Scrappers extended families
Though he’s been sidelined this season after having Tommy John surgery, Cleveland Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin always checks in with Wern family of Howland.
“He always tells us how he’s doing,” said Maureen Wern. “Just a few weeks ago he sent an email saying that he’s been able to go back to his home in Texas and visit his family a little bit.”
For a few months during the 2006 season, Tomlin, a Texas Tech product and 19th round pick of the Indians, was part of the Wern family. Maureen and her husband, Chuck, are a long-time host family for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. For the past 14 years, they’ve opened their home to young baseball prospects, starting with the team’s first year in 1999.
“Chuck is a former baseball player, actually,” Maureen said. “When the team came in, he just said if there’s anything we could do for these kids, we’d love to help them. We just started hosting.
“It’s good for the community. It’s so much fun and I can’t believe we’re here for another season. It goes by so fast.”
Chuck, a Vienna High graduate, played baseball at Duke University and for minor and independent league teams in North Carolina. While in the Army, he played baseball and basketball overseas with goodwill ambassadors, Larry Costello and Bill Fitch.
“I see myself in the young men we host,” Chuck said.
Maureen estimates that more than 35 players have stayed in their house over the past 15 years. Recently, the Werns have hosted top prospects like 2011 first-round pick Francisco Lindor and 2012 first-round pick Tyler Naquin. This year, they welcomed three Scrappers into their home: Nick Hamilton (an infielder who was recently promoted to the Lake County Captains), Martin Cervenka (a catcher from Prague, Czech Republic) and Sicnarf Loopstock (a catcher from Aruba).
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE
With more than 40-percent of minor league players hailing from foreign countries, there’s always a chance a host family could end up with someone who doesn’t speak English as his first language.
“Our house has been a United Nations,” Maureen Wern said. “But we can all speak the language of baseball. It bonds us.”
In 2009, Taiwan native Chun Chen was a Scrapper and member of the Wern household.
“I bought Mandarin flash cards and we left cards on the kitchen counter and that’s how we communicated,” Maureen said. “It was actually the hardest with him. There really isn’t too bad of a language barrier because they all take required English classes.”
The Americans even learn a thing or two, also. The Ruberto family of Howland has hosted Scrappers from 2000 to 2004 and again in 2010 and 2011. The Spanish language is fairly familiar for the full-blooded Italians. Alyssa, the daughter of Joe and Fran Ruberto, took Spanish classes at Youngstown State University.
“It came pretty easy,” said Alyssa, who is a former Scrappers intern and currently working for the Fort Myers Miracle. “They still call me ‘hermanita,’ which is Spanish for little sister.”
She also received salsa dancing tips from Julio Ramirez and Richard Martinez would cook special dinners for the family after games.
Warren residents Gail and Terry Drushel host at least five Latin-born players each year. They are also leaders of the Scrappers Backers club. Gail is easy to identify around Eastwood Field with her cowbells and pin-infested Indians cap.
Tom Flajnik, also of Warren, has hosted 16 players over the past five years. Eight have been from the Domican Republic.
“They all actually know some English,” he said. “They’re nice and respectful and keep the place clean.”
WELCOME TO THE CRIB
Flajnik has transformed his finished basement from an extended storage space to a baseball shrine, of sorts. There’s posters and cardboard cut outs of major league players, along with jerseys from teams across the country adorning the walls.
“They have it all down there,” Flajnik said. “Even a refrigerator, shower and they can use a car. They’re separated from the rest of the house and family, but they’ll always come up and eat and talk with us.”
His two daughters, Grace and Marleah, are always at the park with their dad and always plan baseball road trips to see the players they’ve hosted rise through the Cleveland system.
“I host for the kids,” Flajnik said. “We’ve probably seen 220 games over the past five years, including New York-Penn League All-Star Games. Baseball has been in the family going back five generations. My grandmother is 94 years old and still watches games and tells stories of walking to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
“It’s all about keep the tradition alive.”
The Werns have even added an addition to their already large house to accommodate the players. During the season, they’ll throw parties for other host families and their players. The Scrappers production team even featured their house on an edition of “Scrappers Cribs” that was shown on the Eastwood Field jumbotron with former players Jeremy Tice and Jeff Alcombrack.
HOSTING COMES NATURALLY
Another Eastwood Field staple is Jesse Piecuch. The North Bloomfield native and Champion resident is a professional photographer whose work has been featured on many national baseball sites. He’s a diehard Indians fan and has been keeping tabs on the Scrappers since their inception. In 2012, Piecuch and his wife, Angie, hosted Aaron Siliga and Joey Wendle.
“We knew we would be at the ballpark every game and we had empty bedrooms, so it seemed like a fun opportunity,” Piecuch said. “The boys really gave us something else to root for. We wouldn’t trade last summer for anything. The relationships we have with Joey and Aaron extend way beyond the diamond.”
Patti and Joe Bixler of Howland have a relationship with Victor Martinez that has blossomed over the past 15 years. They hosted the former catcher during the franchise’s inaugural season in 1999. Whenever Martinez, now a member of the Detroit Tigers, plays in Cleveland they are able to catch up and get behind-the-scenes access at Progressive Field. They’re even close with Martinez’s wife, Margaret, and children, Victor Jose and Maria Victoria.
It’s hard for Alyssa Ruberto to sum up the experience of living with professional baseball players for a good part of her adolescent life.
“I have too many stories,” she said.
Luke Field, a 2011 Mahoning Valley outfielder, lived with the family. His brother, Nate, was a player for the Kansas City Royals and had his first major league start in Cleveland.
“He named his first son, Jacob, because of that,” Alyssa said. “So it’s Jacob Field. There’s so many funny memories.”
Not every minor league franchise requires the services of a host family. But for lower-level teams, especially in short-season leagues, it’s a more affordable approach in providing living arrangements and a safe, comfortable environment for what could be the first time a young player is living on his own. It’s especially convenient for a player just starting out to not have to worry about paying rent or a hotel fee.
There’s perks for host families, too. They receive tickets to every home game, discounts on merchandise in the team store and access to private events.
“We consider it a privilege,” Maureen Wern said. “We even become so close with the players’ actual family members.
“Every Christmas you get a phone call. When every season starts you get an update and when every season ends you get a ‘thank you.’ You can’t beat those special connections that make it all worth it.”