CAPE ELIZABETH — David and Karen Brenner said they were initially skeptical about opening their home to a young professional athlete they didn’t know. They’re not “baseball crazy,” David said, and they have a daughter, Grace, 13, about to enter eighth grade.
But their home has an in-law suite downstairs, so they went through the application process to become a host family for a Portland Sea Dogs player.
As for their skepticism? Well, in the years since, the family has hosted several players, starting with a pitcher from the Dominican Republic.
“Grace was taking Spanish at the time, so it was fun for her to be able to practice,” said Karen Brenner.
Sea Dogs outfielder Peter Hissey is now in his third summer with the family. He calls it his second home. Hissey eats dinner with the Brenners after day games, and keeps in touch during the off-season.
“I love my host family,” he said. “I’ll keep in contact with them for as long as I live.”
For a minor league baseball player making the Double-A minimum monthly salary of $1,500 – that’s $7,500 per season – it’s a relief to land in Maine and find a list of families with open arms and open doors.
Nearly every player on the Sea Dogs roster is staying with a host family this summer. Injuries, promotions, demotions and releases keep the roster in constant flux, but a recent check revealed only two of the 25 to 30 players opting to live on their own in a local apartment. Staying with host families helps them avoid the hassle of leases, utilities and short-term rentals.
“It feels good to do something for someone who’s trying to make their way in the sport,” Karen Brenner said. “Just getting to know a young person and offering them a comfortable home, occasionally a home-cooked meal. We’ve been able to share not only our home but our love of Maine and Greater Portland.
“You feel that much more connected to the team, and it makes it that much more fun to go to a game, and to be a part of something greater than yourself.”
The host-family practice is more common at lower levels of the minors than at Double-A. Some clubs in the Eastern League, in which the Sea Dogs compete, have no host families. Others have a few.
Families willing to host sign up through the team, which screens the applications and sends a list of housing options to players at spring training in late March, shortly before they get assigned to one of Boston’s minor league clubs. The list will include a description of the house, the family, location, whether there are pets, whether Spanish is spoken and contact information. Some players may call from Fort Myers, Florida, the spring training site of the Red Sox. Others wait until arriving in Portland to see for themselves.
Not every match results in a lifetime friendship, but problems are rare.
“You obviously need to respect your host family,” said catcher Mike Brenly. “If you’re going to go out and have a good time or whatever, you make sure you’re not being loud early in the morning or keeping them up late at night. You want to respect them, but you want to have a great summer because Portland is a great city.”
GIVING BACK TO THE HOST FAMILY
Brenly spent six years in professional baseball before signing with the Boston Red Sox last winter and being sent to Portland. The only other time he had lived with a host family was during a collegiate summer league.
“So when I heard they did it here, I was pretty excited,” Brenly said. “It’s a good way to learn your new city and obviously takes a lot of burden off us, having to deal with an apartment.”
Brenly stays with the Harmons of Cape Elizabeth. The family has attended at least two dozen games at Hadlock Field this season, but the biggest thrill for the Harmon children was when Brenly showed up at their baseball games, cheering on Will in tee ball and Gabe in Little League when both were playing at Fort Williams this spring.
“For a 5- and an 8-year-old,” said Dawn Harmon, their mother, “it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Brenly, whose wife, Elisa, and dog, Cooper, also stay with the Harmons, said players try to show their appreciation as much as possible, particularly when the host family has young children. Will and Gabe both wore No. 2 on their team jerseys in honor of Brenly.
“We want to make it worth their while,” he said. “We don’t want to feel like we’re taking advantage of them. So we’ll take the boys bowling or bring them to a game or play catch with them, whatever we can do to show our gratitude to them, because they’re doing us an unbelievable service.”
Portland wasn’t always a haven for host families. Sea Dogs manager Billy McMillon, for example, shared an apartment with a teammate when he played on the 1995 club, then affiliated with the Marlins. Glenn Reeves, who played on the ’97 and ’98 Sea Dogs, said only a handful of players stayed with host families.
Included in those original host families are John Walker of Old Orchard Beach and Charlie and Linda Einsedler of Falmouth. The Walkers, who at the time lived off Brighton Avenue in Portland, met pitcher Jim Newlin at the team’s inaugural pre-season banquet in 1994 when he sat at their table.
