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'Giant kids': How the Train Robbers get a boost from host families

Feb. 4—Luke Kelley arrived in Bakersfield at 1 a.m. after knocking out the 13-hour drive from Portland, Ore. The Bakersfield Train Robbers of the Pecos League would be the pitcher's third team in as many weeks after an ill-fated trade within his Oregonian league led him to seek greener pastures in Southern California.

All pretty standard stuff in the life of an itinerant independent-league baseball player.

Less common, especially considering his midseason arrival, was the fortunate living situation he entered at Sherri and Donnie Jobe's house. They were already housing a pair of Train Robbers, and not only were they willing to take on one more, but Luke's prospective roommates, Zach Devon and Dakota McFadden, were players he had previously stayed with in Florida.

It was the perfect environment for the trio as they played out their 33-5, Pacific Division-winning season. They don't ask for much — as McFadden puts it, "I can have a roof over my head, and be able to eat, and be able to lay down at night and go to sleep" — but what they needed, the Jobes provided, furnishing them with groceries, laundry access, general comfort and a place for the players to socialize when they had time off.

"The whole environment at their house was perfect for somebody trying to really focus on baseball, and still come and enjoy your time when you're away from the field as well," Kelley said.

Their hosts also stand to gain from the relationship. More than the free tickets to Sam Lynn Ballpark and on-field recognition at season's end, being a host family is about connecting with young players.

"They walk in our house as strangers and they become my boys," Sherri Jobe said. "They become our family."

Host families provide crucial support for baseball players, particularly those in the independent world who make a pittance playing the game they love. (Kelley said he got about $80 a week, thanks to the Train Robbers' fans, and most Pecos League players would get less.) Staying in an Airbnb or a hotel is an immense expenditure, and players struggle without local families opening their homes.

Sherri Jobe and Melissa Andrews were among the Bakersfield residents who saw a news segment putting out a call for hosts when the Train Robbers moved to the area in 2017, replacing the longtime Bakersfield Blaze of Minor League Baseball.

Jobe had never been to a Blaze game but was inspired by the plight of these aspiring athletes who "were trying to do something good with their life."

"If my son were gonna take that route," she said, "I would just hope that somebody would love them like a mom and make sure they're OK."

Manager Relly Mercurio, who calls host families "the backbone of the team," noted that most host parents either have adult children who have moved out or younger kids for whom they hope the players can serve as mentors.

Andrews, a longtime baseball fan who began hosting in 2018 and now helps organize host selections, said that her 9-year-old son Iain helped guide the process for their first hosting experience. She sought his approval every step of the way and brought him to a meet-and-greet.

"He kind of picked the player he most got along with," Andrews said.

It was Iain's persistent eagerness — he also served as a batboy and met players that way — that led the Andrews family to keep hosting year after year.

"He would have Nerf gun wars with them in the living room," Andrews said, "It's great. They would play video games together — they're just like giant kids."

Jobe, who has adult children, was anxious her first year but took on more players each successive season after seeing how disciplined and respectful they were.

"After the games, the boys would all come over to our house and stay in our backyard swimming until 1 in the morning," she said. "The neighbors never heard them because our boys that lived here said, 'OK, you guys have to keep quiet.'"

She estimates that she has housed about 25 players between the Pecos League and another league that plays in the fall. Many wish her a happy Mother's Day every year. The players' parents are also delighted to see them in a loving home (and that they're not in a "$20 hotel on Union," as Andrews puts it) and so often end up befriending the hosts as well, expanding the size of the impromptu baseball family.

In a fundamentally unstable profession, it helps to have the security of a reliable host, players said.

"That's really good for the mental aspect of the game," Devon said, "to keep (out) those things that might creep into your mind."

But while it's still early in the 2022 host-gathering process, Andrews said she hasn't gotten many responses to her initial inquiries, whether due to the continued impact of COVID-19, the departures of previous hosts or a simple lack of awareness since the Blaze's departure.

"A lot of people don't even know that there's a team here still that comes every summer," she said.

The responsibility is significant: "It's almost like adopting another kid for the summer," Mercurio said.

But if incoming players take Kelley's advice — "Treat them like you're part of the family; they're basically your mom and your dad at that point" — relationships should go smoothly. And the players might get a boost to their careers in the process. McFadden has parlayed his Pacific Division MVP into a series of gigs; Devon is pitching in his hometown Detroit; and Kelley got signed to a top team in Canada.

"Good things happen out of Bakersfield," Kelley said.

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.