by NICHOLAS J. CONKLIN
The West Michigan Whitecaps have been an integral part of the West Michigan sports scene over the past 15 years. With the successes of league championships in 1996, 1998 and 2006, and the many other accomplishments, the parents and families of the players take a large amount of pride in their sons. But, while many of these players tend to come from across the country and even around the world like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Taiwan, the question of where they live is often one that is forgotten. Unlike major league players, the players just breaking into the minor leagues often do not have the large contracts and salaries of their big league counterparts. With the added movement that many players make throughout the different levels, apartment hunting may be too time consuming and costly for them. That is why the West Michigan Whitecaps decided to adopt a unique and personalized way in which to help house players.
By calling upon the support of the surrounding communities, the Whitecaps were able to establish the Keep-a-Cap program. The program has been a team initiative since they began play in 1994. Although totally voluntary, nearly 90 percent of players yearly participate in the program, and over 50 families have been involved since its inception.
In order for a family to become hosts, they must pass a selection process as well as a home evaluation. The process typically begins around the beginning of January for the upcoming season. Whitecaps Community Relations Coordinator Anna Peterson begins the applicant process by sending an application to current and past host families. After communicating with the interested family, a home visit is scheduled and then, if the family can be approved, the family profile is complied and sent along to the players. The host families are required to provide the players with a room and bathroom facility, as well as cooking and laundry facilities. However, the players are mainly on their own when it comes to cleaning and transportation—and pay a small fee for their living expenses.
Rockford has been one area that has taken to housing many of the Whitecaps over the years. With over six host families in the Rockford area, and over 20 families throughout West Michigan participating, the program has seen enormous growth since its beginning.
“West Michigan is a great community, and we receive a lot of support from families, especially those in the area,” said Peterson.
The family choice is up to the players, and the Whitecaps give them family suggestions from former players who have participated in the host program.
Although the role of the host family can change from season to season, depending on their relationship with the player, the main goal is providing them a comfortable place to stay. A season typically runs from April until September, which means that the players are away from home much of the time; it is nice for them to have a warm, comfortable place.
“They’re not living dorm-style where they’re eating KFC or Burger King,” said Sue Jazwiec. Jazwiec, along with her husband and son, has been a host family for seven years. She also says constancy is a key to the relationship between family and players.
“The host family gives them some stability. They feel like they’re coming home, there’s food in the fridge, and they have their own place upstairs,” said Jazwiec.
Another host family from Rockford, Dave and Carmen Cox, has housed players since the 2005 season, and has come to see the program as a very rewarding process. Originally from Atlanta, Ga., the Coxes were unaware that West Michigan had a minor league team, let alone a host family program. Until their move to the Rockford area in the fall of 2000, they had never been involved in any type of athlete housing program. The Coxes first began hosting players four years ago, and have housed a total of 14 individuals. Since that time they have come to form many close relationships with the players. The Cox family has hosted Major Leaguers such as Cameron Maybin (outfielder, Florida Marlins) and Jair Jurrjens (pitcher, Atlanta Braves). Referring to the players as their “summer sons,” the Coxes have built many close bonds with them, and have continued communication with them over the years.
“We have been fortunate enough to watch them, encourage them, and visit them during their careers,” said Carmen, during a telephone interview from Atlanta, while on a trip and visiting former player Jurrjens, who was the starting pitcher that night for the Braves.
But the key to building these close relationships comes through the ability to make the players feel at home. For Dale and Sheryl Dalman, this includes such adventures as bike rides, summer jazz concerts, and even boating and tubing at Sandy Pines. While, Sue Jazwiec stresses the point that “these guys are 21 and 22 years old, who have a lot of freedom, and can tend to come and go as they need to due to their schedules,” she also offered advice to those unfamiliar with the program that the amount of time spent with the players is dependant upon everyone’s individual schedules. This means that often the host family can go days without seeing a player or being able to talk with them, which makes the time together special, and often the dinner table has become a solid meeting ground for the family and players. The Dalmans also try to personalize the occasion by making some of the players’ favorite meals, and Sheryl says, “If the guys get their arepas [a Venezuelan bread staple], they are happy campers!”
Watch next week’s Squire for the continuation of the Keep-a-Cap program.