Just because he’s finished contributing on the field doesn’t mean the summer work is over for Baltimore Redbirds pitcherScott Strickland.
Though Strickland helped the local Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League squad qualify for the playoffs, which begin July 27, his college coaches have shut down the right-hander after he logged 130 innings of work between his collegiate season at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia and his summer campaign with the Redbirds.
Even so, Strickland spent July 22 doing a bit more throwing than he normally would — and in a different venue than usual.
Instead of 90 MPH fastballs, Strickland and John Roberts, lifelong friend and catcher, were hurling 10-year-olds into the July night sky, with the children’s excitement only momentarily muted when they splashed into the deep end of a neighborhood pool.
For the players, some of whom hail from major universities, it was a brief respite from the heat after a long, hot doubleheader.
But for Staci Shelley, whose 10-year-old son, Brendan, was being tossed around the pool by the young men whom he has grown to idolize over the summer, it was another in a long line of special moments that hosting baseball players for
the summer has brought her family.
“They’re not only a part of our family but a part of this community,” Staci Shelley said.
The Redbirds, a team of local players and imports from around the country, play home games at Calvert Hall’s Carlo Crispino Stadium in Towson in a league that offers college players the chance to continue their development as they chase the dream of playing baseball for a living.
And, in order for the team to stay within a modest budget, owner John Carey searches to find summer homes for each player and goes out of his way to make sure he’s bringing in players with good character.
“I tell their coaches, ‘Look, I’d love your most talented player, but with one caveat.’" said Carey, whose son, Jack, graduated from St. Paul’s, plays for Wake Forest University and was a part-time designated hitter for the Redbirds this summer. “‘I want the most talented player who’s also a good kid.’”
“We get all the credit, but without these people, we can’t do what we do,” Strickland said. “You can’t say enough nice things about the Shelleys. It takes really special people to open your home up to two complete strangers.”
The families that house the Redbirds span the demographics. Many are families with young children, such as the Shelleys, of Stoneleigh, and the Hudaks, of Phoenix. The Durkees, of Owings Mills, and the Woods family, of Cockeysville, have older children. Others, like the Aarsands, of Owings Mills, and the Neveroskys, of Towson, don’t have kids.
No matter what their lives were like before the players arrived, none said there was a single drawback to their summer guests. What the family is asked to give is nothing in comparison to what the players add to their lives.
“It starts with opening a room in your house and it becomes so much more,” Mike Hudak said. “It’s a gift that keeps giving. I was blindsided by that.”
The Hudaks, in their second year of hosting, influenced several families to join them this season with tales of last summer’s guest, University of North Carolina outfielder Seth Baldwin.
A year after he went back to the Tar Heel State, Baldwin is still in frequent contact with the Hudaks. They went to see him play for UNC this season, and hope he can join them at the beach later this summer.
On top of being a perfect gentleman — which is how every player is described — Baldwin developed a relationship with the family that was bigger than baseball. When David Hudak, 12, was feeling nervous on the way to an all-star game, it was a text from Baldwin that calmed his nerves.
As her boys grow, Ann Marie Hudak hopes that Baldwin and this year’s Redbird, University of Louisville catcher Jeff Gardner, can continue to be brotherly figures to David and his younger brother, Joseph, 10.
Though Gardner is more reserved, his impact on the family is profound. He often retreats to the basement to work out after games, showing the boys the commitment it takes to reach the highest level.
Joseph wears a Louisville Cardinals necklace over his North Carolina one as a tribute to past and present housemates. After one game, Gardner spent 45 minutes in the driveway working with David on his swing.
The line between fan and family is blurred with the Redbirds — if there’s a line at all. Players and coaches chat with young fans as the game is happening just a few feet in front of them, and between games of double-headers, children play on the same field as their heroes.
It’s these moments that make the experience worthwhile for families.
Brendan Shelley is a lifelong Duke University fan, and met basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski at the school’s basketball camp this summer. At first, he ranked meeting the coaching legend above living with Strickland and Hartzog for the summer, but using the charming logic of a 10-year-old, reconsidered.
“Coach K wouldn’t play Xbox with me,” he said. “And Coach K can’t throw 93 (MPH).”
Strickland, the youngest of three brothers, understands Brendan’s excitement at getting to hang out with older guys. He, housemate Austin Hartzog, a pitcher from the University of Mississippi, and Roberts, who the Shelleys recognize as their third player, are happy to oblige the young ballplayer’s requests for attention and instruction whenever they can.
In return for being so accommodating with the kids who view them as heroes, the players have received a crash course
in Maryland culture. Their free time has been spent at Orioles games, crab feasts, and perhaps most enjoyably, duckpin bowling.
When North Carolina infielder Parks Jordan’s family was in town, the Neveroskys took them to Artscape on the Light Rail, an experience that had the family from rural North Carolina shell-shocked.
The players are also taking advantage of Baltimore’s proximity to Washington and New York. On one game-free day, the Shelleys put Strickland and Hartzog on a bus to New York, where they went sightseeing. Many players have never been this far north.
Even after having so much fun, many of the players are excited to go home after a long, grueling summer of baseball piggybacked to the college season. The Redbirds play games six days a week and workout most afternoons.
Before they go, the players and families are trying to squeeze in as many memories as possible.
Others have already provided them. A week before Jordan’s family visited, Mark Neverosky commented that he hoped to weed and re-plant the garden before they arrived. He arrived home from work the next day to find that Jordan had already taken care of it.
And for the children who got to stay up past their bedtime and play in the pool with full-grown ballplayers on a balmy Friday night in July, the memories are worth far more than an hour or two of gardening or anything else quantifiable.
It’s the connection between players, family and community that will exist long after the players head back to school,already prompting families to toss their hat in the ring to be hosts next year.
Those applying certainly have lofty standards to live up to.
“The host families are unbelievable,” Carey said. “They do more than is required, and they bond with these kids.”