Housing ballplayers makes families feel like part of the team

Bill Nelson, center, laughs as he chats with Colorado Rockies players Julian Yan, left, and Zach Jemiola while dropping the pair off at Suplizio Field for baseball practice. Lewis and his wife Nancy are the host family to the two players.

Who’s your boy?

That’s mine, one says. Playing second base. Who’s your boy?

The question is flung around the right-field seats during the Grand Junction Rockies’ June 14 exhibition game.

And the banter continues, Grand Junction Rockies host families pointing with pride to players on Suplizio Field, identifying the newest members of their family. They are their boys.

Sidni Arney is peering out from behind the green railings that divide the right-field and first-base sections. Her Canon camera snatches and stores long-term memories. Now she zooms in and snaps high-shutter-speed shots of Ben Waldrip sliding into second base. That’s Arney’s boy. A 6-foot-6, 245-pound “boy” selected in the 10th round of the 2012 draft.

Waldrip will turn 22 on June 27. That’s about the average age of the Grand Junction Rockies players who have recently been welcomed into their host-family homes — home base for the next three months. And, in a sense, beyond.

“I still keep in touch with some of the (host) family members I met,” said Eric Young Jr. of the Major League Rockies. “To this day, they’ve seen me from a 19-year-old boy to a 27-year-old man.”

Boy. They come from as far as Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, some of whom wrap their teeth in braces and await their “freshman 15” pounds.

The host families pick them up at the airport, take them home, indulge in small talk and give the players their expectations. Usually, it’s as simple as no smoking and no drinking.

On Thursday, June 14, Doug and Cheryl Olson sit at an Ale House table during a Rockies’ meet-and-greet, awaiting their order. Nearby, Rockies players form a long, black-and-white-pinstriped line that trickles toward pizza and chicken wings.

The Olsons’ two children are grown and out of the house. Six years ago, they hosted players in Casper, Wyo., and have accepted the Rockies’ Chris Cowell and Jordan Mejia into their home.

“It’s an opportunity to be part of something bigger,” Cheryl Olson said. “Like having an extended family.”

So, when they heard the Rockies needed host families, they called General Manager Tim Ray at the Grand Junction Rockies’ office. Filling out a questionnaire, the Olson’s said they’d like to host one player — two if needed. After completing a background check, the Olsons completed a quasi-adoption.

The Olsons knew Rockies manager Tony Diaz from their season in Casper.

“They’re great families,” Diaz said of the Olsons as he walked by their table. “Good is an understatement.”

Part of being a great host family means, of course, gobs of grub — the Olsons have stacked their fridge with chicken, hamburgers, bratwursts, fruit, rice, pork chops, and so on.

Nancy and Bill Lewis of Grand Junction had three empty bedrooms, season tickets and baseball gusto. Housing players, for them, is yet another way to get into the game.

“We’re committed to the success of the team,” Bill Lewis said.

The Lewises are hosting pitcher Zach Jemiola and outfielder Julian Yan.

“We do feel like part of the team,” Nancy Lewis said.

Forget fantasy baseball. This is reality.

“The interesting thing is seeing how far both go,” Bill Lewis said.

The new Lewis family consists of the Grand Junction residents for 31 years and two baseball players. One is Yan, a 21-year-old from La Romana of the Dominican Republic.

“They treat us like part of the family,” Yan said, taking a break from his pepperoni pizza. “I feel comfortable. I haven’t seen the house yet, so it will be fun.”

Ray said the Casper Rockies began the host-family program when they moved to Wyoming in 2001. Ray said there are no host-family programs at the Rookie League level in Billings and Missoula, Mont.

There, he said, “They stay in hotels.”

But Ray said he thinks the host-family program is critical at the rookie-ball level.

“Especially for 19-year-old kids who graduate from high school and come here with this unbelievable baseball talent,” Ray said. “All of a sudden they have new responsibilities pressed upon them. Being able to call a place home is a responsibility off their shoulders. It’s a mom-and-dad backup.”

And the effect a host-family program has on the community is immeasurable.

Arney said the pictures she was taking during the exhibition were for Waldrip and her 11- and 15-year-old sons. “A keepsake for the boys,” she said.

She now has three boys. The youngest cannot stop thanking their mother for the oldest. And players in this situation are, indeed, role models.

“Sunday night (Waldrip) wanted to help with dinner,” Arney said. “And my 11-year-old (Jadon) said, ‘Mom, what can we help you with?’?”

The newest boy, Arney said, is a keeper.


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