By BOB PARASILITI
10:55 PM EDT, March 16, 2011
Jill and Kelly Colbert are practicing for when they become grandparents.
For seven years, the Colberts have “adopted” a young man or two and given them all the comforts of home while spoiling and caring for them. Then, in September, the Colberts send them home to their parents and keep the fond memories for themselves.
In a sense, the Colberts are summer foster parents. They open their home annually as a Hagerstown Suns host family for the season. The Colberts’ hospitality gives players an alternative to a short-term apartment lease from April to September, while providing shelter and meals, fellowship and encouragement during their six-month stay in Hagerstown.
“It has been an eye-opener,” said Jill Colbert. “We never knew what the players go through during the season. They are all learning the ropes and experiencing new things. Most of these players don’t make very much money, so this is a way to help them make ends meet.”
The Colberts fill extra rooms in their home with the players, but they don’t do it for financial gain. The benefits far outweigh the investment. After all, baseball players are people, too.
“We have an extended family,” Jill Colbert said. “The players leave here and they keep in touch with us. Some have gone on to get married and have children and they still call us and include us in their lives. You grow a bond with them.”
The Colberts are part of baseball’s dying breed of families. Years ago, players used boarding houses and rented spare room offered by families while staying in unfamiliar towns. It was inexpensive and safe while offering family stability.
Changing times have all but made the practice extinct.
The Hagerstown Suns are trying to restart the community program. A few families have signed on to adopt players, but more volunteers are needed. The Suns hope to follow the example of the Vermont Lake Monsters, a New York-Penn League team and a sister affiliate in the Washington Nationals organization which has found a host family for every player.
“At first, it may be a little uncomfortable having them in your home, but the way the players explain it, it is nerve-wracking for them, too,” Jill Colbert said. “They come in and they are unsure of the family they are moving in with. They have told some of the stories. But soon, they become like family.”
The Colberts share three children. Two are grown and have moved out, but their son Garrett, 13, is still at home. Every summer, Garrett has been living a boyhood dream because of the arrangement.
“He has enjoyed it,” Jill Colbert said. “We started when he was young, and that was the season when Carlos Gomez and Jesus Flores were here (with the New York Mets organization). He got to watch them play and he got to go out on the field with them. Now they are major leaguers.
“He has been able to play video games with them, which is an interesting dynamic. Garrett also plays baseball. When he’s playing All-Stars, the Suns players go over and watch his games when they have a day off. The kids get real excited about that.”
The Colberts got involved as a host family on a whim. A friend who was hosting recommended it and gave them an application.
“We didn’t know we could do it,” Jill Colbert said. “We said we would try. I was used to hosting before because when I was younger, my parents did it with some of the sisters in ‘Up With People.’
“We had a great first experience and have been doing it ever since. We learned a lot about baseball, especially what they go through to play — the schedule, the bus schedule, playing at nights and the long periods on the road only to get home at 3 a.m. and then get up early to play a home game.”
Colbert said they give the player his own area, with a room and a private bathroom. In recent years, a second bedroom has opened up when their children moved out, and they have offered temporary housing for a second player.
The Colberts started by hosting Mets strength coach Clayton Wilson. Over the years, they have hosted Patrick Arnold, Travis Reagan, Chris Rivera, Hissan Pena and Dan Pfau.
The players can pay up to a certain amount for rent, but that is negotiable by families. Jill Colbert, who enjoys cooking, said she finds out what each players likes to eat. The players appreciate the home-cooked meals.
In return, the experience has enriched the Colberts’ lives. Not only has it been a positive influence for Garrett, it has deepened the family’s understanding of baseball and given them a stake for watching the Suns.
“Kelly loves having them around because it gives him someone to talk sports with,” Jill Colbert said. “They come home, sit around and talk about the game.
“You start to worry about them like they are your kids. You learn when to ask them things and when not to. You get nervous when they play. Kelly always asks why we get pitchers, because that is tougher to watch because you always want them to do well.”
After the season, the players go on their way, hopefully never to see Hagerstown again. It’s like sending a child out into the world. Then the Colberts sit and wait for news about them — and also wait for the next group to enter to start it all over again.
“We have a lot of laughs and we get to know the players, their girlfriends and their parents,” Colbert said. “It’s like a big extended family. We have been doing this for seven years and we are still in contact with our first one. They all give us some big memories.”
For more information about becoming a Hagerstown Suns host family, contact Jill Colbert at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sara Grasmon at email@example.com.
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