“My boys were kind of spellbound,” Walker remembered. “They were 14, 12 and 11 and my daughter was 9. She thought (Newlin) was Hollywood handsome. Before the dinner was done we had someone staying in our top floor.”
Twenty years later, they still keep in touch with holiday cards. Walker’s oldest son, Murdoch – in part because of his interest in Newlin’s career – became a pitcher for Portland High and Union College. The family did not host another player.
“We talked about it,” Walker said, “but the experience wasn’t going to be improved upon. Jim was such a great guy. You hate to take a chance and have it not work out.”
The Einsedlers hosted players for three or four years, including pitchers Tom McGraw and Stan Spencer, both of whom eventually played in the major leagues.
“We did have a long relationship with Stan Spencer,” said Linda Einsedler, “and we really got to see firsthand what it’s like to live as a professional baseball player.”
RED SOX AFFILIATION A BONUS
The Sea Dogs changed affiliations from the Marlins to the Red Sox before the 2003 season. That’s about the same time a housing crunch in Portland made finding short-term rentals an increasingly difficult task, particularly for tenants who may have to move to Rhode Island (Triple-A Pawtucket) or Virginia (Class-A Salem) on little notice.
“As apartments became more in demand, it became harder for these guys to find affordable places to stay,” said Sea Dogs general manager Geoff Iacuessa. “We started getting word-of-mouth out that we were looking for host families.”
The popularity of the Red Sox and the proximity to Fenway Park certainly helped enlist more families. Tom Sheehan, a lawyer who lives in Falmouth, signed up as a host in 2003 when his three daughters were involved in youth softball, and figures he has hosted about 45 players, mostly pitchers, over the years. He started this season with four players, some of whom have since been promoted to Triple-A, at the house informally known as Club Tom.
“I keep in touch with a lot of them,” Sheehan said of the Club Tom alumni, “whether they’re playing baseball anymore or not.”
Ryan Cameron, a 2004 Sea Dog, accompanied Sheehan on a golfing trip to Ireland. Brock Huntzinger, now pitching for Baltimore’s top farm club, visited in January. Barry Hertzler, a three-time Sea Dog now working as a police officer in New Britain, Connecticut, goes skiing with Sheehan at Sugarloaf. Earlier this season, Hertzler brought his wife and young daughters to Hadlock.
“Nobody, as a player, wants to lock into a lease or pay for a hotel,” said Hertzler, seated next to Sheehan in Section 203. “It’s a pain in the neck to move in and out of a hotel every time you go on the road.”
STRONG FRIENDSHIPS CAN DEVELOP
In other minor league cities, players (and their spouses) take note of what’s happening in Portland.
Shannon Lodge, who is engaged to fellow Australian and Sea Dogs first baseman Stefan Welch, traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, for a recent road trip and met several Fisher Cats wives.
“They’re like, ‘We’re so envious of you guys, to have host families,’ ” Lodge said. “Because they spend so much money on accommodation, and it’s hard to find it.”
Lodge and Welch are staying in Cape Elizabeth with Beth and David Schroeder, whose grandchildren (7-year-old Mason and 5-year-old Emerson) live nearby and visit frequently enough that Emmie can mimic Shannon’s Australian accent. The Schroeders have become so friendly with the young couple that they plan to fly to Adelaide for the Welch-Lodge nuptials in late October.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into and, being younger kids, you don’t know what they’re like,” said Beth Schroeder, who has two grown children and used to run a day care business from her house. “But these kids have become like my own. I’m so glad we did it.”
Jamie and Jane Charron of Falmouth are first-time hosts, along with their sons Camden, 9, and Jackson, 4. Pitchers Michael McCarthy and Matty Ott started the season with them, but Ott was sent down to Salem in June, and most of his belongings remain with the Charrons. A native of Louisiana, Ott frequently fished for striped bass with Jamie Charron, who has a boat in Saco.
The kids gravitated toward McCarthy, who has played pickle and conducted fielding drills for Camden and the Hodgdon boys who live next door.
Jane Charron, who sports a tattoo of a Red Sox logo on her right foot (the license plate of her husband’s pickup reads BREDSOX), said she absolutely will host again next year.
“If we luck out and they come back here,” she said of McCarthy and Ott, “they know where their home is.”