11 September 2013

Life in the Minors: A Home Away from Home

Photo: Nate Delong
Since the minor league season has now come to a close, players will find themselves doing one of three things.  They’ll either get called up to the big league club as a part of the expanded rosters in September, get assigned to play in a fall instructional league, or they’ll head home for the offseason.  Almost always, their offseason home is nowhere close to the towns where they play, which leaves them in a position to secure temporary housing during the season.  If they have enough money, they can opt to stay at a hotel nearby or even rent an apartment (if they’re lucky enough to find a short-term rental).  However, most minor league ball players weren’t given a large signing bonus out of the draft, and take home only $1,200 per month in salary during the season, making hotel/apartment living extremely uneconomical, even if a player stays in one spot over the entire season, which doesn’t happen very often.  Including moves involving the disabled list, the Orioles made over 90 minor league transactions between March 28 and May 1 earlier this year, so if you’re a player in the minor leagues, chances are at some point during the season you’ll find yourself in a new city, with virtually no advance notice of the move.   Finding a suitable place to live can be difficult if you’re a normal person.  Finding a suitable place to live if you’re a minor league baseball player sounds essentially impossible.

Enter Mel and Barbara Roberts.  Mel and Barbara are residents of Davidsonville, Maryland and have been married for 43 years.  For the last 13 years, they have been hosting Bowie Baysox players as they progress through the Orioles minor league system.  I met and spent a lot of time with Mel and Barbara last year while I worked as a Video Intern for the Orioles, since their season tickets were right across the aisle from my favorite spot to take video from behind home plate.  When I returned to a game this year as a spectator, they were kind enough to talk with me about their experience.

The players live with Mel and Barbara during the baseball season, normally for about 5 months until the season ends.  Over the years, they will normally host 2-3 players at a time, but have had up to 6 at one time sleeping in their home.  As a reader, I’m sure the first question you’re going to ask is the same question they get asked all the time (it was my first questions as well):  “Have any of the players you’ve hosted made it to the major leagues?”  The answer to that question is yes, as 9 of the ballplayers they’ve hosted have made it to the highest levels of their profession.

As you can imagine, after hosting players for 13 years, Mel and Barbara have seen every type of personality come through their doors.  They say that most of the time, the players they host will initially tend to keep to themselves.  However, after spending some time with Mel and Barbara, the players will begin to open up and most become less reserved.

When I ask them about their favorite story involving a player who they hosted, they talk about a young, easy-going prospect from California who was called up to the major leagues when he was just 19 years old.   According to Mel, he was notorious for leaving personal items unsecured around the house.  Mel and Barbara’s dog Chase was just as notorious for getting into anything that wasn’t secured.  After the player was sent back down to Bowie, Mel found Chase running around the house with a baseball that was, due to the dog, all scuffed and generally in pretty bad shape.  Upon closer examination, Mel noticed there was something else on the ball, an inscription that stated, “1st Major League Win”.  What that player had worked his entire life to achieve, Chase had added his personal touch in an afternoon.  Despite stressing the importance of keeping valuables away from the dog, it didn’t much matter, since they later found the dog playing with a baseball signed by Andy Pettitte, as well as another ball signed by Hank Aaron laying around, which was luckily untouched.

Typically, when a family is looking to host a player or vice versa, the team’s booster club will find a match for the two parties.*  However, in Mel and Barbara’s case, they were originally contacted by an international player’s agent to see if they would be willing to host his player.  While they can’t remember how the agent got their number, they began hosting players following that phone call, although they never did host that particular player the agent called about.   As the teams make their transactions during the season, they’ll sometimes gain and lose house guests.  Back when they first started, they would never know what player (or what type of person) they were getting until the player arrived.  However, after hosting for so many years, they say the situation regarding new guests kind of polices itself, where current or former players they’ve hosted help decide whether a new roommate would be a good fit in the house.

