In summers gone by, Vicki Walker had a weekend routine she loved. Get up in the morning. Cook a good breakfast. Watch it being hurriedly devoured. Manage the chaos. Make sure the boys have all their equipment. Stuff them in the back seat and barrel to the ballpark, where she couldn’t wait to see them on the field with joy on their faces.
“It was so much fun,” she recalls, sitting with her husband, Scott, in their Ft. Wright living room. Her story isn’t unique, but to Vicki and every other mother and father with similar memories it’s a special chapter in the book of parenthood.
Vicki’s children are grown now and running base paths on their own. But, she says wistfully, she didn’t really know what she was missing until she met Scott and their “baseball son,” Jordan Brower.
The Walkers are just one of more than a dozen Northern Kentucky families who, every spring and through the summer, open their homes to players with the Florence Y’alls, an independent professional baseball team previously known as the Florence Freedom. “They become members of our family,” says Micha Wise, the team’s host family coordinator. “They are our boys.” She coordinates with team management and her host families to assign players to local homes, fill in gaps when players are released, and mediate any issues that arise.
Wise’s “boy” this year, as he was the last full season the Frontier League played ball, in 2019, is Trevor Craport, a talented young player who sometimes mans the hot corner at third, sometimes patrols the outfield, and sometimes dons the chest protector and mask for a turn behind the plate. At 24, he’s had a taste of minor league ball and hopes to catch the attention of Major League Baseball scouts who frequently attend independent league games.
For now, though, he has his own room in the Wise family’s Alexandria home, which comes with 4-year-old Lila. “I love him,” she says softly as she snuggles in Craport’s lap and buries her face in his shoulder. She’s just offered him a carefully crafted masterpiece from her coloring book, and he stops in the middle of an answer to my question to look down at her and say “pretty” to the beaming upturned face. He’s going to make a great father one day.
I would say I’m not a baseball fan,” Scott Walker admits, as Jordan Brower breaks into a knowing grin across the table and shakes his head. “I’m really in it for the kids.”
Brower is, purely and simply, an athlete with a winning smile and an easygoing manner. He was “that kid” in high school—starting quarterback on the football team and point guard on the basketball team after, at age 12, pitching in the Little League World Series. He’s now one of what he calls “the old guys” on the Y’alls, saying he came back for one more season simply because he loves baseball and wants to win a Frontier League championship. He’ll turn 30 during the season and is at peace with a career that never took him to The Show.
Walker is a small business owner who started hosting Florence players after reading an ad in a local newspaper. He hadn’t yet met Vicki, who was then living in Lexington, and learned the hard way that there can be as much heartache in baseball as there is joy.
“My first year as a host, I had a kid who was dropping down from the major leagues and wanted to try and restart his career here,” Walker recalls. “That’s always a tough situation anyway, but then I found out he had a wife in California and she was coming here, too, which I hadn’t counted on.”
She wasn’t coming alone either, as he learned—she was a food blogger and planned to cook all day long in his kitchen and then blog at night. She would fly to Cincinnati but ship her pots, pans, and kitchen utensils along with the family car to Walker’s house. He wondered if, pardon the pun, he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
He never found out. The night before the season opener, Walker was at the movies when a text lit up his phone screen saying his player had been cut. “We’re leaving,” the text read, and Walker bolted from the theater to arrive home just in time to say goodbye.
There’s a scene in one of the best baseball movies of all time, Bull Durham, when Skip, manager of the minor league Durham Bulls, calls a dripping wet Crash Davis out of the shower and painfully utters heartbreaking words. “It’s the hardest thing a manager has to do,” Skip says to Crash, but he’s being released. In baseball parlance, that means you’re fired. Used and used up.
That’s how it often happens. When the decision is made to cut a player, it’s typically made after a practice during spring training. When the locker-room manager shows up in the shower area, boisterous players turn silent as the name of the doomed is summoned to take his final walk.
Angie Bailie has housed several players over the last 10 years who have taken that lonely last walk, and she admits it’s as hard on her as them. She lost two players this season, and she knew the news before their real moms did. The retired middle school teacher has hosted 51 players over the past decade, and she often plays the role of counselor and consoler.
“A lot of times they don’t want to go home right away,” says Bailie, “so I tell them, You can stay as long as you want. Sometimes I’ll take them to a bar, and we’ll talk it out.” She assures them that, while their families back home will be as disappointed as they are that they’ve been cut, Take it from a mom, they won’t be disappointed in you.
