Q&A: Jennifer Pendergraft, Assistant GM of the Visalia Rawhides

10 05 2011

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest hardships for minor leaguers is finances. This especially holds true for lower-level players, who earn as little as $850/month in their first season in professional baseball.

One of the ways that players look to save money is via host families. Several minor league teams offer players the chance to stay with a local family, who volunteer to house/feed the player for the season.

I had the chance to talk to Jennifer Pendergraft, who is the assistant general manager of the Class-A Visalia Rawhides, to learn more about how host families work. Jennifer took over the Rawhides’ host family program when she came aboard in 2008, and since then it has grown to about ten families (who host about fifteen players/coaches per season on average).

Why would a player want to opt into a host-family program (versus, say, splitting the cost of an apartment with teammates)?

Several reasons: 1) The season only lasts a little over 5 months, 5.5 if you make the playoffs, and almost all renting companies will take no less than a 6 month lease.  2) These guys don’t know how long they will be in town for, so they’re all leery about putting their name on a lease without being guaranteed roommates the entire time.  3) Many of these guys do not have cars.  4) None of these guys bring furniture or housing basics with them when they come, so that all needs to be rented.  5) Splitting utilities with any roommate is always a lot harder than it sounds.  6) After all that is accomplished, the team is on the road half of the season, so they don’t even get to enjoy their “home” the entire time.

Conversely, why would a family want to open their home to a player?

All of my host families are just really nice generous people, plain and simple.  Some of them are “empty nesters” and just like having someone in the house, and a game to go support.  Others have kids and love having a good role model around to stay connected with throughout their career.

Are the families compensated for hosting a player, or is it pro-bono? If they are compensated, how so (stipend, tickets, discounts, etc.)?

All of my Host Families do it for no cost.  They understand the majority of these guys do not make much money and have a lot of expenses to deal with among their 3 or more “homes” (where they spend their off-season, Spring Training, and the ballclub they are sent to during the season). I help organize a “Host Family Appreciation Night” where each player staying with a family is asked to chip in $50, and I go and buy gifts for each family.  We recognize all of them on-field, take “family” photos, give them VIP seats, and give them a nice dinner during the game.  They are all very appreciative of that.  Host Families are also allowed on the “Pass List” every game, and receive tickets for their whole family, based on availability.

What goes into pairing a player with a host family? 

We have an application for each potential host family to fill out.  This helps me get to know their family a little bit, and what they are expecting out of the experience.  I also take a site visit just to make sure the facilities are comparable to the other families – I don’t ever want to make a player or coach feel like they didn’t get as good of a deal as someone else.  …They give me enough headaches.  J  I keep these applications on file, and when the team gets into town, I give each interested player/coach a shorter application to fill out for the same reason – get a feel for their expectations.  Once I have all of that information, I can sit down and look for the best fits based on the needs/desires of everyone.  I take a lot of pride in what I do, so I get down to even the smallest details: where they’re from (do I have a host family originally from the same area, or graduated from the same school?), if they have a car (should I set them up with a family within walking distance, or can they drive in and pick up other players along the way?), will they have family visiting while they are in Visalia (I have some host families who are great tour guides), does the family speak Spanish, etc.   I also make sure I meet each player so I get a feel for their personalities, and take that into consideration when playing match-maker also.

Do players or families have any say in the placement process (ex: recommendations, requests, etc.)?

Yes – returning players/families are always set up again (if mutually agreed – which has always been the case).  The players don’t get much of a say – I consider the car situation for them, but that’s about it.  Some families are more high maintenance than others and might request, for example, a position player who went to an elite college to “make sure they’re a good role model for their children” – but that’s a rare case, and I usually avoid placing anyone with those families.

How often do host families and players keep in contact after the season/after the player has moved on through the rest of the minor-league system?

It’s very rare when a player does not stay in touch with his host family.  I have so many stories that I could share…  I had a player call his host family from the Dominican Republic during the off-season to wish them a Merry Christmas.  And probably the greatest Host Family story that we have here inVisaliais between Ubaldo Jimenez (Colorado Rockies pitcher) and the Host Family he stayed with during his time here inVisalia.  He flies them to all his big games, All Start appearances, etc.  They go to visit him in the Dominican whenever they can.  And the Family’s eldest daughter is the God Mother to Ubaldo’s daughter.  It’s the most heart-warming Host Family story out there.

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