Caleb Joseph arrived in Aberdeen in the summer of 2008 without much money to his name.
A seventh-round draft pick out of a small university in Nashville, Joseph did not receive a large signing bonus for his spot in the Orioles farm system.
Rather than spending thousands of dollars to lease an apartment for the minor league Aberdeen IronBirds' three-month season, Joseph stayed with a host family that became a foundation for his baseball career.
"They have been one of the constants since day one of my professional career," Joseph said of his hosts.
Joseph went on to become a catcher for the Orioles in 2014.
Most of the players for the IronBirds, a New York-Penn League team, spend their summers with host families. It makes a lot of sense; the regular season ends Sept. 7, and affordable, short-term housing can be hard to find. While the minimum salary of big leaguers is more than $500,000, IronBirds players make about $1,100 per month — for just three months out of the year.
The kindness of the host families, who charge little to no rent, is not lost on the up-and coming players.
"It is huge," says center fielder Cedric Mullins, who played for Aberdeen in 2015 and has since moved on to the Bowie Baysox, another minor league team in the Orioles system. "There is a certain comfort level with being able to find a host family that is able to work with you in terms of your schedule. You are trying to figure yourself how professional baseball works and most of the families have been doing it for years."
In exchange for their hospitality, families that host players get to rub shoulders with baseball's future stars, and some develop lifelong relationships.
Forest Hill resident Missy Karcher has been hosting players since 2011.
"My husband passed away in 2010, and a friend of mine had been hosting players since the stadium opened and she suggested I do it with my three sons," Karcher said.
For the boys, who are now 14, 16 and 18, it's like having big brothers for the summer, Karcher said. In the past, they've played Ping-Pong and Xbox with some of the IronBirds. Among the players that stopped by the house to visit teammates were Kevin Gausman and Donnie Hart, who went on to become Orioles pitchers.
Karcher has hosted up to five players at once, and this season, she started with four: infielders Carlos Diaz and Alexis Torres, outfielder Jose Paez and catcher Alfredo Gonzalez. (Torres and Gonzalez have since been reassigned to the Orioles affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.)
Connie and George Martin of Aberdeen have been hosting IronBirds for nearly 10 years. The couple has been getting season tickets for the team since the first season in 2002.
A conversation with former Orioles infielder Billy Ripken helped plant the seed of the idea to become hosts, Connie Martin said.
"I work for the city of Aberdeen, and when they were getting ready to open the stadium we had a meeting with people from the team," Connie Martin recalls. "Bill [Ripken] was on the board … At the time my husband was working at night and Bill said, 'Why don't you hold off a little bit' before coming hosts."
A few years later, the Martins did just that. They now have two bedrooms set aside for IronBirds players and have a wall of photos dedicated to those they've hosted.
Last summer, Scott Beerer, the 2016 hitting coach for the IronBirds, lived with them. In 2015 the Martins hosted two players, including pitcher Kevin Grendell. He was drafted by the Orioles in the 11th round in 2012 and joined the Angels system prior to the 2016 season.
Martin says another player they hosted, Tanner Murphy, was able to get a baseball signed by pitchers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, two of the top pitchers for the Orioles, when they made rehabilitation appearances in Aberdeen while in the majors.
Diane Erickson, the IronBirds senior vice president of finance, has worked for about four years with the club. She and her husband have hosted players for several seasons.
"My husband is a huge baseball fan and has been in fantasy leagues for 37 years," she said. "Our children were grown and out of the house and that made it possible."
Last season they hosted outfielder Ryan McKenna and pitcher Cody Dube. McKenna was a fourth-round pick of the Orioles in 2015, while Dube was a 10th-round pick out of Keene State in New Hampshire in 2016.
Erickson said her husband texts former players that they hosted to see how they are doing.
"We had the two guys from Maine last year and one of them [Dube] sent a bag of coffee, since his parents own a coffee shop in Maine," Erickson says.
The couple attends many of the games and will occasionally make breakfasts for the players. But many times they are off to work before the players wake up and in bed when they get home from games.
"We don't cross paths that much," says the Bel Air resident.
But one of the first players they hosted is back in town.
Jack Graham, now the manager of game and team operations for the IronBirds, played Division III baseball at Kenyon College in Ohio and was drafted in the 38th round by the Orioles in 2012.
He then played sparingly in the minors for the Orioles, including 13 games with the IronBirds in 2013. He stayed with Erickson during that time.
Today, he coordinates the host family program.
"A lot of people have a misunderstanding about the glory of pro ball," Graham says. "They only see the major leaguers that make millions of dollars. Minor leaguers that are drafted late don't get big bonuses."
Staying with a host family, he says, is a great benefit.
"It's a huge bonus for them if they don't have to get an apartment for three months," Graham says. "We have had coaches in the past where they stayed with a family the entire season."
Graham said there were about 15 host families in 2016 and he has about 20 this year as they house up to 35 players for the summer.
The former minor leaguer (whose uncle is Brian Graham, the director of player development for the Orioles) said his hosts were vital to his time in Aberdeen.
"The fact that people were willing to host me was life-changing," Graham said. "The fact the Ericksons were willing to help me out and share their home and follow up with my professional aspirations, I can never thank them enough. I consider them to be very close friends."