And while you may think that having 2 to 6 baseball players between the ages of 20 and 30 living with you will greatly affect your daily routine, I was assured that that was not the case.  In fact, Barbara mentions that even when the team is in the middle of a homestand, she and Mel could go several days without seeing the players due to their vastly different schedules.  Often times, the players leave for the ballpark around 1:00 PM, only to get home sometimes well after midnight.  Whenever their paths do cross, Mel and Barbara do their best to just let the players be themselves and only discuss baseball if the players want to talk about it.  They insist this is one of the more important aspects of hosting, since they have seen firsthand how much pressure these players are under, especially with the stakes being so high.

To ease that pressure, Barbara does her best to make them feel at home (several times during our discussion Mel affectionately referred to her as “Mother Theresa” for the way she catered to the players).  While Mel and Barbara are not required by the team to provide any food or amenities for the players they host, Barbara makes sure to keep the pantry filled with any type of food they request.  She surprisingly claims that most players are extremely careful about what they eat, and for the most part do not want anything to do with junk food, which is in stark contrast to the diet of a normal adult male in their twenties.

While Mel and Barbara assure me that overall it has been a very positive experience over their 13 years, it hasn’t always gone smoothly.  While most issues they’ve encountered have been minor, there was one instance when they needed to throw a player out.  They didn’t elaborate much why, and they didn’t need to.  It’s their house.  As someone who was frequently told “as long as you live under my house, you’ll follow my rules” while I was growing up, it’s understandable. My whole life I’ve tried to find a suitable comeback for that statement and have come up empty.  I was, however, surprised to hear that there was an issue with ONLY one player over the entire 13 year span.

As for minor league groupies, I was disappointed to hear that they don’t have any crazy stories involving them (I personally don’t know if minor league groupies exist, but if they do, they haven’t made their way to Mel and Barbara’s household).  They do see their share of wives and girlfriends though, as they’ll usually come and visit for about a week.  The additional guests don’t pose a problem for Mel and Barbara, and they actually enjoy meeting them, as well as having them around.

Through the 13 years that they’ve been hosting young men playing for the Bowie Baysox, they’ve made relationships with many that will last a lifetime, and their stats back it up.  They have travelled all over the country to attend five weddings and graduation ceremonies for players they previously hosted.  They have even driven two prospective fathers to the airport, so they can catch a flight home to see their children being born.

Despite all of the ups and downs, Mel and Barbara insist that their experience has been overwhelmingly positive, but it isn’t always easy.  On an annual basis, they will often see these young men sacrifice so much, only to come up just short of reaching their dreams of playing in the major leagues.  Additionally, Mel and Barbara receive no benefits from the Bowie Baysox or the Orioles for opening up their doors to complete strangers who face constant competition in a high pressure job.  However, despite not getting any monetary compensation for their generosity, they claim that the greatest benefit is getting to know the players they host on a personal level and seeing a different side of them than what the casual fan will see on the field.  That may not sound like much, but when you hear the way Mel and Barbara talk about it, you can tell that they mean it.  It’s obvious that there is truth in what they say, just as it’s obvious they love what they do for the players.

As for any future hosts that may be reading this article, they have some advice they would like to share with you.
  1. Try to make it comfortable for the players, this experience is new for them as well;
  2. Give them a place where they can get away from the stress of professional baseball;
  3. Keep the atmosphere loose and casual; and
  4. Most importantly, let them be themselves.
Mel and Barbara don’t seem to be showing signs of quitting their hosting gig anytime soon.  And as long as they keep going, I’d bet they’re at the top of the list of places to stay for minor league baseball players who spend their summers in Bowie, Maryland.

*If anyone is interested in hosting minor league ball players in upcoming seasons, please contact your respective team’s booster club.


Anonymous said...

Great story, great people.

Unknown said...

Great, great piece. I follow the Twins' system pretty diligently, and have met a couple people who have hosted players. Very selfless people,

Unknown said...

Our son has been fortunate enough to be one of the minor league players living with Barb and Mel for the last 2 seasons. It has meant so much to us to know he has a second family looking after his physical and emotional well being. They are wonderful people and we are so lucky our paths have crossed.

Jon Shepherd said...

Oh, hey. My nephew loves Chris. Back in 2011 during a game in Frederick, he gave my nephew a scuffed baseball in the bullpen area. It meant the world to him and left him speechless.