Bailie remembers one player who’d been cut and, in frustration, vowed he was quitting for good. “I told him, Look, this is your dream and if you give it up now, you’ll never go back and you’ll regret it,” she recalls. “I always tell them to give baseball another chance.”
The two players Bailie lost early this season, Kevin Whatley and Pete Perez, quickly found jobs on another independent league team. But she knows she’s lost some players for good—players who are cut and either give up or are too old to attract the attention of another teams. “I put on a good front,” she says, “but when they drive away from the house and I know he’s said he’s done or I just know myself that he is, well, it just breaks my heart.”
Families and players forge quite a bond over the course of a long season. The Frontier League and another independent league merged during the COVID year, and Major League Baseball recently reduced the total number of minor league affiliates. So the majors are closely watching the independent leagues, looking for hidden talent. Players hope there’s a gold-plated contract in their future, but right now they’re free agents—with a salary closer to free.
“It wouldn’t be possible without them,” Brower says of the host families. “We’re all grateful to be here and have a chance to play, but without the host families, maybe we could get 10 guys in a two-bedroom apartment or house if we’re lucky. So, yeah, we’re pretty spoiled.”
Brower is in Florence one more time to have fun before returning to life on the Big Island in Hawaii with his wife, reggae singer Anuhea, and tending to his growing business as a personal trainer. Craport, however, is on a different path. Every bit as athletic as Brower, he still has the major leagues in his sights.
“Without the host families, maybe we could get 10 guys in a two-bedroom apartment or house,” says Jordan Brower. “We’re pretty spoiled.”
Craport focused on baseball early on and earned a scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he won the attention of several major league teams. The Baltimore Orioles drafted him in 2017, and he began a steady ascent through the low minors. Aberdeen in the New York- Pennsylvania League was first, followed by Delmarva in the South Atlantic League and the Frederick (Maryland) Keys in High-A. And then he was undone by a gyroscope.
Baseball used to be a game of dirt, sweat, and hunches, but today it’s all about the metrics. Players are evaluated on bat speed, launch angle, and a pitcher’s spin rate, as well as dizzying formulaic acronyms such as wOBA (weighted on-base average) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play). It drives baseball fans who grew up following Mantle, Maris, and Mays crazy.
Craport understands the old-school attitude. He recalls the blast-motion gyroscope placed on the end of his bat when he was playing for Frederick, whose new owners were devotees of the game’s new devotion to science. Someone in the front office didn’t like what the spinning device said about Craport’s swing, so they let him go. “They hadn’t drafted me, so I was one of the first players out the door,” he says. “I learned the business side of baseball.”
His agent found the independent league gig in Florence, so Craport packed up his car and put Maryland in his rear-view mirror, heading toward an uncertain future where the Freedom were already more than three-quarters of the way through the 2019 season. He knew his credentials as a draft choice and veteran of minor league ball would draw some attention. As he drove into Cincinnati, he wondered if he’d be greeted with eye rolls or haunted by whispers about a washed-up player taking one of their jobs. Would he ruin the team’s chemistry? Would he find fear or open hostility from his new teammates?
“It was awkward,” Craport admits. “I didn’t even know most of the other players’ names, and it was a little abrupt being put into the lineup and batting fourth.” But his laid-back manner, modesty, and Georgia-polite attitude won the day, and he played in the Freedom’s last 22 games of the season.
Ballplayers are assigned their host families in March, before spring training begins, so there’s a scramble when someone like Craport arrives on the scene in August. It’s up to Micha Wise to figure out where to put him. There’s no time to gather the player’s biographical information, meet with the manager, or figure out the best fit. Trevor was already on I-70 heading west when she found out he was coming.
Micha’s husband, Scott, helps her as a sort of logistics coordinator, and he recalls it was a Sunday when they got a text about Craport’s arrival while the family was at McDonald’s. He called all of the other host families but came up empty. He texted Craport to say he could stay at their place for a few days. He loved it, Lila loved it more, and those days have turned into a relationship that will likely last a lifetime.
Lila listens intently to the story and then brings me a packet of two-year-old photos of an end-of-the-summer family outing at Kings Island. She and Craport are in every photo, and her favorite is the two of them sharing a bumper car. He was clearly a part of the Wise family already.
Host families are critical to the team’s success, says Dave DelBello, managing partner of the Y’alls. He and a group of investors purchased the team in July 2019, and he serves as both the team president and the general manager. That’s how independent ball works: You do it all.
