Cape Cod Baseball League host families open up their homes and hearts to college baseball’s finest
Looking through the Boston Red Sox’s 2018 roster, there are several names local baseball fans might’ve recognized before the season even started. Chris Sale. Jackie Bradley Jr. Mitch Moreland. Brian Johnson. Matt Barnes. Before making it to the majors, these rising stars all spent summers during their college years playing for the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League—and for a brief moment in time, they called Cape Cod home.
For many who play in the Cape League, what happens off the field is just as meaningful—if not more meaningful—as what happens on the field. Residents throughout the Cape offer up their homes to these young men—complete strangers—and serve as their surrogate family during their time in the league. In most cases, it’s more than just a place to stay and a home-cooked meal every day that these families provide, and by the end of their stay, the players and their host families are bonded for life.
This experience is one the Norkeviciuses, Johnsons and Thompsons know well, and in the following pages, they—along with a few former players—share heartwarming stories of the close relationships they’ve formed over the years. It’s said you get what you give, and each of these host families say they get so much more from their players than what they give them.
Nicole Norkevicius remembers the day in 2009 when she took her two young sons, Colin and Mitchell, to the Cape League championship game—a game that saw their beloved Bourne Braves come out on top against the Cotuit Kettleers. “It was very exciting; everyone charged the field,” she recalls. “I remember that’s when I first spoke to someone about hosting a player.”
Having frequented Bourne games over the years, Norkevicius, who is now the president of the Bourne Braves organization, says it seemed like a natural fit to become a host family for the team. Along with her husband, Algis, the family has been welcoming players into their home each summer since 2010. Last summer, they had as many as four players in their house at one time. “To be blunt, these are the best college baseball players in the country, but if they don’t have a place to stay, they can’t play,” she says. “Colin and Mitchell slept on an air mattress in our bedroom so that we could host these players.”
Those players included Kevin Radziewicz from Fairfield University, Jameson Hannah from Dallas Baptist, and Richie Palacios from Towson University. “He really hit it off with Colin and Mitchell,” she says of Richie, noting that he continues to keep in touch with both boys on a daily basis. “When he did extra workouts over at Sandwich High School, he would take Colin and Mitchell with him. They would time him and run with him. Richie taught my kids the amount of work you put in off the field.”
Richie also imparted another invaluable lesson to Mitchell, who shared the lesson in his school essay about Richie. “Last summer was a learning experience because it was the first time we hosted African American players,” Norkevicius explains, “and Mitchell wrote about how he learned that everybody should be judged by their hard work and not the color of their skin.”
Another player the Norkeviciuses share a unique bond with is Reid Humphreys, who they hosted in 2015. “Colin had elbow surgery last March, and Reid called him the day of the surgery to touch base with him,” she recalls. “It’s great for both my boys, especially for Colin, who’s the oldest child, to have these older brothers to look up to.”
“They brought me in like I was their oldest son,” says Humphreys, a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies’ Lancaster JetHawks. “I remember playing whiffle ball with Colin and Mitchell in the backyard. We watched ‘SportsCenter’ at night when we’d come home before the kids went to sleep. We’d have dinner together every night after the game—it was awesome having a full dinner made.” To Humphreys, the Norkeviciuses were everything he could’ve hoped for in a host family. “Having a family that really brings you in and makes you feel comfortable makes it a lot easier to play.”
Dan Johnson has an important rule for the Cape League players staying at his house: “You make yourself at home. If you’re hungry, don’t ask, just go eat—that’s your refrigerator. That’s your laundry. That’s your bedroom. Just be at home, and everything’s going to work out.”
To Johnson, the choice between doing the bare minimum for his players and going “overboard” is an easy one. From making lunches for the players with his daughters Camrynn and Jordynn, to handing them the keys to his old Bronco, to taking them out to Sandy Neck for a cookout, Johnson strives to create a fun, family atmosphere for the players he hosts. “We just love going overboard for them,” he says. “I don’t even consider it an effort—it’s how I would want my kids to be treated if they had to leave me for 10 weeks and go live with strangers.”
