Each time Cody Stanley steps to the plate at the Sugar Land Skeeters’ home field, he does so more than 1,200 miles from his actual home.
But from how Stanley tells it, he might as well be right back in Clinton, North Carolina, when he leaves Constellation Field and makes the short drive to the place he usually sleeps. He stays with community member Gail Bartz, who he considers his host mother.
“I’m from a small town, where everyone’s nice and everybody knows everybody,” Stanley said. “That’s exactly what it feels like whenever her family comes over to the house and treats me like a part of their family. It’s hard to find people like that in this day and age.”
Giving the Skeeters a home away from home is the idea behind a host family program that is common in minor league baseball. Stanley is one of 16 Sugar Land players living with a host family this season.
For Bartz, it was a no-brainer to take Stanley in just days before the 2019 campaign started.
“We just clicked. He was such a nice, polite young man – I was very impressed by that,” she said. “My daughter tried to buy (Stanley and a teammate) a drink, and Cody said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t, because I’m driving tonight.’ So I knew off the bat this was going to be a young man who was very responsible. I just trusted him, it felt right, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment.”
Stanley, who previously spent seven seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization and had a brief taste of Major League Baseball in 2015, serves as the backup catcher for the Skeeters. His wife, Mercedes, also stays with Bartz when she visits from North Carolina.
Though it varies from year to year, Skeeters media relations manager Ryan Posner said the team is able to find host families for about 75 percent of its 25-man roster. Posner said neither the team nor the players compensate the host families, who can take advantage of incentives regarding season tickets and parking passes.
“It gives them a place to feel at home while they’re not at home instead of living out of a hotel room, because this can be a very temporary spot for them,” said Posner, who manages the program that’s been in effect since the Skeeters’ inaugural season in 2010.
Pitchers Danny Reynolds, who is from Nevada, and native Texan Nick Rumbelow stay in Sugar Land with host mom Judy Bowe. While they are thousands of miles away from the big leagues in an industry that can throw curves at every turn, Reynolds and Stanley both said the transition has been made easier with the help of their host families.
“(Bowe) is just such a motherly figure that’s caring and nurturing of me and whoever else may be staying with her,” Reynolds said. “We don’t have to worry about food, water or a roof over our heads. It takes a lot of those variables out of the equation. … Her willingness to take in someone she’s never met before and have such an open heart that’s willing to go the extra mile even though she doesn’t need to, is so special.”
Families like no other
The connection goes beyond the baseball field. Reynolds said if the team is in town but not playing that day, Bowe will take a break from cleaning the pool or the patio so the pair can chow down on some breakfast at Cheesecake Factory or the Toasted Yolk Café is Sugar Land before coming home to chill by the pool and do their own thing.
Then at night, it’s back together again.
“Usually we’ll go grocery shopping for dinner and eat dinner together as a family,” Reynolds said.
Stanley has formed an instant bond with Bartz’s daughter and grandkids, who he said are over at the house multiple times per week.
“They’re one of the nicest families I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve had three host families in my entire career. They’ve all been great, but Ms. Gail is special,” he said. “It’s so incredible to be able to see that dynamic at work.”
Bartz said the feeling is mutual. Her grandkids have taken to calling Stanley their “Buncle,” or “baseball uncle.”
“They’ve got signs for him and everything. People around us have no clue why, but it’s so sweet. He fits into the family so well,” Bartz said with a laugh. “I call him my baseball son, and I nag him like a mom.”
In Reynolds’ case, Bowe is the epitome of a baseball mom – a combination of nurturing heart and tough love.
“She’s just as blunt as she can be, but still has those motherly tendencies where she tries to make you feel good,” he said. “But if I come back and I don’t pitch well, she’ll tell me, ‘Danny, I love you – but you sucked today.’ She’ll butter you up and then hit you with the truth. I definitely appreciate that.”
Stanley offered much the same praise for Bartz, saying she is tough and driven but also sweet. He considers her both an inspiration and an example.
Bartz also considers it a match made in baseball heaven.
“He’s my family,” she said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could get another Cody.”