Each summer, a new group of baseball players roll into town to continue chasing their dreams with the Corvallis Knights and face some of the top college talent on the West Coast.
But with many coming from out of state, most of those players need help finding somewhere to live in the two-plus months away from home. Luckily, there are many families in the area who are happy to answer the call.
At first it might sound crazy — opening your home to a stranger and spending the summer with them would be a daunting proposition for many people. But the host families who have become mainstays with the Knights trust that the players brought to them each season will be a good fit, and in many cases they leave at the end of the season having formed lifelong connections.
“It feels like we have extended our family,” said Marcia Gilson, who hosts with her husband, Charlie. “I remember when we dropped our player off at the airport last year, we were almost crying. We’ll have friends over and they’ll just sit down and talk and join in. We’ve had some good kids and I think it’s just fun. It keeps us involved with what kids are doing.”
Families aren’t compensated to host beyond two season tickets to the Knights' home games, and the only requirements are that players have their own bedroom, access to a bathroom and access to a kitchen. But many go above and beyond to make their players feel as welcome as possible.
“We couldn’t do it without them,” Knights general manager Bre Miller said. “They provide housing for almost all of our players and really are a second home to these guys. I think they really help them get adjusted to Corvallis and a little bit of normalcy with a roof over their heads and not having to worry about where they’re going to stay or what not.”
Oftentimes, host families are those who have already raised children of their own and are reaching retirement. They’re well-equipped to welcome players who are still learning how to live on their own, or are living away from home for the first time. Some families are stricter than others; some insist on cooking for their players or helping with laundry; others simply want to provide a place to land and let players figure things out on their own.
Cindi and Russ Peterson have been hosting since the club arrived in Corvallis in 2007. Their son, Billy Clontz, played for the Knights when the club was still located in Gresham, and coached with the team through 2011. Once his playing days were over, the Petersons wanted to help out however they could and decided to keep taking in players.
“We just get to know these kids — we’ve been invited to their weddings,” Cindi Peterson said. “You sort of stay connected. You meet their parents. They get drafted and you sort of stay in touch with them.”
One of the most enjoyable aspects for many host families is learning the unique quirks of their players as they adapt to life away from home.
“The fun part is watching those who know how to cook and don’t cook. Or do laundry and don’t know how to do laundry,” said Marcia Gilson. “Their life has been school and baseball and so their moms have just taken care of that. We've had a couple guys that are super into like making breakfast that are just unbelievably good. Cole Cabrera last year said, ‘Ah. yeah, I cook.’ But he just microwaves ready-cooked food. We taught him how to BBQ steak and we gave him some BBQ tools. We text back and forth. He tells us he’s using them.”
Host families have a say in which player will be staying with them, and the Gilsons have made a tradition of housing players from Cal Poly, where Charlie went to school. In their home, they have a "Knights room" and before a player leaves for the summer, they have them sign a baseball to add to the growing collection.
They both admit that the biggest difference between now and when they were raising kids is the changes in pop culture and technology. Players often stay connected with friends and family through online gaming, and Marcia admits that she thought it was “weird” when she first found that a group of players she was hosting enjoyed watching nature documentaries.
“You walk into the family room and there’s something about icebergs on the TV,” Marcia said. “That part has really blown us away.”
“When we were raising kids, there was no such thing as cell phones,” adds Charlie. “There was Atari and XBox, but that was different. Because that was not mobile — you were there in the living room.”
Laundry can also be an interesting bridge to cross for many players. Cindi Peterson insists on making sure players have clean sheets and if the player doesn’t want to wash them himself, she does it for him. She cringed while admitting that one summer she and Russ hosted a player that didn’t do laundry a single time.
“You have to have clean sheets once a week,” Cindi said. “I always tell them, ‘If you want me to do it, just tell me now.’ Everyone of them wants me to do it. I just tell them that I’ve had kids, I don’t care what your room looks like. As long as I don’t find any dead bodies, you’re fine.”
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Marie Jennings and her husband have hosted close to 13 players over the last 11 years. One year, she got annoyed enough with one player constantly walking around the house in his underwear that she finally bought him a bath robe.
Each player was different, she said, and her own son got to grow up alongside them and worked as an intern for the Knights after he graduated high school.
“There was an offer from the Knights to have new host families over a decade ago. My husband and I at that time had a little boy and we thought it would be a great opportunity to be able to open our home up. We have a larger home that just kind of sits empty during summer time,” Jennings said. “We have a son now who is 21, so it was fun because in the beginning, he was little and now he's older than most of the players that we host, so it’s been fun to see him grow as the players have come every year.”
Miller knows just how unpredictable life can be for the families who open their homes each summer. The best piece of advice she tries to give new families is to not have any expectations.
The first lesson that new parents usually learn is that they will almost never see their players on game days.
Games typically begin at either 6:30 or 7:15 p.m., meaning players sometimes don’t get home until after midnight, long after their host families have gone to sleep. If the host parents work a 9-5 schedule, they are gone long before the player wakes up, and the players are back at the ballpark by the time they return.
Road trips also mean players are just flat out gone for long periods of time, and sometimes return at odd hours.
“In July, they took off on the Fourth and didn’t come back until the middle of the night the following week,” Russ Peterson said. “They were gone quite a few days. We didn’t see Connor for another two days because he’s sleeping when we’re heading off to work.”
The Knights don’t have to do much recruiting for new families — in part because word of mouth helped the program grow very quickly. Vickie Taylor and her husband, Keith, have hosted 19 players in 12 seasons and helped convince many families, including the Gilsons, to host.
Originally, the Taylors weren’t huge baseball fans, but began following it closely during Oregon State’s national title runs in 2006 and 2007. They found that they really enjoyed the game and wanted to get involved hosting. They immediately loved the process of learning who the players are off the field.
“They're all individuals; they all handle things differently,” Keith Taylor said. “They're all just good kids and it’s fun to get to know them.”
One of the first players paired with them was former Corvallis catcher Miles Kizer, who the family is still very close with.
“Miles and his wife have just become a part of our family,” Vickie Taylor said. “They come to birthday celebrations. They go down to Diamond Lake once a year with us for a family get together. I don’t think our four grandchildren even know that Miles isn’t related to us — Miles has just always been around.”
Miller admits that not every family-player pairing is a perfect fit; there have been instances when players have had to be transferred out, or a player has been unhappy with his living situation. But more often than not, that is because of convenience details, like if a player doesn’t have a car and is staying with a family that lives far away from the ballpark.
“We work really closely with our partner schools to not just get really good athletes, but really good people,” Miller said. “I don’t think we’ve really had much apprehension or have anyone be worried about it because they know they aren’t going to get some random Joe Blow — they’re going to get a college student who, yeah, sure, wants to hang out with the boys every now and again, but for the most part is here to play baseball, is here to get better. If they mess up, they’re going home.”
The Knights’ regular season ended Sunday evening and they will begin their postseason campaign Tuesday when they travel to face the Walla Walla Sweets. With another season coming to a close, it means more tough goodbyes for families who have bonded during the season and built lifelong connections with their players — as well as with other host families.
“They call us host families because you are truly family — you are part of a family,” Jennings said. “Every night when I go to the game, I sit next to other host moms. We’re all aunties and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. It’s the family part that really makes the difference for us. They make us feel special. We love that.”