Hops players meet summer host families
When sitting down to take in a Hillsboro Hops game at Ron Tonkin Field this summer, keep in mind that the players on the diamond depend on the generosity of local residents for everything from room and board to transportation to and from the stadium.
They're professionals, hoping for a shot at the big leagues. Some make it and some don't, but all the players start out on the same level: they live with host parents.
"For a lot of guys, it's their first time away from their families," said Hops' Director of Player and Media Relations Preston Toulon.
The team puts on a few events for the host families each year, like a mid-season barbecue for families and players and a gift for families at the end of the season. Host families can ask for rent, but for the most part, Toulon said, supporting the players is something families do out of the kindness of their hearts.
One such family is the Callaway family — as in Mayor Steve Callaway and his wife Joan. The Callaways participated in the program in 2014 and 2015, taking a break last year during the mayoral elections.
"For me, some of my earliest memories are of baseball," Steve Callaway said. "It's always been my favorite sport, and to be able to have it here at home, so close to home, is great. It is tough when some of the players get released, knowing their dream is coming to an end, but then there's the excitement of seeing other players continue on up."
Callaway said he's provided food, but players typically do their own cooking while at his home. He even provides a vehicle, making transportation to and from the stadium easy — especially when players arrive at the end of a road trip in the middle of the night.
The program has given Callaway a chance to befriend the players in a special way, and he's continued his connections long after the season ends. Zach Esquerra, a player during the 2013-14 seasons who hit the first grand slam in Hops history, invited the Callaways to his wedding.
"What's cool is a ton of host families keep up with players from previous years," Toulon said. "Some find out they were hosting a future big-league player."
The friendships have made Hops games more meaningful for Callaway.
"Instead of caring about wins and losses, you start caring about the individual players," Callaway said. "They're working so hard. They're thrilled to be pros, but they are experiencing the grind of moving up."
"When they get a game-winning hit or a bit hit or pitch, well, it's about being there to support and affirm them," he said. "But sometimes, when they have a tough game, I'm glad to give them a place to come home and get away from the field."
The Hops held a meet-and-greet for the players and their host families on June 12, where the Callaways met their two host-player: Mitchell Aker, a returning pitcher from last season's squad, and Rafael Pujols from the Dominican Republic.
Callaway remembers putting his arm around his wife's shoulder for a photo and extending his other arm around Pujols — the 21-year-old is listed at 6-foot-6 — and Callaway's arm only reached Pujols' waist.
The roster will grow as the Major League Baseball draft picks settle into place, but the Hops released a preliminary roster on June 13. The Hops open the 2017 season June 15 in Everett, Wash. with the hope opener set for 7:05 p.m. June 20 against Salem-Keiser — right in the middle of a Hillsboro City Council meeting.
Callaway said he'll be there, but late.
Host a Hops player
The Hillsboro Hops are still taking applications for families interested in hosting players during the 2017 season.
"We're set right now, but hosting needs a series of minor miracles to make it work," Toulon said.
Players can move up to other teams, and the roster often changes in the middle of the season if players are cut or pick up injuries. Host families must live within 10 miles of the stadium and have a spare bedroom and bathroom for the player to use.