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'Lifetime relationship': Surrounded by Sargent's Stadium upgrades, Mill Rats recruiting host families for players

Mar. 18—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — During the baseball season, Johnstown Mill Rats players spend the vast majority of their time either at Sargent's Stadium at the Point or at their temporary residences in the Johnstown area.

Since the club's first campaign in 2021, government officials have approved numerous major improvements to the historic stadium in downtown Johnstown in hopes of making playing games there more enjoyable.

Meanwhile, the team always tries to pair the college-aged players with host families — as opposed to putting them up in rented facilities — in hopes that local experiences can be shared with people from the community.

Final stadium and lodging details are being put in place for the season that is scheduled to begin on May 31.

"We're working hard and we're working with the city to bring this great opportunity to Johnstown, being a part of the Prospect League, being as big as it is," Mill Rats assistant general manager Sarah Rex said. "As people get back into falling in love with baseball in Johnstown, we're trying to make it a nice place to be and some place that people want to keep coming back to."

'Improving' the Point

Johnstown City Council recently agreed to provide funding for updated video board hardware and software. Since last season ended, the city has also finished construction of a new two-story building that includes office space for the Mill Rats, a press box and a concession stand; purchased an outfield scoreboard; and installed a new public address/microphone system.

Those additions will complement changes that were already made at the ballpark, city leaders said.

"Obviously, we've gone from years of not really doing a lot with the stadium as far as updates to doing an amazing amount of improvements over the past two years," Johnstown Community and Economic Development Director John Dubnansky said. "We've done new turf, new lighting, two new scoreboards, an active-view board that we have the capability of doing replays, things like that, things that we just couldn't do in the past. We had a building addition as well."

Concessions will still be handled by the Mill Rats during their games, along with Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League and All American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA) Tournament contests. Food options will now also be available on the patio level.

"We have the new concession stand that's going to be open behind home plate that we hope alleviates some of the lines that we've had on the first-base side" concession stand, Johnstown Recreation Director Tony Penna Jr. said. "Last year, they decided to use the third-base side for prep. I think that helped a little bit. So it keeps improving every year."

The Mill Rats' goal is to have every player stay with a host family.

"These guys are fantastic baseball players," Rex said. "They're great athletes. They're great kids. They come from all over the United States to play baseball right here in Johnstown.

"That's a huge help to the organization to be able to house these kids and make sure that they have a place to go. It's a great experience. I've had nothing but positive feedback from previous host families. A lot of them have already agreed to come back for this season, so we're just trying to get more, spread the word about it."

Annette and Mark Berkey housed a player for the first time last season. They attended games, met his parents and threw him a birthday party.

"I think we really made a bond with him forever," Annette Berkey said.

Mark Berkey described having a player stay in their house as "low-maintenance."

"It's really no burden at all, and you develop a lifetime relationship with these kids," Mark Berkey said. "You never know, one of them might even end up in the majors. I even made him come out in the yard and throw the ball with me. I said, 'Just in case. Just in case you make it. I want to be able to say, "Hey, yeah, that guy, I tossed a ball around with him in the back yard." ' It's definitely worth it."

The Berkeys plan to host two Mill Rats players this season.

Rex said the team was seeking 20 host families as of Friday.

Anybody interested in hosting a player can contact Rex at sarahr@millrats.com.