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Vancouver Canadians Third baseman Andy Fermin during warm-up June 19, 2013 at Nat Bailey Stadium. Fermin is staying with Linnea Gibbs, a huge Vancouver Canadians baseball fan who also billets players for the team. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Vancouver Canadians Third baseman Andy Fermin during warm-up June 19, 2013 at Nat Bailey Stadium. Fermin is staying with Linnea Gibbs, a huge Vancouver Canadians baseball fan who also billets players for the team. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

For minor league baseball players, a caring host family is essential Add to ...

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon in mid-June, Linnea Gibbs sits in her regular seat at the ballpark, decked out in her Vancouver Canadians hat and jersey. Beside her sits a group of fellow retired librarians she’s invited to the game.

Suddenly Ms. Gibbs turns to them, telling them to pay attention and cheer loudly. One of “her guys,” Andy Fermin, is up to bat. Ms. Gibbs follows each pitch intensely. Then, after a strike and two balls, Mr. Fermin swings: a slow bouncing ball to the second baseman. The fielder charges and whips a quick throw to first, and Mr. Fermin is called out.

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Ms. Gibbs leans back in her chair, her disappointment evident.

“He promised me three hits before the game,” said the 68-year-old Vancouver resident with an easy laugh, though she is dead serious about her baseball. “It’s going to have to go to extra innings if he’s going to do it.”

Ms. Gibbs is arguably one of the Vancouver Canadians’ biggest fans; she’s been following the city’s minor league team for years. Last season she only missed one home game. But she’s more than just a loyal fan: For some players, she’s also become a de facto grandmother.

For the past 10 years, Ms. Gibbs has opened her home to Vancouver Canadians players to live in for the summer months, one of about 20 host families across the city.

It might seem odd on the surface: a divorced, retired Canadian woman hosting young, foreign men in their early 20s. But people like Ms. Gibbs are essential to the functioning of minor league baseball. Players make peanuts compared to those in the majors. And with a short season – the Canadians are a single-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays and only play in June, July and August – it’s impractical for players to rent a place in Vancouver.

At the top of the third inning, Mr. Fermin is back up at bat. The 23-year-old third baseman was born in Florida but spent many years of his childhood in the Dominican Republic. It’s his first season with the Canadians. And like most players, Mr. Fermin hopes to make it to the major leagues one day.

But with four other minor league teams playing at a higher level in the Blue Jays’ farm system – and about 200 minor league teams in total – getting to the majors will likely be a long, uncertain grind. Minor league life often requires players to relocate cities each season. And Mr. Fermin and his teammates only make about $1,200 a month.

All of the Canadians’ players live with a local host family. For some players, it’s their first time away from home; for many, it’s their first time in Canada.

Along with Mr. Fermin, Ms. Gibbs houses Alvido Jimenez, a 21-year-old relief pitcher, also from the Dominican Republic.

“She’s like grandma,” Mr. Fermin said in an interview before the game at Nat Bailey Stadium, adding that he thinks he has the best host family on the team. “She knows how to treat us, we feel comfortable with her, she gives us all the facilities we need.”

Mr. Fermin and Mr. Jimenez are the 16th and 17th players Ms. Gibbs has hosted over the last 10 years. In all, she’s hosted two players from Puerto Rico, seven from Venezuela and eight from the Dominican Republic.

“When I was working, I always saw this ad in the local paper saying ‘house a player, get to know baseball’… and I said, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ But I was working,” said Ms. Gibbs, who was a branch Librarian with the Burnaby Public Library for 26 years. “So, as soon as I retired I phoned … and they said, ‘Sure, take a player.’”

Jeff Holloway, who runs the Canadians’ housing program, says host families are invaluable to the organization, providing the essentials for a player to perform well on the field. But he says their importance stretches beyond providing just shelter and nutritious meals.

“This is often a player’s first time in Canada … we all have to be ambassadors of Canada because eventually, hopefully, these players will play with the Blue Jays in Toronto,” he said. “And by then we want Toronto, or Canada, to not be this sort of foreign place: ‘I don’t know what it’s like, are there igloos there?’ And instead they say, ‘Oh wow, I remember my summer in Vancouver and that was fantastic. The city was unbelievable, I really love Canada.’”

The situation is unique in the minors: The Canadians are the only Canadian affiliate of the only Canadian major league team. There are, of course, some aspects of Canadian life that the players take a little time to get used to. At Ms. Gibbs’ house, food is a big one.

“Sometimes the food here is sweet, not spicy enough. We use more salt,” Mr. Jimenez said, laughing.

Ms. Gibbs doesn’t take it personally. “I don’t cook for them, and the main reason is they cook differently than I do. They like a lot of rice, they use a lot more oil than I do and a lot more salt. And that’s their traditions and their habits,” she said, adding that the team gives her $250 a month per player to keep her cabinets stocked with food, money that comes out of the player’s salary.

Ms. Gibbs remembers the time she made blueberry pancakes for another Dominican player and he pulled out all the blueberries and then ate the pancakes.

“I have a backyard full of raspberries and no player has eaten any,” she says.

Both her players can speak English, so language is rarely a problem. Ms. Gibbs has also picked up a fair bit of Spanish over the years.

During the summer, Ms. Gibbs relocates to her basement – “where it’s cooler,” she says – while the players get the two bedrooms on the second floor. And while she sets no curfew, she does have a couple of house rules. One of them: No girls allowed.

“I’d get jealous,” Ms. Gibbs jokes. “But no, they can go out and have fun with girls, but it’s something I tell them from the start. No girls in the house.”

The guys don’t seem to mind. “Not having girls is not a big deal. We just try to go to her house and get some rest,” Mr. Fermin said.

Another rule: Only Ms. Gibbs can use the washing machine. She came to this one the hard way, after a former player put in an exorbitant amount of detergent for a tiny load of laundry. She now tells the players to bring down their laundry baskets and she’ll take care of the rest.

But there have been some truly difficult moments, says Ms. Gibbs, like the time the grandmother of one of her players died.

“Obviously his grandmother played such an important role in his upbringing since there were 17 kids, and he so badly wanted to go back to the Dominican Republic. But it would have been horrendously expensive to go just like that at the last minute,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t think you should go, it would just be too expensive.’”

She says his coaches eventually talked him out of going back. “He just sat on the front steps of my house as I painted them and I said to him ‘Triste?’ which means sad in Spanish. And he said, ‘Si.’ … And lot of these guys don’t have money to start off with. That player sent money back to the Dominican Republic every time he got a paycheque. It was just so sad.”

Ms. Gibbs throws out some theories as to why she enjoys housing players summer after summer: Perhaps it’s because she never had kids, she says. Or maybe it’s because the jazz bands she plays in slow down in the summer.

But when she sizes it all up, she comes back to a single conclusion: It’s her love for the game. And mind you, this is a woman who’s bucket list includes visiting every major league baseball park. She has just six more to go.

“I just love the game, that’s why I do this,” she said. “My biggest fear is that one day I’ll be too old to have players.”

 

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