By BRIAN JENNINGS
Without host families it would almost be impossible for the Bristol Blues baseball team to exist. Host families make it possible for the Blues to field a team every season by allowing players that live far from Muzzy Field to spend most of the summer near the park.
“I think the host families are just as important as the hitting coaches, pitching coaches, and front office,” said Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, host family coordinator of the Blues. “You can’t have a team without any of those named components.”
This season, 15 host families are housing about 20 players, which is half of Bristol’s roster. Host families allow the team to enlist players from all across the country.
“It really deepens the talent pool for the Blues,” the coordinator said. “If we only took kids from Connecticut or within driving distance, it would really narrow the ability to develop the roster.”
For the past three seasons, Zoppo-Sassu hasn’t had much trouble finding host families. A few host families from the first year took this season off, due to family events, like weddings and overseas vacations. But those families are expected to return for future seasons after rotating with new host families that have stepped in.
Finding reliable host families hasn’t been a problem either. Just one player was moved to a different host family once during Bristol’s first season. Since then, there haven’t been any complaints.
“Bristol has always been a very open and generous community,” said Zoppo-Sassu. “The fact that we don’t have to beat the bushes for people to volunteer to be host families says it all.”
Not only are these host families opening their doors to the Blues, but they’re opening their fridges as well. It varies from season to season, but the host families receive a small stipend from the team in order to cover incidental costs.
“If you have kids that really appreciate Gatorade, but you’re not a Gatorade house, you buy Gatorade,” the coordinator said. “Never mind additional items, quantity-wise, because you have people in your household, but it’s for things that you might not ordinarily buy.”
After Bristol’s first season in the league, Zoppo-Sassu helped create a questionnaire to identify pros and cons for the following year. Each of the players filled out the questionnaire, which covered topics, such as food and pet allergies and whether or not players drove vehicles.
Zoppo-Sassu was also concerned about improving communication. Before the start of this season, she arranged a meet-and-greet for host families and families of the players at the Bristol Historical Society on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
“That worked out really well,” she said. “It’s not that we have discipline issues, but there was just a better synergy of everyone being on the same page. So now the parents and host parents have relationships.”
More detailed questions were implemented into the survey for this season. Players were asked more about their ideal living conditions, like if they saw themselves flourishing in a quiet setting with empty nesters or a family setting with younger kids.
“I was so glad I asked that question because two teammates responded and said that they really preferred a quiet setting,” the coordinator said. “They had to take summer online courses for their coach and had to set aside time each day to study. If they didn’t tell me that, I would have never known.”
Those teammates were Tyler Kovalewich (Colonia, N.J.) and Keith Grant (East Providence, R.I.), and they were placed with Bristol resident, Carol Carter. For the past three seasons, Carter has been housing Blues from all over the country and has had a pleasant experience with every player’s stay.
“Tyler and Keith were polite, helpful, agreeable, and respectful,” said Carter. “Summers have been fun and attending the baseball games have added to the enjoyment. Anyone considering volunteering to house a player should not be reluctant to do it.”
This was the first time Harwinton residents, Chad and Katie Martineau, housed Blues. But after housing catcher Jeff Shanfeldt (Garnet Valley, Pa.) for the summer, they would not hesitate to house Blues again.
“Jeff is a great young man who fit into our family right away,” said Katie Martineau. “We are a big baseball family. We eat, sleep, and breathe baseball, so hosting a player was a perfect fit for us.”
Chad and Katie have two daughters, Lilli (11 years old) and Brooke (8 years old), who both play baseball and softball for the town of Harwinton. Shanfeldt took time out of his busy schedule to attend a few of the girls’ games.
“We had a lot of fun practicing together at our towns fields,” said Katie Martineau. “I think Jeff appreciated the fact that my husband played ball and could help him with batting practice. Our daughters loved having Jeff help them as well.”
The Sassu family has been a host family for the Blues since the franchise began in 2015. This season they are housing four players, who include Malachi Edmond, Joel (Lico) Torres, Lizandro Cruz, and John Natoli.
Other host families and the players they house for this season include the following: Bob and Liz Dudek (Jayson Gonzalez); Bob and Mae Palmisano (Max Goione, Mark Tumosa); Amy Lowrey (Logan Greene); Tammy and Dave Kelly (Garrett Blaylock); Jim and Tammy Bernier (Jacob Wallace); Shannon Surreira (Michael Genaro, Alex Loparco); Dean and Linda Kilbourne (Jake Frasca); Chris and Sue Duhaime (Anthony Morrone); Donna Denehy (Josh Zbierski); Rich and Kim Carmelich (Takoda Sitar); Jesse and Stacey Gallagher (Kyle Hodgson); and Darlene Guccione (Kyle Haag).
All 15 of this season’s host families lined up on the third-base line before the start of Bristol’s home game against the Pittsfield Suns on Thursday, Aug. 3. Players presented their respective host families with custom rally bats made by Bunty Ray, who is the head varsity baseball coach at Bristol Central High School.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.