Joe Gomez’s family thought he’d be living in a Marriott hotel during his stint with the State College Spikes.
They never realized the catcher would find a second family of sorts.
Gomez’s mother, Teresa, grew accustomed to her son playing nearby and was unfamiliar with the living arrangements for the Spikes’ players — and how local families volunteer to take them in — when she received a phone call from her son at about 4 p.m. on a Sunday in July.
“He says, ‘Mom, I got to get my clothes washed.’ He says, ‘I have to leave at 5 in the morning. I’m going to State College. They moved me up,’” recalled Teresa, who then asked her son what he wanted to eat that night. “You know what he asked for? You’re never going to believe this. The hardest thing to make in a few hours: corned beef.”
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She made a trip to the grocery store and prepared dinner. The next morning, Gomez caught his flight to Pennsylvania — but instead of checking into a Marriott when he arrived in Happy Valley, he learned he’d be living with the Lingenfelters, one of the Spikes’ host families.
The team coordinates with local families to provide housing for the players each summer. The families occasionally cook dinner for them, cheer them on at games and keep in touch with them years after their playing days in State College. About a dozen families in Centre County currently volunteer, with more willing to host if the need arises.
Teresa Gomez sat next to her husband on a maroon couch in the Lingenfelters’ living room as she told the story of her son’s promotion to State College. The Gomez family visited with Joe’s host family during a five-day stay in State College in August. Teresa said the host family program helps her sleep at night.
“As a mother, it’s a relief to know that another mother is watching over him,” Teresa said, referring to Elizabeth Lingenfelter sitting across the living room. “I don’t have to worry about him at a hotel.”
Teresa wishes she was closer, so she could see her son play like she did during his career at the University of Miami, driving about 90 minutes to the Hurricanes’ home games and flying to away games. Gomez even stayed home in past summers and played in local leagues. She misses being at the ballpark since he’s now about 1,200 miles away — that’s been the “hardest part” of this season — but she takes comfort in knowing he feels at home with the Lingenfelters, who offer their support at the Spikes’ Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
“If they do well in a situation, we always say, ‘That’s our boy,’” Elizabeth said.
Joanne and Mike Broderick wore State College Spikes shirts as they watched their sons work as bat boys, while their three players took the field on Aug. 12.
Brandon Benson played in right field, Matt Davis started at third base and pitcher Andrew Summerville made his first start at the Spikes’ ballpark. The Brodericks attend as many games as they can each season.
“If our sons don’t have baseball games of their own, we’re here,” Joanne said.
This is the Broderick family’s eighth summer hosting players through the team’s program, which matches players and families based on their answers on surveys in the spring. The players include any allergies to pets. The families indicate how many players they want to host, and some will ask about their favorite foods, so they can make the meal their first night in town.
Joanne Broderick will ask the players if she should make extra spaghetti for after their game. In the past, when the team has a day off, they’ll grill burgers with corn on the cob for dinner. One year, the players wanted meat loaf and mashed potatoes. “They just wanted a home-cooked meal,” Joanne said. During the season, they learn about their players’ preferences and habits — Davis is the only coffee drinker and likes bagels and cream cheese for breakfast; Summerville cooks himself eggs, spinach and sausage; and Benson prefers to sleep later.
“They provide for us and do anything we ask really,” Benson said.
Their sons, Ty, 19, and Dylan, 17, give up their bedrooms for the players and move to the game room, where they keep their Xbox and PlayStation, for the summer. Joanne said it’s been rewarding to help the players as they chase their dreams.
“That’s what it’s about,” Joanne said. “They can come here, and all they have to do is play baseball.”
The conversation in the Lingenfelters’ living room shifts to the financial advantages of the host program.
The Gomez family knows Joe’s teammates with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals paid to stay in the hotel. The Lingenfelters have been asked by one of their players’ parents how much they charge.
“We said, ‘What are you talking about?,’” Nick Lingenfelter said. “That defeats the purpose of a host family.”
Nick and Elizabeth Lingenfelter have hosted Spikes’ players since 2007, longer than any other family in the program. They aim to make the players feel like their living at home, showing them where they keep their food and drinks and telling them to help themselves. The program helps players save money — in their first contract season, they make “$1,100 per month maximum,” according to MiLB.com — early in their careers.
