Minor league baseball is often referred to as being an intimate gathering of local folks. You can’t get much more intimate than inviting players to live in your home for a summer.
After a long day at the ballpark, players need a place to lay their head…and to play video games and to have a homecooked meal. And Debbie Vander Clute has been helping the New York Boulders find such places as the coordinator of the organization’s host families’ program.
“These are the unsung heroes of our organization,” Boulders President Shawn Reilly said of the host families.
Independent league baseball is not the major leagues. There are no fancy homes owned by its players or ritzy hotels to reside in during the season. Instead, teams attempt to match up players with host families, who welcome them into their homes with open arms.
“They become a part of your family – I feel like I am like their mother,” said Vander Clute, who has been involved with the program since 2013. “When we first started – and even now, people ask us how we can let a stranger into our home, but that doesn’t cross our mind.”
She continued, “These are professional baseball players who want to make it to the big leagues - they are very professional and they act it.”
Vander Clute, 54, and her husband Rich, 62, were Boulders’ fans since the team’s birth a decade ago in 2011. Rich now works security at the team’s home games at Palisades Credit Union Park.
“We were empty nesters at the time (2013) and I love baseball and when we were contacted (about being a host family), I just thought it was a great way to get even more involved with the team,” Rich said.
This season, Debbie estimates about a dozen families will host players – most are returning hosts. Several families can host two players, most one.
“We try to match up the player with the family by looking at their personalities,” Debbie said. “We also take into consideration things like allergies, pets, does the player have a car. There is no deep screening, but we try to match up as best we can and, so far, we have been pretty successful.”
With 24 players on this year’s roster, some players will not find a host home.
“Some players have it written into their contract that they will be placed with a host family,” Debbie explained. “Some players don’t want to be with a host family and would rather live on their own.”
For those players – and the ones that miss out on the host family lottery, the Boulders have an agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas College in nearby Sparkill where players can reside in dorm rooms. However, the players must pay for the room.
Host families do not get monetary retribution – each does it on a voluntary basis. There are perks, such as tickets to home games, an annual tailgate and a discount at the team store, but no one does it for that.
“We do it because it is just an incredible experience,” Debbie said. “You are hosting a player that has the potential to make it to the Major Leagues. You get to live with someone from a different part of the country, but also some players who are from an entirely different culture.”
Over their time in the program, among the players the Vander Clutes have shared their home with are Junior Arrojo and Joe Maloney. Last summer, John Brontsema was their guest.
Arrojo signed with the Miami Marlins after the 2016 season after a three-year stint with the Boulders, while Maloney moved on to the Minnesota Twins’ organization for the 2016 season, returning to the Boulders and the Vander Clutes in 2017.
“We have been lucky,” Debbie said. “Not only were they great players, but they were great people, too.”
While Debbie and Rich were empty-nesters when they joined the program, the Tully family have a pair of children still at home – Jack, 11, and Sara, 15.
“We, at first, were hesitant to do it,” Stefanie Tully, 46, said. “But Debbie kept after us and was pretty persuasive and we came aboard three years ago.”
She added, “We came aboard three years ago - and it has been great. The players have been great with the kids – they really become part of the family. You get used to them being around and you miss them when the season ends.”
Stefanie husband, Tom, 56, knew Rich Vander Clute from their days as police officers in Bergen County in Northern New Jersey.
“I knew that Rich would steer us in the right direction,” Tom said.
The Tully children enjoy having the professional ballplayer in their home in Park Ridge, NJ.
“He is very interactive with us,” Jack said. “They always do a lot of fun stuff with me – video games, baseball, football. It’s like having a big brother.”
Meanwhile, Sara enjoyed having an older male to talk with – one other than her father.
“It is just nice to have someone older in the house that I can talk to about stuff,” she said. “Even though Grant (Heyman, last summer’s guest) was always teasing me.”
But that is part of being a family.
“Every host family says that the player just becomes part of their family,” Debbie said. “You begin to feel like their parent. When I sit in the stands at a game, I feel tremendous pride when he hits a home run and a feel really bad when he makes an error – and I really want to get defensive with fans when they criticize him. I guess that’s what a parent does.”
If you are interested in becoming a host family, contact Debbie at 201-657-7846 or call the Boulders at 845-364-0009.