By: Rich Adams
Before the Great Lakes Loons take the field at Dow Diamond for the home opener, families in Midland open their doors to the players.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Class A franchise arrives in Midland for the regular season it has a few options for housing. Players can combine money and stay four-to-a-room at a local hotel or they can seek out an apartment they can share that offers month-by-month rates. Both options are costly, especially considering the average monthly salary for Class A players ranges from $1,300 to $1,500.
Another option is finding a bedroom in a local house. That’s where Kathy Buskuski, Michelle Servinski and Penny Robinson step up to the plate. They form the starting lineup of the host family coordinating team, which matches players to local host families to give the home team a more homelike experience during the season.
Buskuski’s baseball fandom goes way back. Her father played softball in the church league and taught her how to keep a baseball scorebook. She did the same for her children when they were in Little League. When the Loons moved to Midland in 2007, she went to a few games and resumed her affection for the game.
“I fell in love with going to Loons games,” Buskuski said. “Then I saw an ad looking for Loons host families and thought it would be fun.”
The three coordinators constantly refer to players as “our kids” and often form friendships with the players that last beyond the end of the season. Buskuski goes to Arizona to watch the Dodgers in spring training, where some of the minor leaguers get a chance to play with the big leaguers.
“We look up our kids while we are there and take them to dinner,” she said. “It’s fun to see where they are at. Some have moved through the system one way or another, and two touched the major leagues.”
Actually, more than 50 players who once were Loons have made it to the big show, including elite players such as Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Carlos Santana, according to the Loons’ website.
Servinski said her family has been involved since the first year the Loons landed in Midland, hosting a team videographer. The following year they hosted a player.
“Overall we have hosted about 30 kids, and it is a great experience,” Servinski said. “We try to stay in contact with them all and sometimes we go and visit their families.”
Before the team came to town, Servinski had been a casual baseball fan. Now she and her husband have gone to spring training in Arizona’s Cactus League for 11 years.
“I am into baseball a lot more now,” she said. “We have Loons season tickets.”
Robinson – fondly referred to as Grandma Loon – is a baseball fan from way back. She played softball as a child and coached her sons during their Little League days. She was open to hosting players and other Loons personnel from the start but didn’t get her first house guest until the middle of the 2007 season.
“At the end of May the team asked boosters for more families to be involved,” Robinson said. “They said many Latin players needed homes. I talked to my husband and we decided to give it a try, see what it’s all about.”
Some Loons are likely away from home for the first time.
“Some of the kids are only 18, and some have not ever been away from home,” Buskuski explained. “A lot of them are right out of high school and want to stay in a home, not in a hotel or apartment.”
Keep in mind the players at this level of the minors are young. The average age of a Class-A player is 21.2 years, according to FanGraphs.com. Rookie leaguers are even younger, averaging 19.4 years.
Twenty-seven percent of Major League Baseball players were foreign-born in the 2018 season, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis of data released by Major League Baseball.
Of those, players from the Dominican Republic topped the list. The Dominican Republic had the most foreign-born Major League players with 84, followed by Venezuela with 74 players, Cuba with 17, Mexico with 11, Japan with eight, Canada and South Korea with six each, Colombia and Curacao with five each, and Australia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Panama had three players each.
Robinson said a Venezuelan player was their first guest.
“He became a member of our family,” Robinson recalled. “His wife came to stay with us. They had their first child with us and became part of our extended family.”
Although there was a language barrier, Robinson said her youngest son was taking first-year high school Spanish at the time.
“Having a player from Venezuela actually helped him develop in his proficiency of Spanish,” Robinson said. “We used him as an interpreter, and he helped in translating conversations.”
Buskuski said another host family, the Kloas household, has traditionally been the house to host Latin players.
“They take up to five to seven players each season,” Bukuski said. “They have a lot of bedrooms. But they are retiring this year, and we need to replace them next year.”
Robinson said some families, like the Kloha household, can host up to 20 players in a single season.
She said she goes into mom mode for her guests, even going so far as taking care of their laundry.
“I’ve done laundry for them. I’ll fold it and put it in their room,” Robinson said. “Sometimes they don’t get home until late in the day. I’ll throw in a couple of batches of laundry. It helps them get ready for going on the road.
Robinson said one of her most memorable moments as a Loons host family is when Jordan Hershiser, the son of Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Orel Hershiser, stayed with them when he was a Loon.
“He wasn’t here for a long time, but he was a very pleasant young man,” Robinson said.
Another memorable Loon moment was when one of the players’ wives gave birth while staying with them.
“I was with her in the delivery room,” Robinson recalled. “I helped coach her through labor.”
All three coordinators said the players quickly move into family mode.
“They say ‘Mom, hey, how are you? Dad, how can I help you?’ The kids call us mom and dad,” Robinson said. “It is amazing how quickly they adapt.”
For information on how to become a host family visit the website https://www.milb.com/great-lakes/ballpark/host-families.
Minor League Ball From the Beginning
It might not have always been America’s pastime, but major league baseball has evolved into a nine-month sport (10 if you count spring training) that has surpassed $10 billion in revenues for the past 16 years.
But today’s game is vastly different from the first official professional team was formed 173 years ago in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Today, professional baseball includes the 30 major league teams and the minor league system, which contains 256 teams.
The minors are broken down into six divisions: Triple-A is the highest minor league level, followed by Double-A, High Class A, Low Class A, Class A short season and Rookie teams. The Great Lakes Loons is a Low Class A team.
Minor League Baseball, originally known as the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, was formed Sept. 5, 1901. The minors were established to serve as farm teams for Major League Baseball, where inexperienced and promising players are developed for possible elevation to the major leagues.
The Great Lakes Loons squad, a farm team of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is relatively new to baseball.
The Loons began life in 1982 as the Springfield Cardinals in Springfield, Illinois. In 1994 the franchise was moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and became the Madison Hatters.
In 1995 the team again moved to Battle Creek and became the Battle Creek Golden Kazoos, changing the name to the Michigan Battle Cats in 1995. The team became the Battle Creek Yankees when the New York Yankees obtained the team and again changed to the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays when the MLB Tampa Bay franchise acquired the team.
In 2006, after several dismal seasons in Battle Creek, the team was sold and moved to Midland, opening the 2007 season as the Great Lakes Loons.