At home with the home team

During the second inning of a game against the Bristol Blues, Bianca Marrero hustled to the edge of the Wahconah Park bleachers near the Pittsfield Suns' dugout. Minutes earlier, Marrero's son, Andre, had sprawled for a liner and came up hobbling. Now, his mother looked on, waiting for him to jog back to the bench.

Stephanie Filiault watched this scene unfold from her seat's edge a few steps away, alternating glances at the two Marreros.

Though sports-fan custom may have dictated that Filiault give the mother space during such a personal moment, Filiault is more than just a fellow Suns supporter. She has housed Marrero since Memorial Day (and infielder Conor Moriarty since shortly thereafter) in her Dalton home, where she lives with her husband, Tom, and her 13-year-old daughter, Piper. As the matriarch of one of Berkshire County's 33 summer collegiate baseball league host families (17 for the Suns, 16 for the North Adams SteepleCats), Filiault exemplifies the deep connections these local residents often build with players over the short summer season before they return to college.

"They're such good boys," Filiault said minutes before Marrero's injury.

After a moment of hesitation, Filiault joined the elder Marrero, who was visiting from West Springfield for the game, by the space above the dugout. They were both relieved when Marrero walked off his ailment. Marrero's mother sat with the Filiaults for the next couple of innings.

"It's difficult not having him around," Marrero said of her son, who is entering his sophomore year at Quinnipiac University. As a West Springfield resident, she and Marrero's father, Joel, have been fortunate to attend a number of Suns games this year. This short drive is a luxury that many players' parents don't have; Suns and SteepleCats hail from Washington, California, Oklahoma and Georgia, among other far-away locales.

As a result, host families' short-term hospitality often swells into something more emotionally permanent. Filiault said she has been regularly in contact with Devin McGrath, a Suns and College of the Holy Cross player she hosted last summer, through text and social media messages. She pointed out that her daughter, a dancer, never liked sports until the Filiaults became a Suns host family and began attending every home game.

"Now, she loves baseball," Filiault said.

She also cooks, baking some chocolate chip cookies for the players recently, according to her mother. The snack was a rare deviation from their typical chicken-and-rice diet (Moriarty prefers hot sauce, while Marrero opts for barbecue).

"They're healthy eaters," Filiault said, noting she keeps the fridge stocked with fresh fruit, spinach — and Gatorade.

When they're not playing, the two are often working out, inhaling protein shakes. On a recent Monday night, however, the players sat next to each other, patiently waiting for Suns fans to show up for an event at the Dalton United Methodist Church, where Filiault is a pastor. Marrero and Moriarty are used to hanging out: They grew up together in West Springfield.

"We're really close," Marrero said.

"He's just like me," said Moriarty, who is entering his sophomore year at the University of Connecticut.

For Marrero and Moriarty, the event offered an opportunity to show a measure of their appreciation for the Filiaults.

"They're really generous," Marrero said. In addition to providing them with food, the Filiaults also do the players' laundry, he said. "It's pretty much living at your own house," he reflected.

But Filiault acknowledges that some parents are intimidated by having a young man (or men) around their families. "People are afraid to bring people into the house," she said.

SteepleCats host Jill Canales was one of them. "I was super hesitant to let somebody into my house," she recalled while watching a recent SteepleCats game at Joe Wolfe Field with her husband, Jason, and her 9-year-old son, Brayden. Four years ago, the SteepleCats had to convince the Canales family to host Zach Lucas, an infielder from the University of Louisville.

"We got conned into it," Canales said, referring to some word-of-mouth peer pressure after the SteepleCats learned the Canaleses were baseball fans.

But hosting players has been extremely rewarding for the family — and not just because they receive free tickets to all of the SteepleCats' games (host families for the Suns also get free tickets to their players' games). While some dirty bath towels have found their way onto the floor, the players have been respectful and served as older brothers to Brayden, who was donning a SteepleCats hat, sweatshirt and T-shirt on this particular night.

"They give him a role model to look up to," Jason Canales said.

The Canaleses offer plenty of support in return. They have visited all of their players during subsequent college seasons. (Their current player, infielder Dustin Shirley from Dartmouth College, is back for a second summer with the family.) They also allow the players to invite their teammates to the family's North Adams house. On a recent off day, six players ate dinner with the Canaleses, which required the family to buy eight pounds of chicken, four packages or rice and three packages of corn, according to Jill Canales.

Still, she would rather buy some extra food than not see her players. "If we're going to let them into our lives, we want to get to know them," she said.

Another SteepleCats host, Ann-Marie Racine, believes in the power of the family dinner, even if it means barbecuing at late hours after games. Racine has hosted SteepleCats for nearly a decade, including four players (outfielder Joseph Shimko, infielder Ryan Schalch and pitchers Blake Whitney and Robert Donnelly) this summer. "They've all become this clique of buddies," she said from a seat down the first-base line.

Like Jill Canales, Racine hadn't planned on hosting baseball players. "I didn't want to do it," she recalled. But the SteepleCats' housing coordinator at the time, Pat Decker, persuaded her. When her first player (Paul Hoilman) arrived, she was hooked.

"As soon as he pulled up in the driveway, it was like we knew each other forever," said Racine, who lives in Adams with her dog, Schlek.

"Once you do it once, you're kind of hooked," Jason Canales had reflected several minutes earlier.

Moreover, host families often become advocates for the teams. "She's helped recruit a lot of families for me," said Suns general manager Kristen Huss of Filiault while waiting in line for food at the church event.

Filiault's dedication was on full display shortly after Marrero's injury scare the day before. In his next at-bat, the outfielder belted a home run to left. Mother and host mother sprung to their feet in celebration, cheering loudly as he circled the bases in what was ultimately a lopsided 24-9 Suns loss. The Filiauts stayed until the very end, greeting the players as they exited the field. There wouldn't be too many more games to do so.

"I hate when they go home," Filiault had said earlier.


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