By Hannah Lichtenstein
Inside the brown house on Sussex Street — the one with the white garage and the wooden bench at the front door — there is a pantry that does not have any granola bars.
There is also a freezer without a haul of Jack’s pizzas and a refrigerator with just one carton of eggs inside, instead of the usual three dozen.
This is Linda and Leroy Mann’s kitchen — not stocked like it normally is and certainly not as busy.
Usually, this time of year, the Manns, as members of the Cedar Rapids Kernels’ host family program, get used to players milling about in this kitchen, knocking back carbs, before heading off to their rooms or Veterans’ Memorial Stadium.
“I always tell the boys the very first day,” Linda Mann said. “I show them everything in the kitchen and I say, ‘I’m not showing you again, I’m not asking you if you need any water. I’m not asking you if you need a beer. I’m not asking you anything. This is your home.’”
This year, though, the Kernels players have had to make their homes at rooms in the local Marriott. The Manns have had no reason to buy granola bars or extra cartons of eggs. Due to Minor League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocols, the Kernels host family program has been put on pause. For those like Linda and Leroy Mann, the new rules have halted a cherished routine. The unfamiliar quiet that now lingers in their homes has nudged host families to reflect on what it has long meant to open their doors to young men, chasing a dream, in a place they hope to just pass through.
Though families have been hosting Kernels’ players since the 1960s, the program’s transformative moment came in the late 1990s when Lanny Peterson, a teacher-turned-insurance agent, signed on to be a host dad.
“Lanny used to be an umpire and he just had a love for baseball,” Michelle Hocraffer, a host mom since 1999, explained. “I think he just knew what the boys struggled with and wanted to be there in that regard.”
The connection to sport and the mentoring opportunity the host dad role provided were significant for Peterson as he transitioned to an emptier house after the loss of his wife Linda and his kids moving away.
“With being a host, he got to still be a teacher,” said Tom Jarom, Peterson’s best friend. “He would lecture these kids about ‘What’s plan B?,’ ‘You better get your damn degree,’ the odds of them making it. He was very realistic in a grandfatherly way. It kept him young.”
Attending as many games as possible, staying until the end of those games no matter what the score, time or weather, and asking for nothing in return, Peterson set the host family standard. He later codified it, writing the host family’s official mission statement.
Now, it is Linda Mann handing out that statement. Peterson got cancer in 2015, and she took over the program. He passed away two years later.
“We oughta thank God Linda is there,” Jarom said. “She’s kept it on great.”
In order to keep it on great, Linda Mann spends hours every season interviewing and sending out questionnaires to players, vetting hosts and coordinating the dozens of up-and-down movements that happen during a minor league season.
The Manns and other host families say they take pride in expanding the bounds of selfless commitment and generosity first exemplified by Peterson. Over the years, these “moms” and “dads” have claimed injured players as their own sons in order to ride in the back of ambulances. They have learned how to cook arepas to serve to the Venezuelan player who sits at the dining room table.
Gestures such as these make a difference to these young men as they adjust to living hundreds of miles away from loved ones, in a city many could not even point out on a map just months before their move.
“It’s just really cool that when your parents can’t be there that there is somebody always there, cheering you on, whether you did great, struggled or anywhere in between,” added Tyler Palm, a current Kernels pitcher who lived with Linda Mann in 2019.
Several of the families have been hosting players over 15 years.
“This is our summers,” Mark Hocraffer said.
“It’s just a natural thing,” added Leroy Mann.
A natural thing now severed by pandemic protocols.
“It was very hard last year not having boys in the house,” Michelle Hocraffer said. “This is our socialization. We don’t really do much in the winter so, yeah it was missed.”
Eight-year host dad Dave Solberg reminisced about the fun he would have with the players in their down time, “watching a ball game and playing bocce ball on their day off.”
Christy Hines, a newer host mom, said she felt the difference this year when she sat in her seat for opening day. “It just means so much more to go to the game and have a connection with someone who is playing,” Hines said.
The hope is these connections will be re-established when, hopefully, the host family program can start back up again in June. These families wait eagerly for the day.
“I’m excited to just hang out with them again, you know?” Linda Mann said.
In the meantime, in the brown house on Sussex Street, there is a kitchen waiting to be stocked and three rooms with beds made, tidy and waiting.
Hannah Lichtenstein is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @HannahLichten.