Joe Gomez said he heard complaints from his teammates in the Gulf Coast League about paying to stay in a hotel, noting “it was a lot out of their paycheck.” He appreciates the Spikes’ host family program.
“There’s a lot of benefits that come with a host family just besides the expenses — new people to meet, new people to talk to and people who actually care for you that open up their arms for you,” Gomez said.
The Lingenfelters have enjoyed that aspect of the program, fondly recalling memories going back to 2007. In that first year, they watched former players Justin Byler and Andrew Walker play whiffle ball with their young sons, 7-year-old Brandon and 4-year-old Matthew. Byler wore a children’s helmet that sat well above his ears during the backyard games with a skinny, yellow bat. Ten years later, Brandon, 17, talks to the players about their careers and connects with them over video games like MLB The Show.
Some players have even reminded Brandon and Matthew to take out the garbage or unload the dishwasher during their time with the family.
“They’re the older brothers I never had,” Brandon said.
Thad and Suzanne Wayne try to make their players feel at home — knowing they’re still experiencing the “cultural shock” of living in the United States — by giving them their space and independence.
The Waynes are in their third year hosting Spikes’ players from Latin American countries, and each summer, they hand off the keys to one of their cars.
“They can go to Chipotle, which they love to go to Chipotle for lunch,” Thad said. “And they can do other things. They can come and go to the stadium whenever they need to be here.”
In the past, they included a note in the glove compartment of their 1995 Toyota Tercel explaining that the players had permission to use the car in case they were ever pulled over. But this year, it wasn’t needed in their 2015 Corolla since the players speak English well. The Waynes speak English with the players to help them acclimate to the U.S., but Thad is also “pretty fluent” in Spanish.
He lived in Puerto Rico because his dad was in the military, spent two years on a mission for his church in Argentina and improved his Spanish each summer hosting Spikes’ players. They interact with the players as much as they want; some nights they’ll talk after games, and some nights they’ll do their own thing. This year, Ricardo Bautista, Josh Lopez and Johan Oviedo have their own space in the basement of the family’s State College home.
When Oviedo was promoted in late July, Bautista broke out the tape measure and laughed at the idea of the 6-foot-6 pitcher trying to sleep on a twin bed.
“He thought that was hilarious,” Suzanne said.
Bautista stayed with the Waynes last year and experienced a scare after hitting a deer in the family’s old Toyota Tercel following a road game in Williamsport. Bautista didn’t know how the Waynes were going to react, but he soon learned the car wasn’t their concern.
“They were chill,” Bautista said. “They asked us if we were OK and why we didn’t bring the deer home to eat it.”
In three years, Suzanne and Thad said they’ve never had any issues with the players. They’ve been respectful and served as positive role models for their children, Collin, 16; Evan, 14; and Tanner, 5.
Bautista has certainly appreciated their hospitality.
“They’ve been very, very special for us — always been there for us,” Bautista said.
Last season, the Brodericks made the trip to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where they saw three of their former Spikes’ players in the major leagues.
Mike wore a Pirates shirt to support Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon. Joanne wore a Cardinals shirt for St. Louis catcher Carson Kelly. It had been three years since the Brodericks saw Kelly, but he spun around after hearing Mike’s familiar voice yell “Hey, Rookie!” from behind the dugout.
“Unbelievable,” Mike said. “Then he started pointing at my shirt. Underneath the shirt, I had the Cardinals, so he was happy with that.”
The host families and players don’t forget about each other after the Spikes’ season ends. The Brodericks, Lingenfelters and Waynes all receive minor league baseball updates on their phones as they keep track of their former players’ careers in Peoria and Memphis and Indianapolis. The parents and their kids all keep in touch with the players through Twitter and Facebook and text messages. Families have been invited to weddings. One former player, Matthew Young, texted Joanne, “Happy Mother’s Day” the year after staying with the Brodericks.
“That was really touching,” Joanne said. “That makes me a little choked up.”
The hosts welcome the players into their homes, providing them with a place to sleep and eat. By the end of the summer, the players often become part of the family.
“They’re my boys,” Joanne said. “They call us host parents, and they’re our kids.”