Local families offer up a a ‘Sweet' home for the Sweets ballplayers

About 30 local families volunteered to house and feed the Sweets for the summer — and to bring another kid into their families.

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Dressed in their pink "We Believe" clothing for "Tough Enough to Wear Pink" night, Walla Walla Sweets host family Mike (right) and Vicki Johnson talk to their player, Sweets' catcher Josh Daniel, before a July game.

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While families talk with players and friends, a Walla Walla Sweets host family member holds a baseball signed by all the players on the team given as a gift at a host family picnic Sunday, August 1, 2010 before their afternoon game.

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While hanging out and talking with his host family (background) and local friends, like Jim Dumont (right), Sweets' player Scott Gottschling (center) gives and receives friendly harassment with Sweets and college teammate Christian Ramirez (left).

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Joey Wagman hugs his host mom, Betty Renwick, at host family appreciation night.

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Linda Stevens (center) stands with her boys, Matt Comer (left) and A.J. Burke.

WALLA WALLA - For some, they were the boys of summer, fun to cheer on or commiserate with, then go home and forget until the next game.

But for another group in town, the Walla Walla Sweets were the boys at the dinner table and their own "baseball angels."

All of the young men in town - the players and the radio broadcaster - settled in to temporary digs with 30 host families who fed them, offered transportation and sometimes even kept them entertained.

For those families, the players became more than a team on the field. They became another child to keep track of, and another college team to support.

"I call him my ‘baseball angel,'" said host mom Jeanette Lightfoot of the player she and her husband, Mike, hosted in Christian Ramirez, an outfielder from the University of California-Irvine.

"He brought the whole family together," Lightfoot said. "We've been going to the games ... Usually we go in all different directions, like people do. But he brought us together. He helped make it a family barbecue every night."

Among other things, the Lightfoots took Ramirez to a Mariners game.

"There was a lot of joking and smack-talking," a smiling Ramirez said, sitting near sun-drenched Borleske Stadium on a recent Sunday afternoon. "Especially when the Angels played the Mariners. But they were nice enough to take me to a game and I got to see ‘King Felix' (Felix Hernandez) pitch. It was an awesome experience.

"They did a great job, making me feel like I was home."

And that was the point.

Many of the host families are "empty nesters," with their own children at college or beyond, and with spare rooms available.

Lanette and Dennis Bendixsen have four children - and three of them are out of the house. That left them with several empty bedrooms.

And two Sweets were eager to fill the rooms. Danny Poplawski, from Georgetown, and Chris Kerns, from the College of Southern Idaho, both settled in, Lanette said.

"We told our kids we gave away their rooms," she said.

"It sounded like fun," Dennis said. "Most of our kids had moved out, and we decided we could commit to one.

"We got two."

And it's been a good experience, even as their eyes turned bright at the upcoming end of the summer collegiate season.

"We raised music kids," Lanette said. "Not athletes. So this was my second chance at being a soccer mom."

With one notable difference.

"Music kids don't come home bruised," she said. "That was the hardest part for me - when they got hurt. That's when Dad comes in with the first-aid kit."

Hosting the players brought the Bendixsens into the game.

"Having the boys here makes the season more personal," Dennis said. "They're more than a number on the field. You're invested in the spirit of the game and the emotions. And after the game's over, they come home and eat mud pie and talk about school and girls and where to go golf."

And it was the typical family moments that made the summer.

Allan and Betty Renwick - who at one point hosted three right-handed pitchers - had a birthday part for Joey Wagman, from Cal Poly.

"We did out best to embarrass him," Allan said, pride in his voice. "We took him to El Sombrero and made him wear the hat. He went golfing with a couple of the guys and we decorated his car."

Wagman turned 19, an age when many young people are still celebrating at home.

"You have to just be in it for the kids," said host mom Kerry McEwen. "Because they're still kids, even when they're 20. They still need a family."

McEwen and her husband, Jim, hosted Jake Overbay, who left early for college at UNLV.

"We were sad to see him go," McEwen said. "He's become part of our family."

Overbay recently graduated from Edmonds Community College, where the McEwens' daughter plays volleyball. So although hosting a baseball player was a new experience, they already knew Overbay.

"Oh my gosh, he's such a good kid," Kerry said. "He's perfect in every way."

One night, Overbay decided to make brownies.

"He didn't know how to cook, and he put them in this huge pan," Kerry said. "He made them so thin. We asked, ‘Don't you want to scrape that into another pan?' And he said no, they'll fluff up. And you know, sure enough, they fluffed up!

"And they were delicious."

Food became a major topic for families hosting players.

Debbie and Jim Dumont hosted Denver Chavez and Elliot Stewart, both from Cal Poly. The household went through five dozen eggs per week, she said.

"We did go through a lot of food," Dumont said. "But they were easy to accommodate."

Although different players have different tastes, all of them appreciated the meals.

"Whenever I got home, there was food or they were cooking for me," said Wagman, who lived with the Renwicks. "They made it as easy on me as possible."

And the host parents loved putting food out.

"I loved that they loved to eat," said Linda Stevens, who hosted Matt Comer, from Seattle University, and A.J. Burke, from Linn-Benton Community College. "That was the best thing."

Comer agreed.

"She fed us all the time," he said.

Sometimes, the players could be too accommodating, said Betty Renwick.

