Local families open their houses to Crushers players
Chris Pennell slept in his host family’s house before he even met them.
The 23-year-old pitcher joined the Lake Erie Crushers earlier this season after being released by the Gary Southshore Railcats of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.
He drove the nearly 4½ hours on Interstate 90 straight to Sprenger Stadium in Avon from Gary, Indiana, jumped on the team bus Friday morning, played three games in Pennsylvania against the Washington Wild Things and returned to Avon about 2 a.m. Monday before heading to his host family’s house in North Ridgeville. He slept in a room with fellow pitcher Jared Koening and met Carla and Herb Sill the next morning.
The Sills did not mind. They love baseball. But more importantly, they open their home to Crushers players as a way to honor their son’s memory.
The Sills are one of 17 families hosting Crushers players this season. The AbbeWood senior living facility in Elyria also hosts four players. Host location requirements include being close to the stadium and having air conditioning and enough beds for the players.
Fifteen of this season’s 18 host sites are in Lorain County (four in Avon Lake, three in both North Ridgeville and Elyria, two in Avon, and one each in Lorain, Amherst and Columbia Station), with the remaining three in Rocky River, Cleveland and Brooklyn Heights.
Since the team’s inception in 2009, the Crushers have followed suit with the nine other teams in the independent Frontier League in using host families for their players. As of March 2018, the average team salary cap in the Frontier League was just $75,000. Broken down, that’s approximately $600 a month per player.
“This team, this league, does not work — it would not be able to survive — without host families,” Crushers co-owner Tom Kramig said. “The team can’t afford to put them in hotels or apartments, so really the only way this can happen is with host families.”
The players aren’t the only ones who benefit from this program. In return for hosting their players, the Crushers provide the host families with benefits including two season tickets to all home games, a season parking pass and discounts at the team shop.
During the regular season, the Crushers roster is set at 24 players, meaning the 17 families host between one and four players each. Before the season starts, though, the number of players is even higher.
“The real challenge is spring training because we’ll bring in 37 guys,” Kramig said. “For two weeks at the end of April and the first week of May, I need 37 beds. We do reach out to people and say, ‘We need a host family for two weeks.’ For people who are thinking about it, spring training is a great trial.”
Spring training is also when the families and players get to know each other better before the grind of a regular season schedule. During that time, though, the roster is also whittled down quickly leading up to the regular season.
Pennel and Koening have nothing but rave reviews for their time with the Sills.
“Coming out here has been splendid with Carla and Herb,” Koening said. “We get food, we get a nice bed to lay on. They treat us like we are family. We can’t thank them enough for what they do and coming from what I’ve done in other years, this is by far the best for hosting.”
Now in their seventh year of hosting players, the Sills continue to honor their son Warren’s memory by “paying it forward.”
“For us, having them here at this time of the year fills a huge void because our son left on the Sunday after Memorial Day,” Carla said. “We’re selfish, I feel, because we get so much more out of it than we give.”
In June 2012, Warren traveled to Canada to do research for a documentary on the Kermode bear and other native animals. But he never returned. After five months of searching, his remains were found in November.
“Warren always said that when he came back he was going to get a tattoo that said, ‘Chasing my dream’ and ‘Never let fear decide your fate,” Carla said. “We took the chasing your dreams to heart. If these boys that are Crushers players aren’t chasing their dreams, I don’t know the meaning of that statement. It’s just been a wonderful experience.”
Outside of a few isolated incidents, the experiences between players and host families have been positive. In situations when a player and family don’t mesh, the organization is quick to find a remedy, moving the player to a different family while re-emphasizing Kramig’s mantra that it’s easier to find players than host families.
“These are very fine young men,” said Avon resident Jane Daberkow, who has hosted players for nine seasons with her husband, Dick. Outfielder Steven Kraft is living with them this year.
“We truly have enjoyed having them in our house, interacting with them,” Jane said. “It’s like having a grandchild living with us.”
The players also know how crucial the host families are to them in pursuing their dreams.
“It’s doable (without host families), but you’re living on ramen,” Koening said. “The host families make it so it’s possible.”
During the season, though, the team’s rigorous schedule limits the face time players have with their host families. Through the nearly four months of the regular season, the team plays almost 100 games with only Mondays off — outside of this week’s All-Star break. Starting pitcher Patrick Ledet represented the Crushers as an All-Star reserve in Wednesday’s game.
At The AbbeWood, especially, the players’ schedules run opposite of the seniors living there. But the interactions are beneficial for both parties.
“(The players are) out all night and sleep in the morning and then old people tend to do the flip,” said Chris Serdinak, general manager at The AbbeWood. “So the most often times that they get to see them would be just during breakfast time. (The seniors are) here and even seeing them walking by, just feeling the youth walk by, means a lot to the residents."
The AbbeWood is the most desirable place to stay because of the accommodations. The four players staying there are split between two apartments, though each player has his own bedroom.
“It’s a really nice setup and there’s nobody else in their apartments,” Serdinak said. “What they love is that we pretty much leave them alone. They just sign their lunch and dinner tickets on what they want for meals, we leave them in the kitchen and they pick them up when they come back.”
Infielder Dale Burdick, who is staying at The AbbeWood, said it’s a nice change from his time in the minor leagues of the New York Mets organization.
“Last year with the (Class A St. Lucie) Mets, I was on an air mattress in the living room and this year I’m in a nice apartment,” he said. “It’s unreal. Night and day compared to what I was at last year.”
For Koening and Pennell, their setup with the Sills is accommodating enough for them to enjoy the time they do spend at “home.”
“In the basement, we have it set up kind of like a barracks-style,” Carla said. “They have their own beds, but it’s all open, so they watch TV in bed or whatever they choose to do. You can hear them down there talking or you hear the good-natured (ribbing).”
Even when a season ends and players return home, the bonds stay intact. Nearly all the families remain in touch with past players through social media or text.
The Sills hosted one player from Puerto Rico for the end of one season and then the following season. They grew close and he still sends “Happy Mother’s Day” texts.
“Something I always tell the boys when they come, this is their safe zone,” Carla said. “Whatever happens here is here, no matter what kind of day they had. If they need to bash someone to get it out of their system, this is their safe zone."
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