The Shenandoah Valley-Herald (Woodstock, VA)
Home Away From Home
New Market Host Families Leave Traditional Town Mark On Future Baseball Stars
By John Galle, Shenandoah Valley-Herald, July 3, 2008
New Market - Once upon a time, Mona Wolfe had a home to herself in the summertime. Now, the Valley League fan can't imagine life without being a host mother of the Rebels.
In Shenandoah County, both the New Market Rebels and the Woodstock River Bandits rely on host families to house and take care of Valley League baseball players during the summer season. After all, the players are coming from colleges all over the nation in order to better themselves on the diamond.
However, with the positive influence of small-town host families, Valley Leaguers are learning much more than just baseball.
Gateway to the Majors, indeed
"Today, the Valley League; tomorrow, the Majors!" said Wolfe, as her host players Nick Arata and Nate Nelson signed a foul ball for her last season.
They rolled their eyes at the thought.
It was the tail end of a dismal year and New Market wasn't even playoff-bound. To make matters seem worse, Nelson had the lowest batting average on the team and Arata felt his year had been average at best.
However, sure enough, both Arata and Nelson were selected in the Major League Baseball draft. And the foul ball, which was a christmas present for Wolfe's grandsons, has received a boost in value.
Wolfe was first introduced to the idea of hosting by good friend Kim Hafner, whose husband Jay is currently a volunteer with the Rebels. Wolfe was hesitant at first with her biggest fear being the most popular one — the idea of being alone in your own house with a stranger.
"We do reference checks and character checks," assured Alger. "We make sure we bring in good quality young men with integrity and character. Host families already have that, so there's usually a very good ending to it."
Knowing Wolfe, Jay Hafner knew it was something that would fit her lifestyle perfectly.
"She's such a wonderful person with an incredible wacky side to her," he said. "Being by herself, it was a win-win situation. Someone young sees someone outside of their own parents who is respectful, loving and caring. It expands you as a person."
In being a positive influence in the lives of young, up-and-coming athletes, Wolfe and other host families are left with a sense of team pride. And at the same time, the ball player oftentimes feels part of the family.
Likewise, the host families come together in the stands to form their own special bond.
"It's fun to watch games with them," said Hafner. "It's like a little community."
Aside from Wolfe and the Hafners, team president and owner Bruce Alger is also a proud host parent. This year, Alger is keeping five players with his wife Lynne, who is the program coordinator.
"Host families are the backbone of the Rebel organization," Bruce Alger said. "And once you do it, you're hooked."
Recently, the Algers got a call from someone interested in hosting players this season. Since everyone had already been placed, Lynne Alger told the woman she'd be put on the list for next year.
"I heard some familes have two or three players," the lady commented.
"Well, yes," replied Alger. "We have five."
"What are the chances of me taking some of your burden?" the lady asked.
Without hesitating, Alger fired back the same answer that any other host parent would in that situation.
"You're not getting any of my boys," she said.
According to Bruce Alger, that just about sums up the relationship that develops. Host parents get pretty possessive of their players. Plus, they get comfortable where they are and would probably not want to move anyhow, Carol Lanham pointed out.
Dale Brannon has become a regular in New Market, as he is in his third season with the Rebels while staying with the Algers. He has "graduated" to his own room, which he ended up sharing this year with childhood friend Riley Cooper.
Alger still hears from past players he's hosted and even receives visits from them over the holidays and at Rebel games in the summer.
"We get wedding invites, graduation announcements and birth announcements," explained Bruce Alger. "Phone calls on father's day and mother's day — those things make it pretty special."
There's two sides to every coin, and just as much uncertainty in the mind of a Valley League player entering a strange home in a strange county.
However, in the hosting process, families learn about the players and start building a relationship with them way before the first pitch is thrown at Rebel Park.
"There are some teams that use apartments and different things like that, but we like the relationship families create and the comraderie it gives our community," said Bruce Alger.
The Algers host several get-togethers in the offseason, including spring ones where families can look at player bios, said Alger.
Similar to the process of placing a foreign exchange student, Lynne Alger and Carol Lanham coordinate efforts to place players with families who share interests. However, other factors also come into play.
"With the gas crunch, we had several players this year come without cars," explained Carol Lanham. "So we had to put them with players who had cars."
Computer access, allergies to pets, similar sibling matching, distance to the ballpark and other practical factors are also considered when placing a Valley Leaguer.
While players get to know their host families over the phone in the pre-season, parents of the players also build relationships with the hosts.
"We took a vacation last year and went out to Missouri and Kansas, because we had players from out there," said Alger. "Their moms and dads wanted to host us for a couple of days."
The two usual types of families who benefit the most from hosting are families with kids in Little League — as the players become both older brothers and hero-like role models for them — and retired/older couples.
Back country resort
One popular place to stay for New Market baseball players is with one such retired couple in the back country of Mount Jackson, near Basye.
Besides having experience as hosts for five or six years now, Bob and Carol Lanham also have a sprawling, resort-style atmosphere on their 70-acre farm to share with players, complete with a pool, croquet court, shooting range, tennis courts and horses.
But don't be fooled.
While the Lanhams want their ball players to enjoy their summer vacation and the facilities, it's not a free ride by any stretch of the imagination. Some ground rules must be followed, as in most households.
"We try to have a totally family atmosphere," said Bob Lanham, which includes eating a family meal at 3 p.m. to accomodate their daily baseball schedule. "We insist on that and that they work."
The Lanhams arrange for their players to have part-time jobs before they even arrive in Shenandoah County, though it's not mandated by the Valley League or the Rebels organization.
Once, a player questioned the Lanhams' rationale, as he was unsure of why he needed a part-time summer job as a baseball player.
"At the end of the summer, he thanked us profusely," said Bob Lanham.
The job was probably the player's first one outside of baseball, he explained. And life lessons were learned as a result of the new experience.
At the Lanham's, there are plenty of those to go around, particularly for players coming from the city life.
One group of host players had the task of helping Bob Lanham set up fencing along the property's driveway and build a new barn.
"They didn't know one end of a hammer from another," he said. "One loved the nail gun. He wouldn't lay it down."
This year, the Lanhams' group of three Rebels have been one of their most fun groups. And while most of their teammates had cited baseball improvement among their summer goals, they had "learning to ride a horse" as one of their top priorities.
The Lanhams also taught their host players about vegetables and how to pick bushels to help out. After tasting Carol's homemade apple sauce, they now want to learn how to make it.
Putting hosting into perspective
Melissa Dodge, an avid New Market fan, and her husband Charlie, recently posted a blog on www.aroundthevalleyin60days.blogspot.com discussing "their take on the Valley League and what it means to be a part of it."
In the conclusion, Melissa Dodge summed up the symbiotic relationship of the Valley League player and the host family, using her own experience as an example.
"As host families, we are providing a citizenship model for our visiting ball players by exposing them to new and different experiences, locales, traditions and perspectives. This exposure to the outside world sometimes stretches these young men beyond their usual comfort zone, which will better prepare them for the rigors and pitfalls of either professional sports or life in general."
Most importantly, however, Dodge said the experience has allowed her to lay a foundation of commitment, community involvement and generosity with each Valley Leaguer she's hosted. And that bond can last a lifetime.
"What can be more satisfying or rewarding than that?" concluded Dodge.
Contact John Galle at 459-4078 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008, Shenandoah Valley-Herald, All Rights Reserved.
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