"We'd ask them what they wanted to eat, and they said ‘Anything,'" she said. "They were so polite - but it would be great if they could just tell us their favorite foods so we could keep them on hand."

Host families fell into the gig in different ways.

Some, like the Renwicks, took some convincing. Allan is a Little League umpire and had connections to the baseball community - including one who pressed hosting on them.

"He kept bugging us," Allan said. "We kept saying ‘no.' He caught us in a moment of weakness.

"But it's been really good," he continued. "We're not sorry we did it."

The Bendixsens quickly decided they were game.

"We saw an ad for a meeting and decided to go," Dennis said.

"And about five minutes later, we said, ‘This looks like fun, let's do it,'" Lanette said.

And the host families have been glad they did.

"I've been truly impressed with how nice the kids are," Allen Renwick said. "They're courteous, polite, thankful. They told us, ‘Don't worry about us, we're interfering in your life.' It's been a great experience."

And there could be some room for debate on who had the best situation.

"I had the best players," Stevens said. "It's been an excellent experience. I'd do it again, but I'm worried I wouldn't get such good kids."

Stevens wasn't even home when Comer and Burke arrived.

She was initially interested in hosting, but when the season started, she had someone living in her home.

But the two players needed a place to stay after extending their contracts with the Sweets and Stevens was called - when she was out of town.

She had a friend let them in and show them around, and trusted that all would be well.

It was.

"It was kind of weird," Comer said of moving in without Stevens around. "Matt and I just opened the fridge and settled in."

And it's been good since.

"She didn't torture us at all," Burke joked. "She didn't have us do chores, except clean up after ourselves."

Stevens has a pool and hot tub, as well as a horse and burros on her property.

That was a new experience for Burke, who attends college in the Portland area.

"My first question was, ‘Do you have any critters?'" he said.

Although he tried to trap a few live ones, he never quite succeeded, he said.

But rural Walla Walla has been an experience - complete with flying objects that weren't baseballs.

"I'd never had horse poop thrown at me before," Burke, a pitcher, joked - maybe.

And other "city boys" have enjoyed their time here.

"It's been great," said Josh Daniel, a senior St. John's University in New York City. "I love Walla Walla. It's a little different from New York."

Daniel lived with Mike and Vicki Johnson.

"We've already tried to hook him up to come back next summer," Vicki Johnson said. "His Mom's not going for it - she wants him to have a degree."

Daniel's eligibility for summer ball ends this year. The Johnsons were his third host family.

"You've got to be a pretty nice person to want a college baseball player in your house," he said. "You've got to be a little different."

The Johnsons were happy to be those people.

"We got lucky," Mike Johnson said. "We got a great, laid-back kid."

And there were very few problems.

"They all seem a little mature beyond their years," Allan Renwick said.

The Sweets organization was available if any problems arose, but none did.

Although the Sweets management organized the host families this year, some families hope to take on that job in future seasons.

Debbie Dumont envisions a Sweets Booster Club, with organization by the host families.

"It's easier from this perspective to see what they need," she said.

That's fine by the organization.

"I think a booster club is the natural progression," said general manager Zachary Fraser. "The families can better identify what they need and they can take it over. We would definitely support that."

After this year, there's not much Fraser wouldn't support from these families.

"This group of families has a really special place in my heart," he said. "They all did this on a leap of faith. Next year, people will have 30 host families they can go to and ask questions of, but these people didn't have that. They did it when it wasn't easy."

And the payback - at least in a literal sense - wasn't great. For a summer of housing, feeding and sometimes transporting a college athlete, families got game passes and discounts in the Sweet Shoppe.

But that's not why they did it.

The families brought players in for love of the game - for the opportunity to cheer for their own athlete, and for the emotional highs and lows of a summer of baseball.

And in the end, they're sad to see it end.

"These are our boys. We cry when they leave," said Lanette Bendixsen.

Chris Kerns, a pitcher, left in mid-July due to an injury. But his parting gift to the Bendixsens was the game ball from his last win.

He gave it to them in a glass box, Lanette said, brushing away fond tears at the memory.

And for next summer, the families are ready to go again.

"He's so easy-going - he lights up a room," Jeanette Lightfoot said of Chavez. "We've missed young people. It's been a great experience to have him in our home. This is absolutely something we'll do again."

"Walla Walla is pretty sweet."

Josh Daniel

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"She has a pool and a hot tub, she fed them all the time and they've got baseball - what else could a 20-year-old boy want?"

Keven Comer,

Matt Comer's mom

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"I plan on keeping in touch. I hope to see them in the pros."

Linda Stevens

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"I got a little spoiled with the Renwicks. It was so good here, anywhere else will have a tough time being better. They have a high bar."

Joey Wagman

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"I plan on keeping in touch and letting them know when I have a game in Washington."

Joey Wagman

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"We'll be there when he does."

Allan Renwick

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"This is an experience that will last a lifetime because of the quality of people that they are."

Christian Ramirez

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"It's been a great experience to have them at our house. They're very respectful, very humble young men."

Debbie Dumont

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"They'd get in at 10 p.m., and of course that's their 5 p.m. (after a game), which is our bedtime. But we'd leave food for them and they'd be quiet so we could sleep."

Allan Renwick

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"They're here because they love the game. They're disciplined and hard-working."

Dennis Bendixsen

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"It's been fun - it's been enjoyable, having a fine young man in our midst."

Jeanette Lightfoot

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