For about 10 weeks, the host families for Cape Cod Baseball League players welcome young men chasing a dream into their homes and make them feel part of the family.Text by Bill Higgins | Photography by Betty Wiley
They are summer sons for a season in the sun.
Amid sea breezes and sand dunes, more than 300 of the country’s finest collegiate players arrive in the Cape Cod Baseball League to perform under the grizzled glare of Major League scouts.
The elite players, however, cross the bridges as fledglings, many still teenagers. Nervous strangers, they’re warmly embraced by host families who open their houses and welcome them home.
The organizations of the 10 teams are responsible for arranging accommodations for the players. The hosts provide a bedroom and linen, bathroom and laundry facilities, and some meals. In return, they receive a weekly stipend of around $75 to $80. Common sense governs house rules and personal behavior.
Susie Bent of Dennis is housing coordinator for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. With her husband, Shawn, and sons Tanner and Riley, the Bents have taken in players for several years. Last summer it was Carter Pharis from Trussville, Alabama, and the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
“My rules are simple,” says Susie. “Make your bed, communicate with me, be respectful. And most importantly,” she adds with emphasis, “keep us in your life forever!”
We visited with the Bents and Pharis last summer, along with three other hosts and their adopted summer sons in Chatham, Cotuit and Harwich.
Host Family: Mary and Vic Roberts of Brewster
Players: First baseman Jordan Verdon of San Diego State and pitcher John Witkowski of Boston College
Team: Harwich Mariners
The 2017 season for the Harwich Mariners was disappointing. They finished 15-28-1, last in the East and out of the playoffs. However, for first baseman Jordan Verdon of San Diego State and pitcher John Witkowski of Boston College, it was a summer they’ll remember with fondness because of the hospitality of Mary and Vic Roberts.
The Roberts’ home in Brewster, just over the Harwich line, was a split-level oasis for the players, where Verdon could play his guitar and Witkowski escaped into his art work. They had their own rooms on the lower level, and while there wasn’t a lot of down time, it was a retreat from the rigors of the Cape League.
Verdon, a native of California from El Cajon, and Witkowski, from Melrose, Massachusetts, arrived a week before the season opened. This gave everyone a chance to ease into the summer.
“We had that time for dinners together,” says Mary. “We got to learn about John and Jordan, their families, their interests outside of baseball. That also gave them time to hopefully feel at home with us. They were so nice and easygoing. We knew they’d be a good fit.”
Mary, operations manager at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, was familiar with the Cape League from having spent summers with her family in the 1980s in Orleans. Vic, who works in landscaping after a career in education, was a scorekeeper for the Chatham Anglers. They moved to Brewster four years ago.
“We have a good set-up in our home and it’s fun to be part of the league, and give players like John and Jordan a comfortable place,” says Mary. “They’re here to focus on baseball and it’s an easy adjustment for us. The only difficult part is the season ends and there’s a real emptiness when they leave.”
House rules: “Turn off the lights and make sure the dogs are in the house when you leave. Otherwise, be courteous, but really, they’re mature and respectful,” says Mary.
They’re also hungry. It wasn’t unusual for Verdon and Witkowski to go through a dozen eggs every other day and lots of chicken. Brigham’s Big Dig ice cream was also a popular item on Mary’s shopping list.
“I was nervous when I first arrived,” Verdon admits. “This is the best summer league and you want to prove you belong. That was my goal and also to get stronger and learn to grind it out every day.”
His relaxation time included FaceTime with his girlfriend in California and playing guitar. He’s self-taught and has always enjoyed music, from country to gospel to old rock ’n’ roll. “The guitar is just a hobby and a way to unwind a little,” he said.
Witkowski brought an easel and art supplies with him and found time to paint when he wasn’t at the gym, clinics and games. Experimenting with new techniques is similar to pitching, he said. “Painting and pitching are both a creative process. There has to be a plan and you build step by step. You’re always looking to improve. When something works well, you try to find a way to repeat it.”
Host family: Susie and Shawn Bent of Dennis
Players: Carter Pharis, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Team: Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox
Carter Pharis drove from Alabama to the Bent’s home in Dennis in early June to get ready for his season with Y-D. “When you tell baseball people you’re going to play on the Cape, they know exactly what you’re talking about,” says the soft-spoken infielder. “It’s everyone’s dream to get here. Honestly, I was a little intimidated.”
Among Pharis’ early challenges was understanding the Massachusetts accent and how his name was pronounced. “People were calling me Caaa-ta. I couldn’t understand them,” he says, with a laugh. “I guess they thought I spoke funny, too.”
However, more daunting to succeeding in the Cape League is measuring up to the day-to-day intensity of top competition and having the maturity to handle life away from the ballpark. Host families like the Bents play a vital role. Carter’s bedroom was adorned with school pennants from colleges such as Florida State, Louisville and LSU, mementos from players in previous summers. One thing intentionally missing was a television.
“We wanted Carter to watch TV with us, and be part of the family,” says Susie. “He fit in quickly and was easy to be around.”
