Be our guest: Host families key in Squeeze's first season

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  • | 8:00 a.m. July 31, 2014
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Jerry Fay wasn’t too keen on the proposal.

While Fay’s wife, Karen, was all for it, the longtime Windermere resident was, in his own words, “cool to the idea.”

It might have taken some convincing, but Jerry and Karen Fay did eventually choose to become a host family for the Winter Garden Squeeze this summer. The Squeeze are a first-year franchise in the Florida Collegiate Summer League — a league for college baseball players around the country which is set to conclude its 11th season this week. They play their home games at West Orange High School.

Since late May, the Fays have been providing a home for Brady Domangue, a pitcher from Louisiana State University, as a host family — and they haven’t regretted it a bit.

“It’s turned out to be pretty good,” Jerry Fay said with a smile while watching the Squeeze host the College Park Freedom this past Friday. “It’s been a positive experience — he’s a great kid, for one thing. …

“We just said, ‘Here’s the key and here’s a garage door opener.”

Host families like the Fays are crucial to the existence of the FCSL, which serves as a proving ground for college ballplayers to show their stuff to pro scouts. Recruiting them to the fold was one of the first things on the to-do list for Squeeze General Manager Adam Bates when he took over the expansion franchise.

Now, with Winter Garden’s first season almost in the books, Bates has slept a bit easier this summer knowing that the inaugural host family experience for the Squeeze has been a positive one.

“This league is nowhere without the host families, so you start there,” Bates said. “The kids have been great, and the host families really stepped up.…

“They’ve been very respectful and [Squeeze head coach] Ruben [Felix] did a good job of laying [the rules] down just from Day 1.”

The FCSL was started with ballplayers with local roots in mind, and the Winter Garden franchise has four players who played their high school ball in West Orange County — along with another five players from the Central Florida region. Still, part of the league’s growth over the years has been, in part, because of the desire of non-local players to come to Florida, and there are 19 players on the Squeeze’s roster from outside of Central Florida.

This is also the case for each of the six teams in the annual, two-month-long league, and it makes the host families invaluable to it.

While a necessity, it is also an important experience for the batch of players that comes each summer. All of them are chasing their dreams of becoming professional baseball players and, for those who one day will hear their name called by a Big League ball club at the draft, host families could again become a way of life for a few years.

“I think it’s a big learning-curve for them…in the Minor Leagues, most of the time, lower Minor Leagues, you get host families because you don’t make a ton of money,” Felix said. “It’s good for them to kind of be on their own, independent, away from family and friends back home, and they make their own family away from home.”

Host families are required to provide “a stable, clean and healthy environment with access to a washer, dryer and refrigerator,” per the FCSL’s website. Additionally, families that can afford to provide breakfast and lunch meals for the athletes — who provide their own transportation — are preferred.

The schedule of the two-month season, with the players at the ballpark virtually every day from the afternoon until after 10 p.m., creates a situation where guest players are often not around much when the families are home from work.

That element means a certain bond of trust must be established between player and family — a bond that George Poelker says can be a joy to forge. He and his wife, Judy Black, hosted Chace Sarchet, Zane Ancell and Matt McLean, all outfielders from Texas.

“We basically turned our house over to them,” Poelker said. “Evidently, there was some trust because we didn’t have any problems — it was like having…our own kids hanging out at the house for a couple of months.”

Compensation for the host families is minimal at $50 per week, according to the league’s website, but families are given another incentive in the form of leaguewide passes for every game and they are made to feel like part of the team.

For someone like Bates, who is working to build a fan base for a new team in town, the host families also can provide a foundation of that support base as they have for the league’s other teams over the years.

“There are some host families that have been [participating] for eight or 10 years,” Bates said. “I want to have that legacy here to do that.”

Bates, a Winter Garden resident who has been around baseball his whole life in many capacities, says he has observed firsthand over the years the effects of the host family dynamic — both for the players and for the families who may one day be able to boast having housed a Big League ballplayer.

“Some of my friends that played in pro ball [still] talk about their host family experience…you have that lifetime connection,” Bates said. “I’ve had some of my buddies…who still say they talk to their host family from Billings, Mont.”

Whether the Fays or any of the other host families who have pitched in this season will one day be able to turn on the television and see their former houseguests remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — they will be recommending the host family experience to friends of theirs for the 2015 season.

“Oh yeah — I recommend anybody interested in baseball or anything to do it,” Poelker said. “It’s a blast.”

Fay agrees, too — making for two endorsements that are music to the ears of Bates.

After a successful first season, Bates is anticipating a surge in interest of potential host family applicants and has plans to try and have host families help out with the Futures Wood-bat League (the FCSL’s “minor league”) team that also plays its games out of West Orange, in addition to the Squeeze.

“Your best source of business is referrals,” Bates said. “I think we’re going to turn away host families next year.”