Host families play a major role in minor league baseball

Talking about Pedro Silveren's wedding brings tears to the eyes of Betsy Harner. It probably always will.

Silveren played for the short-season Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds in 2006 and 2007. He got married in March 2009, but his mother couldn't make it out of the Dominican Republic for the wedding, and Silveren asked Harner to walk with him down the aisle.

"Oh my gosh, you can't even imagine what that meant to me," said Harner, wiping her eyes.

Betsy and Michael Harner became close to Silveren by opening their home to him as a host family. They've done this for the past seven seasons, letting one or more Aberdeen players stay in their Havre de Grace home, asking little or nothing in return — and loving every minute of it.

Host families are valuable in minor league baseball because there aren't many eight-figure contracts. The players are mostly teenagers or kids just out of college who need to find a place to stay and establish a life built around baseball.

When spring training ends, the Orioles — or any other major league team — are required to pick up the cost of a few nights in a hotel for minor league players at any level. The player then must quickly find a place to live.

Some players rent rooms or apartments, but it can be a tricky situation. That's where host families fill a big hole, often because they, unlike apartments, don't require longer leases and they rarely ask players for much money.

The local Orioles affiliates — the IronBirds, the Double-A Bowie Baysox and the Single-A Frederick Keys — all depend on a group of host families each year. In addition to players, several coaches and managers are hosted by local families. Bowie manager Brad Komminsk and coach Moe Hill are living with a host family this year.

"It's one of the unique things that minor league baseball has," Baysox general manager Brian Shallcross said. "[Families] live the dream through the player also, a little vicariously. It makes following the local team more interesting."

The Harners became hosts almost by accident six years ago. Betsy Harner works in a dermatologist's office in Havre de Grace, and her boss asked her one day if she'd be interested in hosting a player. Harner said she knew almost nothing about who or what the IronBirds were, but she and her husband quickly agreed. The player wound up sleeping at the Harners' house that very night.

The Harners don't have kids in the house anymore and thought becoming hosts could be fun. These young players quickly become part of their family.

"We tell them we're not their parents but we're their host family," Michael Harner said. "We're not trying to replace their parents. We try to make them feel comfortable."

Players say they prefer the arrangement with host families to the alternative — paying rent for a cold, empty apartment. The Harners won't take money from players, asking only for their respect.

And they usually have no trouble with that request.

"They don't change our lives much other than we buy a little more food than we normally would," Betsy Harner said. "They don't make that much money, [so] we don't want to take their money. That's not us."

Blair Dunlap and Joe Oliveira both came to the IronBirds from California earlier this summer and stay with the Harners during the team's season, which runs from mid-June to early September. They live in the basement, with Dunlap sleeping on a blow-up mattress and Oliveira in a mini-bedroom.

The Harners were hosts to another player earlier in the season, but an injury sent him back home. A third player came to them in mid-August.

"In a sense, it is like a family," Dunlap said. "We can talk to them about baseball. We can talk to them about issues on and off the field. I feel lucky that we found a great family to stay with."

Both Dunlap and Oliveira said staying with a host family limits the nonbaseball issues they have to worry about — especially because money is no longer as much of an issue.

"If we had an apartment with bills and have to be paying rent, we'd maybe stressed out about paying rent … or paying the electric bill on time," Oliveira said. "With this, we just have to focus on playing baseball. We get to go there and just relax."

The Harners began going to almost every home game after becoming a host family. They make sure their favorite players see them at the games to know support is in the stands at Ripken Stadium even though they're many miles from home.

The Harners have never hosted a player who eventually reached the majors, but if that day comes, the couple expects a familiar reaction.

"I'd bawl my eyes out," Betsy Harner said. "Just like at the wedding."