this. Yeah, they get free tickets to games, but that pales in comparison to the stuff they’ve given us. They really have no idea how much they’re helping out.”
Mabry still keeps in touch with Moldenhauer regularly, while Treece said he still maintains a relationship with the host family he had last season when he pitched for the Gateway Grizzlies. Carla Sill said she is Facebook friends with two of her former players.
Crushers’ first-year general manager Rick Muntean said he’s blessed by the 20 families and one retirement home that have volunteered to become hosts for his players this year.
“I think it’s an addiction, I really do, because I don’t see many dropping out,” Muntean said. “Now what ends up happening is they really get attached to a kid, and I’ve heard this happening three times this year, where they say something like, ‘If I don’t get Trevor Longfellow, I’m not gonna do it.’ And then he’s not on the ballclub and they wind up dropping out. But most of the time, they can’t wait to do it again and develop a new relationship with a new player — at least that’s what they tell me.
“We usually have about 20 families. Some, and we are very fortunate for them, wind up taking more than one player. I’d like to get one player per household to kind of make it fair for everyone. The Sills at one point had three players and loved it. They have their own reasons for that. If you have the space and you don’t mind that much, I bet you’d have a fun summer. Most of the time, it’s one. Frequently, it’s two. Rarely, it’s three.
“We can always use host families.”
Muntean urged anyone within a half-hour radius of the stadium in Avon to contact the team at (440) 934-3636 and inquire about the host family program.
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.