Host families give baseball big-league dreamers a place to call home
By Lou Fancher
From a 35-year-old knuckleballer to kids fresh out of college pitching baseballs at speeds three times their age to longtime bachelors who suddenly find themselves playing "Father knows best," Pittsburg is a city of improbable dreams.
Fans and even casual spectators are familiar with the high hopes of minor-league players like the men on the Pittsburg Diamonds team.
The independent Pacific Association of Professional Baseball League club that in 2015 switched ownership and its name from the Pittsburg Mettle to the Pittsburg Diamonds opened their 78-game summer season May 31 at City Park Field #1.
Led by Pittsburg native, former major league infielder and manager Aaron Miles, owner Khurram Shah and General Manager Tom Macari, the 26-member team with Dylan Brammer on the mound tossed off the defending champion San Rafael Pacifics 5-0 to kick off the season.
But the greatest kick -- and the less well-known dreams -- aren't happening on the field. Instead, host families get a boost by opening their homes to minor league players whose take-home pay is a mere fraction of the figures MLB players command.
Across the board, host families say that helping a young -- or not so young -- player by providing them with free housing means they are part of the dream too.
"When the team first came out, I Googled them," said Denny Seelinger, a host for the past three seasons.
"The webpage said they needed host families. I thought about it for about five minutes and said, yeah, I'm in.
"These kids were living the dream, why not join them?"
Seelinger, a fifth grade teacher at Parkside Elementary for 11 years, grew up in Antioch, going to A's games. "First time, I was six. Been a fan ever since." His 1,700-square foot, 4-bedroom, 3-bath home built in 2006 is the perfect bachelor pad.
"Big couch, recliner, big fancy wood desk, big television and sound system," he said.
His background before becoming a teacher -- in the Marine Corps for a while, playing various musical instruments including "a little rock flute, like Jethro Tull," and cooking in restaurants -- suggests an easygoing, eclectic lifestyle.
The first year, he said a youngster who had been drafted by Atlanta grew too homesick and was gone in three days.
But a knuckleballer sent as a replacement was "the team's great experiment" and a fabulous storyteller. "He kept me entertained for two months."
Seelinger attends roughly three-quarters of the games and sets no house rules: "They're big boys, they know how to take care of themselves ... I'm hoping."
His current crew, outfielder Jordan Hinshaw and pitcher Garrit Granitz "cook up a storm" and have even won over Taz, his cat. "He's skittish at first, but then he realizes, the more people who feed him, that's a good thing."
With a house on the river and a pro-Giants "we bleed orange" enthusiasm for the game, Delia Orozco and Mark de la O said their home is a natural gathering place for the players.
Brammer, the pitcher who earned the season's first win, has stayed with the couple for two years.
"We wanted to support the dreams of a young player," said de la O, about why they volunteered to be a host family.
"We've sort of adopted him. He asks about eating healthy, getting rest, taking your profession seriously. "Be tenacious," is what I tell him. He doesn't take much coaching, he just wants to hear it."
Orozco said, "At first he was a stranger in the home, now he's welcome to everything." She's noticed Brammer is more disciplined this year, turning down their invitations to attend a party or go out to eat and choosing to work out instead. "He's putting baseball in front of anything."
Like Seelinger, Eric Wilkins is a bachelor and in his third year of hosting. Catcher Isaac Valdez and first baseman Ian Hagenmiller are spending the summer in Wilkins' three-bedroom, two-bath home.
"I have some rules," Wilkins said. "Keep your bathroom clean. Smoke outside. If it's in the fridge, pantry or freezer: eat it." A smoked pork roast marinaded in beer, garlic, onion and other spices was Wilkins' welcome-to-my-home meal and brotherly advice, he said, is available to any player in his home, upon request.
Wilkins can't find words to describe why his love of baseball cemented itself during childhood summers he spent at San Jose Stadium.
But the diehard Giants fan follows in lockstep with other host families' thoughts: "I'd like to help a player get into the majors. Knowing that in some little way I helped, that would be great."
Minor league salaries average roughly $400 per month, according to Macari.
Often enough, the free housing and companionship can make the difference in bringing a talented kid one step closer to The Show.
And who's to say that Brammer, who Orozoco said lost a french toast competition with her but bore no grudge and "eats anything and digs my pasta," isn't finding his fastball, in part, because there's a warm meal and familiar bed awaiting him after every game?