Suns look to foster new relationship between fans, players

March 07, 2002|BY BOB PARASILITI

Don Williams and his family have modest plans for the summer.

Usually, it means going to watch baseball - a few Baltimore Orioles games and as many Hagerstown Suns games as their schedule allows.

Oh yeah, there's one more thing. The Williamses have volunteered to do their part to enrich baseball's future by becoming part of the foundation of the possible next Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds.

The Williamses are one of the first families to sign up for the Hagerstown Suns Host Family program, the rebirth of an old-time baseball tradition which can best be described as the adopt-a-player drive.


The Hagerstown Suns and their parent club, the San Francisco Giants, are looking for area families interested in opening their home to a member of the 2002 Suns.

For Don Williams, it's a baseball lover's dream to help a young player along the road to reaching his dream.

"This is for the guys who want to have a break and possibly make his way to the major leagues," Williams said. "Last year, for example, think about a player like (former Suns star pitcher) Boof Bonser and the way he pitched. What might have happened if he didn't have the money to live here. He might not have had the chance to show what he could have done and lost his opportunity."

Hagerstown families stepped to the plate as host families in the 1980s when the Suns first came to the area. The program faded when the franchise jumped to the Double-A level in 1989, but the new Suns management is trying to rekindle the fire of goodwill in the area.

"It is tough for the players to come into town just two days before the season starts and find an apartment, get the utilities turned on, their stuff moved in and settled," Suns general manager Kurt Landes said. "The host family will help ease the transition."

Despite the stereotype casual fans have of all players being millionaires, most minor league players are still kids playing a game. They are usually 18- to 24-year-olds making minimal salaries while uprooting their lives in what might be the first time away from home and family. The host family program plays an important role on many levels for the players.

"It's been absolutely the most important part of the develompent system for our players," said Bobby Evans, the Giants' director of minor league admininstration. "It's part of their development as men. This is bigger than trying to prevent five guys living in an apartment together."

On the surface, the program can be a win-win-win-win proposition for all. The Giants and Suns make sure the player is properly housed while the player's financial woes are eased by a family who gets a surrogate addition ... and quite possibly a lifelong friend that could one day be famous.

"I think its a great way to get the players involved with the community," Evans said. "It gives them the chance to realize that it's just not a town with fans, a stadium and seats. It's a great way to get an intimacy with the fans."

The Giants have host family programs running in their other Single-A cities, San Jose and half-season Salem-Keizer, with high success rates.

"We have been running the program for 20 years," said San Jose sales director Linda Pereira. "We started out with only a couple of families, now none of the players rent apartments. We have 43 families looking to be part of it."

The families have benefitted from the program as much as the players in San Jose - in some cases, even more so.

"We give the families who sign up for the program a season pass to games, a parking pass and two picnics during the season where they can mingle with all the players and the players get the chance to meet the other families," Pereira said. "The host family becomes a family to the players. It's a rewarding experience. Many of the players go on and call back to keep in touch in the famlies."

Pereira said some former San Jose players send fruit to their families at Christmas. Other players continue to remember their families even after they make it to the majors. Former Giants pitcher Shawn Estes still calls his San Jose family once a week to catch up on events.

Each player has had a way of growing on their family.

"The guys get involved with the families. The family starts to live and die with the player on the field," Pereira said. "Some families want players to move in to be role models for their kids. We have worked with church groups and others live with elderly people who don't want to be lonely."

Hagerstown is trying to pattern itself after the San Jose model. Landes said families interested in hosting a player just need to fill out a questionnaire. The goal is to match a player to the family's beliefs, hobbies and lifestyles. The Suns' goal is to try and get as many families as possible interested before the season starts.

Evans said he has recommended families charge their prospective player $150-to-$200 a month, but any rent is flexible.

The Williams family is pretty flexible with their wants and needs. Don works a 7-to-7 shift, still has a 34-year-old son living at home, has a grandson who visits often and would like the role model and isn't worried about the rent money. His intentions are ultimately noble.

"I think more people should get involved in this, especially if people want to continue to be able to watch the team in this area," he said. "Baseball is a participation sport. You participate if you are playing or if you are watching. This is the way we have decided to participate with the Suns and that's the way we feel about it."

The Herald-Mail Articles