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‘Second family’ still fans

Champion family, Rays’ player keep bond out of the park

Staff photo / Nathanael Hawthrone Jesse Piecuch, of Champion, looks over some Joey Wendle memorabilia he has collected since Wendle stayed with Piecuch in 2012. Piecuch was part of a host family for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in 2012, and Wendle is currently in the World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

CHAMPION — With the World Series underway, a Champion family has a personal tie to one of the teams competing to be champions.

One of the Tampa Bay Rays’ key players, Joey Wendle, started his big league career in the Valley in 2012 with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, a Class A short-season affiliate for the Cleveland Indians. He spent all of the 2012 season with Jesse and Angie Piecuch, his host family for the team.

“We did it just that one season. Originally we were supposed to get Aaron Siliga and Ryan Merritt, but that ended up not working out. So, they said we’re gonna give you this guy named Joey Wendle. I already knew Siliga from the year before, but I didn’t know this guy,” Jesse said.

Their relationship didn’t stop after spending that summer with the Piecuches.

For many players, the Scrappers and similar teams are the first step on the way to the major leagues. Also, this is their first time being far from home without anywhere to stay. In the case of the Scrappers, the team relies on the generosity of community members to be host families for some players.

A host family is essentially a second family to players.

Jesse has a history with the Scrappers. He worked as a bat boy during the team’s inaugural season and then as a photographer for a couple of years before and when he was a host.

MEMORIES

Jesse has very fond memories of Wendle from that summer. Some of his favorites are when Wendle and Siliga came home and they all played ping pong or pool for hours.

One memory, however, stands out.

“Opening night that year was probably my favorite memory. I got done shooting pictures, came home, sat down on the floor and started editing photos. Joey was only 15-20 minutes behind me by the time I left the ballpark. I thought, ‘This kid’s gonna just come home, go to his room and call whoever.’ He walked in, set his stuff down and plopped down on the ground next to me and said, ‘Lets see what you got tonight.'” Jesse said.

Piecuch has nothing but praise for the ballplayer.

“He’s just a great guy all around. He is the guy that, if you had to pick someone out for your daughter to marry, he would be the guy, and baseball has nothing to do with it. It’s because he is just that good of a person. He’s a good baseball player, but he’s just a far better person,” Jesse said.

Angie said even though Wendle isn’t technically family, it feels like he is.

“You’re just excited to see him succeed because you know how good he is and now you’re seeing everyone else realize how good he is. Seeing his hard work pay off is the best part,” Angie said.

RELATIONSHIP

Wendle and the Piecuches’ relationship still is going strong. While Jesse and Angie try not to bother him during the season, they have a sibling relationship in the sense that they speak to each other on holidays and big life events. Wendle even invited the Piecuches to his wedding, two years after he stayed with them. Wendle and the Piecuches’ children are in the same age range.

Jesse also has an extensive collection of Wendle merchandise he’s gathered since 2012. Countless baseball cards fill a binder that’s also filled with a locker tag from his time with the Oakland Athletics, newspaper clippings and some other items. He also has a signed bat from a little after the Scrappers season. Jesse even got hold of Wendle’s 2012 All-Star jersey with the Scrappers but gave it to Brian Orfin, the owner of a Scrappers museum in Niles.

“It’s the crown jewel of the museum,” Orfin said.

Jesse’s favorite item in his collection, however, is a baseball from the first time Wendle stepped up to the plate in the big leagues.

“He smoked a line drive up the middle, and Carlos Correa booted it. Everyone thought it was going to be ruled a hit, but it ended up being an error. But MLB authenticated it and gave it to him just in case it got overturned. It never did, so it’s not his first hit but its from his first at-bat,” Jesse said.

To Jesse, it proves how good their relationship is. Wendle’s first major league at-bat took place just more than four years after he stayed with Jesse and Angie, but he still remembered them and what they did for him.

In a letter Wendle sent with the ball, he said: “I can’t thank you guys enough for all you have done for me.”

THE PLAYER

Wendle is known as a utility player, meaning he can play multiple positions on the field. Jesse said that started with the Scrappers.

Another one of Jesse’s favorite stories comes from when Wendle was trying to be in the starting lineup consistently. At the time, the team had a player by the name of Jose Ramirez at Wendle’s primary position — second base. When approached by the coaching staff about playing third base, Jesse said Wendle jumped at the opportunity.

“I asked if he’d ever played third base before. He said, ‘No, but I’ll do anything to get in the lineup,'” Jesse said. “They saw him basically hit his way into the lineup, so after Ramirez left he was soon moved to second base.”

When Wendle eventually was called up to the majors, it was with the Oakland Athletics.

“I don’t like bothering him throughout the season. So after his last game that year, I sent him a giant text message with a bunch of questions about what it was like and what he was thinking during that time,” Jesse said.

The Scrappers have had a bounty of players make their way up to the big leagues. Most notably, C.C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Francisco Lindor and Wendle all spent time with the team. Of more than 100 players from the Scrappers to make it to MLB, only 19 have appeared in a World Series; six of them were only with the team to rehab injuries.

On his road to the majors, Wendle was drafted by the Indians in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. With the Scrappers in 2012, he was named a starter in the all-star game, played at Eastwood Field. In 61 games that season, Wendle finished with a .327 batting average, 37 runs batted in, a slugging percentage of .469 and four home runs. The .327 batting average he posted still ranks in the top-10 batting averages in Scrappers history.

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