Kay Jones hit a home run when she was looking for something to do after retiring.
As host family director for the Gateway Grizzlies baseball team, she matches players with local families. She and husband Ken, who owns Master Pla Hearing Aids and is a former umpire, have three players living in their charming Collinsville home this summer.
“Are you hungry?” she said to Bradon Reitano as she stirred a big pot of homemade beef and noodles.
“I am starving,” said the dark-haired Grizzlies’ outfielder, just home after a Friday night game.
“Tell the other guys to get on up here. I don’t want them to keep me up too late.”
It was about 11 p.m. and Kay, a farm girl who taught home ec at Collinsville High School, was doing what she does after every home game, serving a home-cooked meal. Ken had the Cardinals game on the living room TV, but made a small plate and sat down at the kitchen table with the players to talk about the Grizzlies’ 12-2 victory at GCS Ballpark in Sauget over rival River City Rascals, based in St. Charles, Mo.
“Max did a pretty decent job tonight,” Ken said of the pitcher. “I thought he got tough with men on base.”
The guys filled up one plate, then another, complimenting their host as they ate and talked baseball.
Bradon started the season with the Joneses, but infielder Ryan Soares and catcher Tyler Tewell had been there less than a week. Tyler had just been traded from the Sioux Falls Canaries and couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“At my host family’s in South Dakota, we had to supply our own food and drinks,” said red-haired Tyler, who hails from Charlotte, N.C. “They did a lot for us. But here, having food is a lot easier. It takes a lot of pressure off. We have a lot of stuff to worry about as far as baseball goes. With a host family, you don’t have to worry about it much. I’m getting married soon. This way, I can save a little money toward my honeymoon.”
“There’s less focus on the living situation and more focus on baseball,” said Ryan, who grew up on the East Coast.
Ken never tires of talking baseball. Kay never tires of helping players, from cooking meals to doing laundry.
“It’s very rare how much you look out for us,” said Ryan.
“You haven’t experienced a getaway,” said Bradon. “I have.”
Players on both teams sit down to a catered meal at the ballpark before going on the road, then Kay and Alice Murakami make desserts.
Before her players leave, Kay does their laundry.
“Each one has his own laundry basket,” said Ken. “She will put pins on their clothing.”
He explained his wife’s sorting system: “One doesn’t get any pins. One gets one and the other gets two.”
A kitchen counter held a photo of the Joneses’ three sons, all grown and moved to other parts of the country.
“These kids are all younger than our three sons by a bunch,” said Kay.
“This helps keep us young,” said her husband.
Who’s on first?
Kay works closely with Grizzlies manager Phil Warren. Roster moves are common. The players that are here in April might be different from those in August.
“He always lets me know when someone is coming in,” she said. “Say somebody came in tonight, and got here at 10. We wait for them so they have a place to sleep. A lot of players come without cars. They don’t know how long they will get to stay. He likes position players to stay together and pitchers. They come to the field at different times.”
Kay and her committee screen potential families, and are looking for more.
“It would be nice if a family could host two players,” she said. Players usually range in age from 22 to 27 and play 48 home games. Their starting monthly salary is $600; with three years’ experience, $1,200.
“All my host families take the players into their homes and treat them like their own sons. They eat meals together. Families attend home games and some away games and cheer them on. Most provide food at home after each game and give them snacks to take along on road trips.”
“When we find the time, we try to take them to Ted Drewes and take them to eat on The Hill. They never had toasted ravioli and don’t know anything about pork steaks. That’s a Midwestern thing.
“It is always so hard to see your player get traded, cut or moved up, but it usually is not long until another player signs on to take their place.”
In return, a host family receives season tickets and food at the stadium. They get a shirt, a night in the stadium suites and enduring friendships.
Mike and Alice Murakami, of Belleville, cheered for the home team from seats behind home plate. Mike kept score on his iPad.
“If we are a little distracted, that’s our player out there pitching,” said Alice. “His mom is here.”
Max Schonfeld, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., was having a good night, pitching his way out of jams as his team supported him with plenty of runs. Final score: 12-2
The Murakamis started hosting seven years ago.
“Our oldest son had gone to college,” said Alice, a radiation therapist. “Our middle son had left. Out of three boys, we had one left.”
“We had a spare bedroom,” said Mike “We were thinking about doing an exchange student. After coming to a couple games, we thought a ballplayer would make a great role model. They actually do make great role models. ... It’s worked out very well. The guys are always nice. The son (Noah) that was home was in sixth grade when we started. He works here now. This is his second home.”
