Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Families open homes to Big Train ballplayers

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Brent Weingardt (left) of Bethesda cheers during a recent Bethesda Big Train game. Weingardt and his family are one of 17 Montgomery County families that welcome Big Train players into their homes over the course of the two-month long season.
As Bert Smith steps into the batter’s box Sunday night at a Bethesda Big Train home game, Brent Weingardt lets out a deep cheer.

‘‘C’mon Bert. Lets go Bert.”

Soon Smith slaps a sharp hit to the third baseman, who bobbles the ball, allowing Smith to beat the throw to first.

Weingardt smiles.

‘‘As soon as the fielder screwed up, I knew Bert would get there,” said Weingardt, like any other proud dad.

The only difference is that Weingardt isn’t Smith’s father.

Weingardt, along with his wife and three children, is part of a nearly 20 family cadre in Montgomery County that supplies housing for the Big Train players throughout their summer season.

The Big Train plays its home games at Shirley Povich Field, in Cabin John Regional Park. About 24 college players come to play every year for the Big Train in the Cal Ripken Sr. League, a summer wood bat league dedicated to college-aged players. Area teams in the league also include the Rockville Express and the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts.

Most of the league’s players come from outside the area, creating a need for host families.

‘‘When the league first started, it drew more players from the immediate area, so we only needed housing for about 16 players,” said Joyce Semmes, host family coordinator for the Big Train. ‘‘But things have been changing as we draw people from further away. We usually need housing for 24 players now.”

This year’s team is as diverse as ever, with players from California, Florida and Colorado. Many families see hosting as an opportunity to be introduced to a different slice of American life.

‘‘We’ve hosted players in the past from Seattle, Mississippi and San Francisco,” said Weingardt, of Bethesda. ‘‘The reason we do it is because we like to meet kids from across the country.”

Often host families form special bonds with the players that last beyond their years on the Big Train team. Becky Crowley lives alone at her home in Olney, and looks forward to the players arriving every year.

She started hosting players seven years ago, and hasn’t stopped enjoying the company of her current players or visiting former ones.

‘‘I’ve gone to Mississippi State to watch games, I’ve gone to Vanderbilt (in Tennessee) to watch old players of mine,” Crowley said, ‘‘It’s strange, but it’s like being an aunt to these players.”

Many of the other families have similar feelings. When Smith steps up to the plate, Weingardt cheers and gets nervous, just like any other parent. The routine of the players’ two-month stays, Weingardt said, adds to the comfortable nature.

‘‘It’s like watching a relative on the field, because we get to see them at home cleaning their laundry and eating breakfast,” he said. ‘‘But when he gets to the plate, he becomes super-jock. It’s wild.”

Families say that the overall experience of hosting a player is great, part of the reason why so many families host multiple players every year. What helps the process is a contract that players sign at the beginning of the season, laying out expectations and rules, including no smoking, which is a team rule.

In addition, many of the host families lay down the law when players first arrive.

‘‘I usually talk to them and their mothers before they come down,” Mary Beth Richards said. ‘‘We have a teenager that looks at them (the players) like role models, so we expect them to act well.”

As for complaints, there are few. Like many other college-aged men, some stay up too late or talk on the phone late at night, some don’t keep their rooms clean or invite over ‘‘guests” for the evening. But the families say that as soon as the issue arose, it was quickly eliminated by a brief talk.

‘‘Some families are more rigid with their rules, while others aren’t,” Semmes said. ‘‘I try not to be so rigid, because, in the end, they really are just teenage boys.”

The host families aren’t paid for their expenses, but do receive a free season pass for the family. The reward for the families, they say, is getting to meet their exceptional youngsters.

‘‘For 10 months out of the year I live alone, but for two months each year there is tons of action going on,” Crowley said. ‘‘It’s really nice having people around.”

To Host A Player

To host a Bethesda Big Train player for next year’s season, contact Joyce Semmes, Big Train host family coordinator, at 301-530-0911 or e-mail faninfo@bigtrain.org.