“This is a marginally profitable business,” DelBello explains, symbolically switching out his cleats for wingtips. “Unlike the minor league teams whose major league affiliates pay the bills, we have to pay for everything ourselves—the players, the coaches, the trainers, everyone. If we had to supplement the players living here, too, it probably wouldn’t be a viable business. But more importantly, I think, the host families provide a home atmosphere that’s so crucial for these guys.”
That home atmosphere extends beyond the diamond and even the baseball season. Many of the host families correspond with their players during the winter months, use their vacations to visit them in their hometowns, and meet their real families. The Walkers flew all the way to Hawaii to attend Brower’s wedding just a month before COVID-19 closed down the world.
Independent league baseball is a tough business, says Y’alls co-owner Dave DelBello. Host families provide financial support and a taste of home.
Now in his fourth and presumably last season in Florence, Brower hadn’t played in a game since 2018, when he was injured in a jet ski accident that knocked him out of the 2019 season. Like almost everyone else, he missed the 2020 season as well when the Frontier League suspended operations. Baseball in the Commonwealth last summer was reduced to four Kentucky teams—two in Florence and two in Lexington—playing each other in a wash/rinse/repeat cycle that generated little fan interest.
Nearly 5,000 miles away, Brower kept in shape mostly because his training business is all about building muscle and athleticism. He didn’t pick up a baseball for more than a year after the 2019 season ended, but decided early this year that he wanted one more summer on the diamond.
Brower started hitting off a tee with a local high school team and felt the old swing come back. His wife encouraged him, even though it meant up to six months apart. She travels in her singing career, too, so she began to look for bookings that would bring her to the mainland.
“I’m playing as much for my kids [the high schoolers back in Hawaii that he’s been training] as for myself,” says Brower. “I want to show them what you can do if you work at it.” He continues to run his business from here, sending videos and programming individualized workout regimens for his clients. Unlike Craport, he never had a taste of minor league baseball, but the lost season proved to him that he still had the passion to play.
The host families missed their players as COVID wiped out last season. I heard words such as lonely, boring, and empty used several times. They missed each other, too. The families sit together in a section directly behind home plate and attend almost every home game. They cheer as loudly as any parents you’d see at their 5-year-old’s tee-ball game.
When the Frontier League decided to play the 2021 season, Micha Wise says, the families were elated and everyone signed up. Many, like the Walkers and the Wises, welcomed back the same players they’d taken in two seasons ago.
When the new Y’alls management decided to invite 42 players to camp, Wise says her carefully-designed but complex spreadsheet and logistical skills were tested. Only 24 would survive spring training and go on to play this season, but she needed to find 42 beds for at least a few weeks. Some families took up to five players.
Host families are not paid. They sign an agreement to provide a room, access to a bathroom, and kitchen privileges so the players can cook their own food. Players are responsible for their own transportation, doing their laundry, adhering to the “house rules,” and purchasing their own food. Most players, however, report that they often eat with their host families, and it isn’t unusual to be sent to practice or a game with a Tupperware container full of leftovers.
“It’s so nice to come back from a week and a half road trip and not have to think about finding that all the food you’ve got at home is spoiled,” Craport says, reflecting on the long bus sojourns he’s taken through Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
The homey atmosphere extends to the field. Florence’s stadium bordering I-71/75 features a huge children’s playground in right field, $4 craft beers and $2 Buds, attention-grabbing antics between innings, good sight lines from every seat, and lots and lots of advertising. Every player has a sponsor, and when he’s introduced, so is an ad. There are ads for almost everything that happens on the field. My favorite is from a local plumber that follows every strikeout of an opposing player with the cheery dismissal of the failed batter: “Another player flushed down the toilet by Marco Plumbing.” I laugh the first time I hear it, and Angie Bailie, sitting next to me, looks perplexed. “Oh,” she says, “we don’t even hear that stuff anymore.”
It’s a long drive from Atlanta, where Craport lives during the off-season, and there was no time to rest once he arrived at the Wises’ home for this season’s spring training. Lila was waiting for him. Their connection is sweet to watch, and I remembered his gentleness with her a few days later when I saw Craport spear a hot grounder at third and throw off-balance to nip the runner at first.
Lila is more impressed with the large dark circles under Craport’s right arm and down his back. They’re bruises resulting from a suction device athletes use to force more blood to flow into tired muscles, a procedure called “cupping.”
Lila assures me it doesn’t hurt and then shows off her own dings. “I’ve got them, too, but I got mine on the giant slide.”