Local families host IronBirds players for the season

For Harford Magazine

The average fan probably can’t relate to Major League Baseball players, who fly from city to city on charter jets, stay in five-star hotels and have all sorts of healthy (and free) food put before them at clubhouses across North America.

But that is a long way from the life of a minor league baseball player, who is used to long bus trips, late-night fast-food outlets and hotels that have walls as thin as the pitcher’s rubber.

While the minimum salary of big leaguer is more than $500,000, members of the Aberdeen IronBirds, the short-season Class A New York-Penn League team, make about $1,100 per month — for just three months out of the year.

That is why the hospitality of a cadre of local families can make the summer months much more bearable for players with the IronBirds.

Several residents in Harford County and the surrounding areas serve as host families for players, from late June to Labor Day. They charge little or nothing to rent a private room in their home and sometimes even share meals with the players.

In exchange, families rub shoulders with baseball’s future stars and earn fans of their own.

Connie and George Martin of Aberdeen have been hosting IronBirds players for nearly 10 years. The couple has been getting IronBirds season tickets since the team’s first season in 2002.

“We love baseball. My granddaughter and grandson played baseball through high school,” says Connie Martin.

A conversation with former Baltimore Orioles infielder Bill Ripken helped plant the seed of the idea to become hosts, she says.

“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 becoming 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 before 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 about four years for the 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,” Erickson says. “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 two guys from Maine last year and one of them [Dube] sent a bag of coffee, since their parents own coffee shops 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 the Ericksons 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. We have had coaches in the past where they stayed with a family the entire season,” he says.

Graham said there were about 15 host families for IronBirds players in 2016, and he hopes that number rises to between 20 and 25 this year.

The former minor leaguer said his hosts were vital to his time with the IronBirds.

“The fact that people were willing to host me was life-changing,” he 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.”

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