Some baseball fans in Jackson go above and beyond supporting the hometown Mississippi Braves by providing a home-away-from-home for players who have their sights set on playing for the major league Atlanta Braves.
In a recent letter to Braves fans about hosting players, Jim Bishop, the team’s assistant general manager, said, “Stopping in Mississippi on their path of aspiring to reach their ultimate goal requires hard work, dedication — and making ends meet on a very small paycheck.”
When the team came to town in 2005 there were just three or four host homes but the number has grown, mainly through word of mouth. “People do it every year and they rave about it,” Bishop said. “We’ve got a great group of core homes but we’re always looking to add to that list.”
The Braves’ 25-man roster is made up of players from across the U.S. as well as the Dominican Republic, Panama and other countries. They need housing from April to August but since the team plays half of their games on the road, players actually are in town half of the season.
Hosts usually provide a spare room and bathroom facilities free of charge. Some will prepare meals and do laundry. “We tell them it’s their home, and they set the house rules,” Bishop said.
Marty and Suzanne McAlily, season ticket holders since the Braves came to town, have hosted players every year. “It makes the game a lot more fun to watch when you know some of the players,” Suzanne McAlily said.
Season ticket holder Kathy Chatham also has been hosting ballplayers since the Braves arrived in Jackson and says playing host “is wonderful. I still keep in touch with a lot of them.”
Some players need transportation as well as a place to stay. “The roster is different every year so you never know how many who report will have a vehicle,” said Bishop.
The Braves lend Kathy Chatham’s mother, Judy, a van so she can drive players to the ballpark and to run errands. “She’s retired and she loves it. She’s ready for the boys to come back in town,” Kathy Chatham said.
Sometimes players are joined by their family for part or all of the season.
The first year Chatham hosted a player, he brought his pregnant wife. After the baby was born, Chatham installed a baby bed in the house for them. “They lived with me the rest of the season and the next year. It was great,” she said.
Most hosts open their home to one player but others take in up to four at a time.
The McAlilys hosted four players from Latin America for a season. “That was a wild and crazy year, a fun year,” she said.
Chatham also has hosted four players. This year she expects to host two or three players, whoever the team asks her to put up. “I’ll make the office a bedroom and put in twin beds,” she said.
She often cooks for her guests on weekends but for the most part they keep separate schedules. “When I go to work they’re still asleep. And I’m usually asleep when they get home.”
When players do make it to the major league in Atlanta, the hosts can enjoy being part of their success for a unique perspective.
McAlily said she was watching a former houseguest play ball on TV when she laughingly observed, “I washed his underwear.”
Hosts and players often stay in touch for years after they players move on, exchanging Christmas cards and emails. The players remember their hosts generosity in sharing their home with them. Suzanne McAlily remembered the reaction of a Panamanian player when she made a native dish, fried plantains, for him. “I thought he was going to cry,” she said.
McAlily added, “We feel like if our kids were that far away from home we’d like to know somebody was looking after them. We try to be their family while they’re here.”
Said Chatham, “It’s nice to be able to do something for those young boys. It doesn’t cost me anything and I can afford to give them a place to live.”
The hospitality goes both ways. Bishop said one player from New York flew his host family up to visit Rockefeller Center and other Big Apple attractions. Another player flew his hosts to Hawaii for his wedding.
“In 10 years we’ve never had anyone not return as a host home unless there was a family change, like a new child and the spare bedroom wasn’t available any more,” said Bishop. “Other than that it’s always been a positive experience.”
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