Same for Mike and Alice.
“Since hosting, we make just about every home game,” said Mike, who teaches math and computer technology at Whiteside Middle School.
Does the hosting make them feel tied down?
“It’s just for the summer. These guys aren’t around the house much anyway,” said Mike. “They get home late, sleep late, get up and go to the ballpark.”
“I tell them where the food is, this is what we have,” said Alice. “We always keep frozen stuff if they want that. Where we live, there are a ton of fast food restaurants.”
She also cooks a lot of casseroles. One time, she prepared a 3-pound meatloaf, enough she figured for her family and the two players they were hosting.
“The boys came home, looked at the meatloaf, cut it in half and each ate half,” she said, pausing. “It was all good.”
“ I was surprised by how much they can eat and how tall they can be,” said their son Noah, 18, a Belleville West grad who will attend SIUC. “I’ve always been into baseball. I think it’s pretty cool to get to know them on a more personal level.”
Randy Schonfeld, mom of pitcher Max, took a seat in front of the Murakamis. She had been in Chicago on business and drove down for the game.
“I couldn’t be in the same state and not come see him,” she said of her 22-year-old son, a graduate of New York’s Molloy College where he had a 1.61 ERA his senior year. “He majored in computer information science. Hopefully, he will never have to use it. He’s living the dream, every kid’s dream, and his father’s. It’s what you hope for as a little boy.”
Tyler Herron, 18, sat a few rows away. He grew up with a series of ballplayers spending summers with his family.
“It’s pretty cool,” said the recent Belleville West grad who plans to attend SIUE. “When we have three guys, it’s like having three older brothers at the house. It’s nice to have that atmosphere.”
His parents, Kevin and Nancy Herron, got involved after reading about the need for hosts in the newspaper.
“It was either go on a bus tour to see Whitey Herzog inducted into the Hall of Fame or be a host family,” said Tyler. “When the players come around, we have some entertainment. ... Our first year, we had a guy named Jason Patton. We keep in touch. He lives near Canton, Ohio. We went to his wedding. He came down for my graduation party.”
Tyler clues players in about The Edge, “the largest lazer tag arena around. They get excited about that. They also like to play Xbox.”
This year, three pitchers are living with the Herrons.
“These guys are from different parts of the country. Within a few weeks, they are like brothers. They are there for each other.”
At the ballpark
Before Friday night’s game, Kay and Ken watched the Grizzlies stretch in the outfield.
“That’s Ryan,” said Ken, pointing out one of the players staying with them. “He’s a second baseman. He had 4 RBIs last night. Tyler, the other one, he got hit on the forearm last night. He’s a local boy from near Effingham. A boy here from Bloomington hit quite a few home runs. No. 25 is from LA. We get everything. Some of them have been up at a higher level. ... If they perform well, they have a chance of going back up. .. The goal is to get above this level if they can.”
To make it to Class A, AA, AAA, the major league.
“Rolando, he had a home run last night ....”
When you hear Kay and Ken talk about players, it’s like hearing about an extended family. There’s Nathan Roush, a pitcher, who married a girl from St. Louis, and Logan Parker, from Odessa, Texas.
“We both got attached to him,” said Kay. “He’s a Texas boy who married a beautiful girl from Ohio. He’s a coach now.”
And Scott Patterson, the pitcher who played two seasons with the Yankees. (“He liked it so well here, he’s back living in the area.”)
The Joneses estimate they have hosted a hundred players.
“They get here and bingo, you almost like them right away,” said Kay.
“Helping young men live out their dream,” said Kay. “They want to make it to the major leagues. ... They come and go, so I end up hosting about six during a season. Some years, I have had twelve players come through in one summer. Over the years, we have attended many weddings, graduations and celebrated the arrival of babies.”
Ken had mixed emotions 14 years ago when his wife suggested hosting.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into,” he said.
Now, their summers revolve around baseball. Water bills go up, food bills go up, and so do their spirits.
“We don’t think of having a meal without them included,” said Kay.
“To most of us males in the home,” said Ken, “they give us a chance to talk baseball. We had a guy last year who was a teammate of Brandon Phillips. When the Reds came to town, he got good seats. Getting to know them and talk baseball is a lot of fun. All three of our boys played.”
Soon, the game was underway and Ken turned his attention to the field. One of his players was up.
“Base hit,” he said. “Good for Ryan.”
Interested in hosting a baseball player or two? Contact Jessica Kuhn with Gateway Grizzlies at 618 337-3000.