But Cape Leaguers don’t have a lot of idle time for lounging. A 44-game season is squeezed into nine weeks. Most players work out at local gyms in the morning and help as instructors at team-organized youth clinics before heading to the park for games.
Pharis’ routine was to sleep until about 8:30 a.m. If Susie was home, she’d cook breakfast; otherwise he was on his own and had the run of the kitchen. Protein smoothie shakes were a favorite. After lunch, he’d rest for an hour or so before getting to Red Wilson Field for early batting practice.
There were team dinners after home games. Meals after road games were with the Bents, perhaps steak or chicken from the grill on the deck. With two teenage boys, plus Carter, Susie shopped every other day, and also did lots of laundry. “I was big on him always having a clean uniform,” says Susie.
“This league will make you grow up really fast. You learn a lot about yourself,” says Pharis. “I lean on Christ to help me. And my parents. It’s always good to remember there are people that love you and care about you no matter what you do in a game. I do want to play pro ball. If that doesn’t work out, I’d like to teach and coach.”
Host family: Susan and Sean Coutinho of Cotuit
Players: Griffin Conine of Duke University
Team: Cotuit Kettleers
Griffin Conine of Weston, Florida, and Duke University was a shining star of the 2017 Cape League season and has the pedigree to make it to the majors. His father, Jeff, played 17 seasons in the big leagues and earned two World Series rings.
Griffin arrived just days before Cotuit opened the season and had little time to adjust to a new team, new league and a new host family. Sean and Susan Coutinho did their part, and can share in his success.
Conine was an all-star outfielder for the Kettleers. He hit .329, led the league with nine home runs and was chosen by scouts as the Cape League’s top pro prospect. He had a notion of what to expect because his dad played for Orleans in 1986.
“He said it was the best summer experience of his life and I can see why,” says Conine. “Cotuit is a cool place. The Fourth of July parade and the fans. The little kids look at us like we’re big leaguers. Dad’s advice was to enjoy it and not put pressure on myself. He has never pushed me. He wants me to forge my own path.”
Sean Coutinho is a mason with his own business and Susan is a social worker with a private practice. They have two sons, Sean II, 18, and Conner, 13. Summer is hectic at the Coutinho house, but Griffin settled in quickly. His room was in the finished basement with couches and a large-screen TV. The use of a Jeep was an unexpected perk.
“The rules are pretty simple,” says Susan. “We’re all busy, so everyone has to chip in and help. Eating downstairs is OK, but clean up after yourself and don’t leave dirty dishes around; we don’t want bugs!”
Griffin usually slept in and made his own breakfast of eggs, turkey bacon and toast with peanut butter. For lunch, he’d have a sandwich. “Washing dishes was fine. It’s the least I can do,” says Griffin. He would often have dinners with the family after home games, or if he came in late, there was always a full meal waiting in the fridge.
“When I flew into Boston, I thought I’d take a bus here, but Sean insisted on picking me up,” says Griffin. “That was super nice. We had that time to talk and get comfortable. I knew right away it would be an easy transition.”
Host family: Wendi and Keith Metters, Chatham
Players: Outfielder Mason Koppens of Northeastern University and pitcher Dan Metzdorf of Boston College
Team: Chatham Anglers
The Metters’ house is not far from Veterans Field, home of the Chatham Anglers. An American flag hangs off the front porch, along with red, white and blue bunting. A Jeep in the garage has a canvas cover over the spare tire emblazoned with the Chatham Anglers logo. A “wall of fame” near the kitchen includes a large Anglers emblem and stickers from colleges representing players they’ve hosted in recent years.
Wendi and Keith, with teenage daughters Lauren and Amy, are all in on the Cape League. They’ve been a host family for four years and their summer sons in 2017 were Mason Koppens of New Orleans, an outfielder from Northeastern University, and Dan Metzdorf, a pitcher from Burlington, Massachusetts, and Boston College.
Mason played briefly for the Anglers in 2016 and stayed with the Metters. He got first dibs in 2017 on a queen-size bed; Metzdorf had a twin. The backyard barn—a man cave with a big-screen television, video games and darts—was a popular hangout to unwind after games.
The players were up early, usually by 6:30, and off to the gym or yoga five days a week. That was followed by helping at the Anglers’ youth clinic until noon, and then work preparing Veterans Field for that night’s game. A quick lunch at home or in town, a nap and it was time to head to the park.
And he did, helping to lead the Anglers into the playoffs in 2017. Koppens batted .304. Metzdorf was a dependable reliever, appearing in 11 games, finishing 3-0 with a 2.45 earned run average. Their success on the field was due, in part, to the Metters making them feel at home.
“Wendi and Keith treat us like their own kids, and we feel like we’re big brothers to Lauren and Amy,” says Metzdorf. Like other Cape League host families, it’s the relationships that are most meaningful. “They’re everlasting,” says Keith, a senior vice president with Fidelity Investment. He recommended one of his former Chatham players for a position with the firm in Jacksonville, Florida. “And it was directly related to the bond we formed while he was with us.”
The only negative, says Wendi, is seasons end and players depart. “I tell them all that there’ll be tears and it does get emotional. But I also warn them that they won’t be done with us. I think we’ll always stay in touch.”