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For the 25th largest city in the United States -- 'baseball' means just one thing: The 'Portland Pickles' in Southeast

PAIGE WALLACE - Jay Mellies and Ellen Damaschino pose outside their Eastmoreland home with the two Portland Pickles baseball players they hosted this season, Jacob Jablonski and Justin DeCriscio.   As summer shadows lengthen across the pitcher's mound, energetic baseball fans gather in the stands of Southeast Portland's Walker Field, at S.E. 92nd and Holgate Boulevard, to root for the home team. Among them is an Eastmoreland couple who opened their home to two Portland Pickles players this season – and found that the experience knocked their summer out of the park!

"It's been a very, very positive experience," smiled Ellen Damaschino. She, and her husband Jay Mellies, have been hosting individual Pickles players since 2018. This summer, for the first time, they welcomed two players into their home at the same time: Shortstops Jacob Jablonski and Justin DeCriscio, both from California.

Mellies is a microbiologist and professor at Reed College; Damaschino describes herself as a "recovering pastry chef" now working for a nonprofit. Their decision to become Pickles hosts stemmed from a lifetime love of baseball, and a more recent commitment to seeking out new adventures.

After becoming empty-nesters, the couple decided to incorporate something new into their lives. "We had gone to several of the Portland Pickles games in the past years, and we really enjoy baseball," Damaschino explained, about their initial decision to sign up. "Our daughters have moved out permanently. We have an extra room. Let's do this!" The couple has hosted players each summer since then, except when the team went on hiatus during the pandemic last year.

Pickles games take place at Walker Stadium in Lents Park, just south of Holgate Boulevard. The team consists of college-level players who spend the summer in Portland honing their skills, during what would normally be their off season. They compete in the West Coast League, which encompasses teams from around Oregon, Washington, and southwestern Canada.

Portland area residents interested in hosting Pickles players can apply to do so at the team's website – each host family may house up to four players – usually beginning at the end of May, and lasting until the season ends in mid-August. This year saw 21 host families volunteering across the Portland area; but Damaschino said the team is always looking for more. The Portland Pickles' website specifically asks for host families in areas close to the stadium.

Teammates actually spend most of their time with each other – rather than with their host families – simply because they carry a full schedule of gym workouts, practices, and games. But on Mondays, which is the players' only day off each week, their hosts get to show off what it's like to live in the Portland area. Many Pickles players hail from towns around the West, so this is often their first time visiting Oregon. Mellies and Damaschino asked Jablonski and DeCriscio what they wanted to do during their stay, and the results were a tour of Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, a jet boat excursion on the Willamette River, and a visit to the dinosaur exhibit at OMSI.

Jablonski also raved about an afternoon spent canoeing with Mellies. The two launched from Sellwood Park and paddled downriver to the Tilikum Crossing transit bridge. Jablonski said he has also enjoyed exploring the Eastmoreland neighborhood with his drone camera, and on rental scooters.

DeCriscio agreed that Inner Southeast Portland has been a great place to land. "It's a nice part of the town, and I pretty much love everything about it," he said. He also complimented his hosts for providing him with something he's never experienced before: A home away from home. Since he's starting college this fall, and has never lived away from his own family for this long, that warm welcome has felt very comforting. "They've made the transition really nice!"

Pickles' host families are not compensated financially, but they do receive complimentary season tickets, which may provide unexpected benefits. "Walker Stadium is a wonderful place to see a game," Mellies remarked, "But then you have the added 'connection' of a player you're hosting, on the field and who you can cheer for. It just makes it that much more special."

"Also, let's not forget section 208, which is the 'host family' section," Damaschino chimed in. "We're all tight! So a big draw is that second community, not only for the players but for the host families. It's a blast!"

Hosting has led to long-term connections with players. The couple sometimes travels to college games to see them play, or they'll all meet up when the young men come back through town. One player even makes a point to text Damaschino every year on her birthday.

"It's really nice to be a mentor, because these kids open up to you about a lot of stuff," Damaschino said of her hosting experiences. "We're not their parents, so there's just like 'a safe zone', I think, in a lot of ways. And I think it's nice to have a relationship with young adults who are not your children."

Mellies agreed: "Yeah, it's a real privilege to be able to spend time with them, and to listen to their hopes and dreams, and what they want to do in their lives." The couple already plans to host again in 2022.

Meantime, Jablonski said his connection with Damaschino and Mellies will extend far beyond this summer. "They're like mom and dad away from home and, you know, they'll probably always be that way."


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