Living as close as we do to TD Bank Ballpark, the Somerset Patriots have been a big part of our lives despite the fact we had only gone to one game in the six years since moving here in 2010. We drive past the ballpark almost every single day. When the lights are on, they can be seen clearly from our backyard. Some nights while driving home late they have served as kind of a beacon guiding us home. The team schedule is always on our minds, in particular when there are games which feature fireworks displays. This is of extreme importance to the four-legged member of our family. Our dog was so frightened one time when she got caught outside during the show that she started peeing all over the deck. Yeah, we’re that close. Every year when that last game is played and the lights get turned off for another season, there is a genuine sense of emptiness. It’s like an old friend is leaving us for awhile. It’s kind of sad, but as they say, there’s always next year.
Sometime during the second half of the season in 2016, things changed quite a bit for me. I became curious about the thousands of players across the U.S. and elsewhere who worked so hard to keep playing baseball for a living. I assumed salaries in an independent league couldn’t be all that high, and I wondered what they did to cover expenses throughout the off season. While thinking about that, I came across an article on the internet that confirmed my suspicions. It told the tale of players in a different independent league that were subjected to living in the clubhouse and sleeping on the floor. These players and others like them could not afford to eat healthy, or much at all. They lived off of the pre and post-game meals provided by the team and whatever their meager monthly pay afforded them. The article went on to suggest that in other independent leagues host family programs were available to provide a home away from home for its players at absolutely no charge.
I had heard of host family programs before, but thought it was something from a bygone era. Kind of like Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams” latching on with a team that arranged for a day job so he could play games at night. I immediately started looking into whether or not a program such as this was in place for the Somerset team residing in our back yard. A quick search of their website showed me that the Patriots do indeed have host families thanks to the efforts of Jon Hunton. Hunton has been the team’s Director of Player Personnel since 2014 and also happens to be the team’s closer and Atlantic League career saves leader. An e-mail address was provided for Jon online, so I decided to enquire about the program (after checking with my wife). This resulted in a late night response from “Big Jon” himself.
I was skeptical of the team needing our services this first year, it being the end of July already. Jon informed me that it was actually very possible that a new player coming in may need the host family option. I gave him information about the family and the room we have available for prospective players, then set up a day to meet with him when the team returned from their road trip.
The day Jon was coming to the house I told our then 4 year old daughter that a baseball player was coming to see us. She was beyond excited and started asking a thousand questions about him. I found out from his player profile that he was 6′ 9″ tall. I showed my daughter with a tape measure exactly how tall that was and that he would have to duck down when passing through some of our doorways. Jon’s a great guy and explained everything about the program. He gave us two booklets of “Flex” tickets for the season and said we had the option to get full season tickets instead if we wanted. The Flex tickets can be turned in for any game during the year and sounded like the better option for us, since we didn’t know how often we could go. Surprisingly to me, he had a player in mind for us already. It was Brian Van Kirk who had joined the team in the middle of the season and till now had been living with a couple teammates.
We quickly had to take care of a few things in preparation for our new guest like having a new key made and some additional clean up in the guest room. We set to work on that while waiting to hear back from Jon confirming when Brian would come over. As it turned out he was planning to move in that night after the game. Of course, the game went to extra innings and went very late. With the team slated to take part in a fund raising golf tournament early the next day, Brian decided it was best to spend that night with his teammates instead. Nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to meet with and exchange text messages with professional baseball players.
I got to finally meet Brian before the next Sunday’s game. Every Sunday home game the Somerset Patriots arrange for all the players to be on the field signing autographs for the fans. So I introduced myself to Brian while he explained that with his current situation he probably wouldn’t need to stay with us this year. He was a really nice guy too and so grateful that we offered the room to him. However, we both agreed that the new player on the team, Gevon Jackson, Jr. would benefit a great deal more from our hospitality.
Gevon came over fresh off his MVP campaign for the Sullivan Explorers of the Empire League.
The league has a short season and thus Gevon was available to become Somerset’s youngest player. I have to say he is probably the nicest, most polite person I’ve ever met. He was quiet and always respectful and really did become part of the family in the short time he was with us. My daughters still talk about Gevon a year later and always ask when he’s coming back. Unfortunately, another player was signed (Independent leagues have many transactions throughout the year as players get picked up by affiliated teams and others move one) and Gevon had to be released. The teams have a very strict roster limit and the playoffs were looming. It was a very sad goodbye for us and happened so fast. We can only hope that he will be back playing in our area sometime soon. We did enjoy following him with the the Old Orchard Beach Surge, another team in the Empire League this past season.
At the very end of the season, yet another new player came in. Rich Mascheri, a left handed reliever that played in the New York Yankees organization became our next guest at the house. Richie has a phenomenal arm, but was sidelined for quite some time with an injury. Unfortunately, this ended his time in affiliated baseball for the time being. His stay with us was brief but memorable. I for one, enjoyed hearing stories of minor league baseball including an encounter with Derek Jeter during spring training. His hometown Chicago Bears were playing that first night too, and I had fun watching some of the game with him. In 2017, he played with the Kansas City T-Bones and had a very good season.
The Somerset Patriots season ended pretty quickly that year, despite getting off to a 2-0 start in the playoffs. They ultimately fell to the Long Island Ducks out in Central Islip in the fifth game. So it was goodbye to Richie and so long to another baseball season. Not before we got to enjoy a game in a suite with the other host families, though. This came compliments of the Somerset Patriots and included a walk through the tunnel and an introduction on the field.
This was such a great experience that we decided to do it again the next season. In 2017, we got to have two different players stay with us…but I’ll tell you about them another time. I would never claim to be a part of the team here in Somerset. That would do a disservice to the players, coaches and staff members that work so hard every day. The Somerset Patriots family have certainly made us feel like it, though.
If you have an independent league or minor league team near you and a room available, I would recommend looking into a host family program there. It’s a tremendous experience, you get to meet great people and the baseball is highly entertaining. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for spring!