Johnson, who began hosting players for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in 2011, says that not only has he developed lifelong connections with many of the players they’ve hosted, but his daughters have too. “In fact, Justin Gonzalez and Nick Wittgren, they’ll always refer to those two as their sisters,” he says. “That’s the bond you get from these guys.”
One player who particularly stands out to Johnson is Joseph Shaw, who came to the Cape League from Dallas Baptist in the summers of 2013 and 2014. Johnson fondly remembers the day they picked him up at the Hyannis bus station in 2013: “Here he is, 6-foot-6, pair of cowboy boots, flannel shirt, big belt buckle. I’m surprised he didn’t have a cowboy hat on. He comes up, big hug from him right away, ‘How y’all doin’? My name is Joe Shaw.’ From the get-go, he was like family to us.”
“I know that I was a little nervous when I went up there for the first season,” says Shaw, a pitcher for the New York Mets’ Binghamton Rumble Ponies. “It was the farthest I had ever been away from home and a different spot in the country I’d never been. The transition with them was easy, and we just clicked right away. Our big thing we always did was play cornhole together. The second season I was there we hosted a cornhole tournament at their house, and that was a lot of fun.”
Shaw says he’s made a habit out of coming back to the Cape to visit the Johnsons every year. “Every single year after the end of his Minor League season, he says, ‘I’m coming back up to see you guys,’ and every single year he comes back up, and he extends his stay,” Johnson says. “I joke with him now, I’m like, ‘Joe, you keep this up, you’re going to wind up living up here!’”
When Rodie and Page Thompson got tickets to a playoff game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium last year, they were beyond excited. Not because they’re Yankees fans, but because it was a chance to see Indians’ outfielder and former Cape League player Greg Allen, who they hosted in 2015, play in the Major League.
“It’s like having your own son play in the majors,” says Page. “We were the only Yankee fans cheering when they announced him,” he recalls, laughing. “G! Go G!” Rodie reenacts.
In talking to Rodie and Page—or, as their Orleans Firebirds players call them, “Mama T” and “Pager”—about their experience as a Cape League host family over the last seven years, their joy is palpable. There’s a twinkle, sometimes tears, in their eyes as they recall some of the memories: When Cesar Salazar brought a date over to the house; when they set the record for the most onion rings ever purchased (nine jumbo packs) from Liam’s Clam Shack; when Page and Chandler Day—who was grieving the death of his close friend and Vanderbilt teammate Donny Everett—went out fishing; when Ethan Paul said goodbye to the Thompsons’ dog Mickey, who had to be put down; when Riley Adams hit a foul ball that just so happened to break through the windshield of Rodie’s car.
“Everything is about a memory,” Page says. One of their favorite memories is from last summer—and it revolves around an epic game of Uno. “We had one game that was a marathon game,” Page says. “Oh, it was crazy,” adds Rodie. “Three and a half hours—until two in the morning,” Page explains, “and we kept saying, ‘We’re going to set the record—the Guinness Book of Records.’” They laugh as they remember how their daughter ultimately ended the game, letting Ethan Paul win. “Ethan goes up to his room,” Page recalls, “and he comes down and brings a boom box playing Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions.’”
Speaking of “Ethan’s room,” it’s the upstairs loft Rodie has dubbed “boyland,” and it’s where she keeps one of her most prized possessions: Bobby Dalbec’s 2015 MVP Award. Dalbec, who currently plays third base for the Red Sox’s farm team, also played for the Cape League in 2014, and he says that first year he struggled on the field. “They were always positive, and they were there for every game,” he says of the Thompsons. “Every player leaves something back at that house, and I wanted to leave that.”
The Thompsons, Dalbec says, became like parents to him, and he treasures the time they spent together. “It’s a relationship that will never be lost.”
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